A black stone from Derbyshire turned into pieces of art | Curator of Petrology

The Petrology collection at the Natural History Museum is home to about 189,000 specimens; from the rock collection to building stones, including ocean bottom deposits. The building stone collection is one of the largest documented collections of its kind in the UK, particularly useful for matching stone in historical buildings during conservation work. Beside rock samples, it features amazing pieces of art, like this paperweight in Derbyshire black marble executed by the skilled hands of one of the most prominent nineteenth-century marble makers of the time Thomas Woodruff.

E3864 Black Marble Paperweight
Derbyshire inlaid marble work by Thomas Woodruff in the NHM Petrology (Building stone) collection.

Continue reading to learn more about the marble masons in Derbyshire, the stone itself, the techniques used to create the objects, and the many other works of art created out of this stone such as Samuel Birley’s table in the V&A collection.


The paperweight by Thomas Woodruff, and the Derbyshire marble masons

The paperweight is inlaid with a spray of jasmine, the flowers probably made of shell, and the leaves of green marble imported from Florence. Jasmine was a popular motif with the Derbyshire makers, which their customers might have recognised as symbolising amiability and cheerfulness, but was also probably chosen because the white flowers shone out against the black background.

The object was highlighted during a recent visit to our collection, by Kate Hay an assistant curator in the Department of Furniture, Textiles and Fashion at the V&A.

Kate is currently preparing a lecture for the Furniture History Society Symposium on Pietre Dure (decorative work in hard stone) on 30th March 2019, on pieces made in Britain and Malta in the nineteenth century.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, marble masons in Derbyshire capitalised on the availability of fine black marble mined near Ashford-in-the-Water, by making table-tops, ornaments and trinkets inlaid with colourful stones and shell.  Usually featuring wreaths and sprays of flowers, they proved extremely popular with the tourists visiting the Peak District or taking the waters at the spa towns of Buxton and Matlock Bath. Two of the most prominent marble makers were Samuel Birley and Thomas Woodruff, both of whom were skilled in the process of inlay.  The trade declined from the 1880s owing to changes in tastes and a reduction in the tourist trade, dying out in the 20th century.


Derbyshire Black Marble

Derbyshire Black Marble, despite the name, is not a true marble in the geological sense, as it has not undergone metamorphism, but is a carboniferous limestone, a sedimentary rock. It was is quarried from mines near Ashford-in-the-Water, Derbyshire, England. This limestone takes a good polish resulting in a gleaming black surface. It is relatively soft to work, a factor which enabled the Derbyshire makers to cut shallow sockets in the surface, and inlay other colourful stones, shells and glass contrasting beautifully with the black background.


The Pietre dure techniques

Pietre dure is a decorative technique using coloured marbles to create pattern against a marble background. It first appeared in Rome in the 16th century, reaching its full maturity in Florence. The cut pieces of contrasting coloured material were assembled together so precisely in a way that the contact between each piece was almost invisible.

Also in the Petrology collection, we have samples made by Samuel Birley showing the two different methods that can be used. The method used by the Derbyshire makers was to cut shallow recesses in a block of solid marble and insert coloured pieces carefully cut to shape. The second method, used by Italian makers in Florence, was to cover the entire surface of a backing stone with a very thin mosaic of coloured stones.

E3859 Derbyshire method detail1
A sample made by Birley to illustrate the Derbyshire method. Shallow recesses are cut in the solid black marble slab to take the coloured pieces. NHM Petrology (Building stone) collection.
E3859 thin slices
Pieces cut ready for inlaying into the design.
A sample made by Birley to illustrate the Florentine technique.  The thin mosaic of coloured stones covers the entire surface of the white marble backing stone.  NHM Petrology (Building stone) collection.

Samuel Birley’s table at the V&A collection

Most Derbyshire inlaid marble is unsigned, and we can’t attribute it to individual makers, so is very lucky that there is a superb table known to be by Samuel Birley in the V&A collections (Museum number 157&A-1864).

The inlaid marble table by Samuel Birley © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
The original design of the pedestal to the table by Samuel Birley © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Birley and his descendants are recorded as working in Ashford-in-the-Water between 1852 and 1899.  The table is not currently on display, but is well-illustrated online in the V&A’s ‘Search the Collections’. The museum bought the table after Birley exhibited it at the London International Exhibition of 1862 (the exhibition was, coincidentally, held on the site of what is now the Natural History Museum). Kate says that she was delighted to see the samples by Birley in the Petrology collection at the NHM, and last week she walked across the road to visit the Natural History Museum to see the pieces for herself. The samples in the NHM were also exhibited at the 1862 Exhibition alongside the table, to demonstrate the technique used by the Derbyshire marble makers.

Black Marble Plateau
Round dish of Derbyshire marble in the NHM Petrology (Building stone) collection, inlaid with flowers

Another object in the NHM collection was a large round dish of Derbyshire marble, which had been made by turning on a lathe and then inlaid with flowers, but the maker of this piece was not recorded.

This work was conducted in collaboration with Kate Hay at the V&A, who provided valuable information on the history of Derbyshire marble.

If you would like to see these fascinating items do get in touch with the Petrology curator at the Natural History Museum.

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