Design and realisation of bespoke Carrara and Devonian freestanding stones and paving within a restored Victorian civic garden

Torquay, Devon 2009-2010

Project Category: Long-Term

In July 2009 I was commissioned by Torbay Council to develop a sculpture project for Royal Terrace Gardens, Torquay, as part of its major redevelopment of this Victorian Civic garden. 

It seemed a paradox that ‘The English Riviera’ emulates an Italian ideal, while losing its native stone masonry industry specialising in the very material that makes the local landscape (and cliffs exposed within the garden) so distinctive. Carrara, the white, quintessentially classical Italian stone, is now commonly available throughout the UK as a premium material for sculpture and decorative architectural purposes, while the local limestone is now only quarried to be crushed for aggregate. My project presented an ideal opportunity to reconsider these stones’ relative values and re-present them in contemporary sculptural terms.

The project uses two materials: white Carrara Marble, sourced from North-West Italy, and pink/grey Devon limestone from Stoneycombe, Devon. The commission is composed of three parts: three identically-carved Carrara stones; three acid-etched Devon stones; and a strip of paving following the length of the garden, composed of alternating pieces of Carrara marble and Devon limestone. The gardens were formally opened on October 2nd 1010 during the Royal Terrace Gardens Festival.

Project Credits

Client: Torbay Borough Council

Art Consultant: Ginkgo Projects

Landscape Architecture: Jo Johnson

Principle Contractor: Dawnus

Landscape Contractor: Glendinnings

Devonian Stone supplier: Bardon, Stoneycombe Quarry

Devonian Production: Haysom Purbeck Stone

SD scan: RapidformRCA

Carrara Production: Stoneworld

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Research & Development

Royal Terrace Gardens, Torquay, showing the red stone exposed in the garden’s cliff face with the mainly white-painted Italianate buildings above. May 2010

The Royal Terrace Gardens were originally laid out in the mid 19th century, when Torquay was developing as a seaside resort to rival those of the Italian Riviera. Ruskin described Torquay as ‘The Italy of England’, and Napoleon compared the scenery with Porto Ferrajo, Elba. The Royal Terrace Gardens are built into the side of a sea cliff, with reclaimed land at its base. Much of the steep slope of the gardens is covered in vegetation, but the distinctive pink bedrock remains visible in places.

Early 20th century OS map, with Royal Terrace Gardens highlighted. Note the Italian names of many of the nearby villas.

Elegant Italianate villas, with names such as Sorrento, Rosa, Delmonte, Florence, Quintella and Como, were built on the hillside above the gardens and around the bay. An early advertising slogan stated that ‘the general effect of the white houses, the grey limestone cliffs and the foliage and greensward forming the ground to the whole, is unusually picturesque’.

Much of Torquay’s 19th Century architecture is stylistically indebted to the Italian Riviera. Russell, in his 1960 ‘A History of Torbay’, wonders ‘whether the old Italian inspiration might not be renewed afresh. The flourishing city of Genoa, like Torquay, is set upon hills rising boldly from the sea, cut through by deep and narrow ravines.’

Some of Torquay’s fabulous Italianate buildings. 2010

White-painted classical-influenced render and carpentry, and rusticated blocks of the local dark red and pink/grey Devonian limestone. Torquay, 2010

My starting point in developing the freestanding stones for the garden was my interest in Chinese scholars rocks. These weathered stones were historically collected and placed in gardens to be appreciated both for their sculptural shapes and to remind the visitor of the landscapes from which they had been found. While their appearance seems entirely natural, such stones were commonly ‘improved’ by being polished, coloured, or re-carved by hand, as described in the ancient Suyuan Stone Catalogue: ‘The natives of lake Tai in Pingjiang obtain large stones. They first carve them, and then place them in the rapid currents. After a long time, the (altered) stones appeared to have been created by nature. Some are then treated with smoke while others are dyed black.’ ‘The workers dive deep into the water for the stones. Their job is difficult…If the stones have the shape of strange cliffs or peaks, the workers would work on them and immerse them in water again. After being washed by the water for a long time, the stones reveal beautifully textured patterns.’* Such stones therefore exhibit a combination of natural formation, discerning selection, cultured modification and formal arrangement.

