Why has Portland stone been so popular for centuries?
Lyme Regis geologist and writer Tom Williamson, who lived on the Isle of Portland for several years, has just produced two publications that shed new light on the origins and history of the modern Portland stone industry.
In a paper published in the Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History Society, Williamson describes how a wealthy Amsterdam builder’s intention to buy stone from the Royal Manor of Portland encouraged Inigo Jones, the royal architect, to use Portland stones in his London building projects in the 17th century.
From that time the industry never looked back. And in a new book, Inigo’s Stones, published by Troubador, Williamson tells the longer story of how Jones and his masons surmounted the challenges of winter storms, pirates and landslides to build up on Portland an industry that eventually supplied stone for London’s most splendid buildings at the height of British imperial power.
In 1620, when King James’s government was as short of cash as David Cameron’s is now, Jones, the royal architect, envied the wealth that Dutch architect Hendrick de Keyser was accumulating by building for the prosperous merchants of booming Amsterdam.
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De Keyser happened to be the father-in law of Nicholas Stone, Jones’s chief mason for