*Kemin Hu, Scholars’ Rocks in Ancient China: The Suyuan Stone Catalogue, Orchid Press 2002

Mi Yu Bows to a Rock, by Hu Ruosi. Credit: Kemin Hu, Scholars’ Rocks in Ancient China: The Suyuan Stone Catalogue, Orchid Press 2002

Some of the vintage postcards of iconic stones of the UK and USA I collected during the early stages of this commission.

The bedrock at Royal Terrace Gardens is a semi-metamorphosed limestone which formed in the Middle Devonian period around 350 million years ago. It was laid down in a shallow, tropical sea and contains a rich variety corals, sponges and other fossilised remains. The geology of the site and the surrounding area is of international significance, and has been designated a Geopark by UNESCO. Devon’s limestones, such as those from Ashburton, Petit Tor and Ipplepen, have been prized historically for their distinctive, marble-like qualities, but are now only quarried to be crushed for aggregate. Stoneycombe Quarry on the outskirts of the nearby village of Kinkerswell, quarries limestone of the same kind as is exposed in the cliff at Royal Terrace Gardens. It was from this quarry that the Devon limestone used in my commission was sourced.

Visit to select blocks from Stoneycombe Quarry. February 2010

Bardon uses explosives to extract stone for aggregate. This meant there was a risk of fractures which would make the blocks unreliable to use. As the limestone is no longer quarried as a dimension material, there were few people familiar with its use. The development of the project depended on investigating the possibilities and limitations of the stone. As part of this research, I had samples cut to check the integrity of the blocks, their viability for paving, and the nature of the material. The stone clearly had its limitations, but these were not insurmountable, and the quality and varied richness of the stone was clearly exciting.

Cutting samples of Devonian marble from different quarries in Devon within Haysom Purbeck Stone’s workshop. October 2009

As the emphasis I wanted to make was on the material itself- and of its particularity of place- it seemed appropriate to incorporate it within the landscaping scheme. Devon limestone and Carrara marble was specially cut and laid as strip of paving running the entire 250 metre length of the garden along the edge of the path. This replaced the original design suggestion of a Chinese granite kerb. The alternating pink and white stones are distinctive, and their length is that of an average pace so marking out the walked length of the garden.

Hand-drawing project proposal over a vintage postcard of Royal Terrace Gardens. 2009

Section drawing showing complementary freestanding blocks of Carrara and Devonian marble. 2009

As well as the strip of paving, I wanted to make use of the stones in a more conventionally sculptural way. It did not seem appropriate to impose an image; the point was to reveal or make use of properties of the stones themselves. Returning to thinking about the scholar’s rocks, I decided to investigate other processes that could be applied to affect the stone’s shape and surface. My intention was to make a set of finished objects that on first glance looked similarly ‘natural’, but on close inspection revealed traces of their making. Remembering that limestone is etched by acid, I began a series of experiments, expecting that the acid would bite the surface irregularly so revealing and shaping the stone’s fossil content. Instead, the effect was to smoothen and polish the surface, producing a curious and distinctive striated finish which displays the stone’s character to its fullest extent.

Testing acid etch rustication techniques. May 2010

Selection of the two surfaces: acid-etched Devonian on the left and 1mm CNCed Carrara on the right. 2010.

Based on these experiments, I decided to pair three large acid-etched Devon stones with three identically machine-cut Carrara stones. While the Carrara shapes were to be hand-made in clay and machine-cut in stone, masonry tools would be used to ‘improve’ the three Devon stones by hand before their surfaces were acid-etched. The making of each stone would therefore involve both hand-made and chemical/mechanical processes in their production, with both methods producing distinctive striations over the stones’ contours.

The full-size clay model of the stone to be cut into Carrara. 2010

For the three Carrara stones, I first made a full-sized clay model in my studio. Working without direct reference to particular examples, this model developed as an invented ‘idea’ of a stone at a distance. Its entire surface is hand-made, the eroded appearance indented by fingers and thumbs. This earthy, low-tech, tactile material would then be translated into stone by the most high-tech, mechanical means.

Hannah from RapidformRCA scanning the clay model. 2010

The digital scan of the clay model. 2010

The model’s surface was then translated into digital data by being scanned with a hand-held scanner. The scan was translated into stone using a 7-Axis robotic carving system. This cut the block in three stages. First, a coarse router removed the bulk of the waste. Next, a 25mm crown router (shown here) cut the contours and shape in greater detail. Lastly, the surface was completed with a 0.5mm tool. This produced the sculpture’s finely-striated machined surface.

The 7-axis cutting machine milling one of the stones. Stoneworld, 2010

The first carved stone, and the 7-axis cutting machine. Stoneworld, 2010

Inspecting the first two stones. 2010

Detail of the Carrara stone’s milled surface. 2010

The irregular faulting of the Devonian limestone meant that 7-axis cutting was impossible, so instead I worked directly from the ‘natural’ blocks as sourced from the quarry. This meant that adjustments of each block’s size and shape was done using ‘plugs and feathers’- tapered tools which are hammered into a line of drilled holes until the block splits along the perforated line. The drill holes were then dressed out using hand tools before being acid-etched.

Splitting the Devonian marble blocks at Haysom Purbeck Stone. 2010

Because of potential faulting within the block, it was difficult to tell if each would be suitable until their bases had been sawn. This cut also allowed the stones to be stood upright so they could be altered and adjusted by hand. Once each stone’s ‘natural’ shape had been modified by hand, they were then individually etched in an acid bath for 12 hours

As shown in the initial tests, the etching process had the effect of both smoothing the stone’s surface and producing a pattern of grooves that follow the irregular contours of the block. No other surface treatment (varnish, wax polish etc) has been applied. Over the forthcoming years, the polished finish of the Devon and bright-white striations of the Carrara stones will alter and fade as they are gradually weathered down. This is both inevitable and intended, as the artificial erosive processes employed in their making continue to be modified by their exposure to the elements.

Preparing the Devonian marble blocks for acid etching at Haysom Purbeck Stone. 2010

The first stone was installed at Royal Terrace Gardens in June 2010. The sculpture commission was devised as part of the extensive regeneration of the Victorian gardens, which includes ambitious cliff stabilisation work; a completely new cantilevered walkway ascending the height of the cliff with an integrated viewing platform at the summit; extensive repairs to the garden’s existing paths and drystone walls, and a completely redesigned planting scheme.

The Devonian and Carrara freestanding stones and paving strip being installed in the renovated Royal Terrace Gardens. Summer 2010

The stones’ positions within the garden were carefully considered, again informed by Scholars’ rocks in Ancient China. The garden has entrances at its centre and from its east and west ends, across which the paving runs as a threshold. It may also be approached from the cliff above, via the cantilevered steps, and seen from the road running 6ft below. The path next to which the six stones are placed runs the entire 250-metre length of the site, forming a gentle curve around the base of the cliff. The curved cliff prevents the site from being seen in its entirety from any one situation, except from at a distance out at sea. The stones can therefore be seen from various positions- above, within or below the garden- but never all at once.

In the eighth century, Bai Juyi, poet and governor of the city of Suzhou, proposed ten virtues that he were the benefits of the appreciation of stones: “Cultivating moral character; overcoming sleepiness; purifying the mind of evil thoughts; knowing the change of seasons, through the growth of trees and flowers; being able to look into the distance, with the help of the stone; entering rock caves, without having to travel; seeing the sea, without the trouble of going there; enjoying cool breezes in the summer; attaining longevity, and good health; appreciating the stone, so as to stay away from bad practices.” To me, this is a surprisingly ambitious but inspirational list. I approached my commission as an opportunity to celebrate two very different stones, and hope the marbles used within Royal Terrace Gardens have been a welcome addition to the site and continue to inspire curiosity for years to come.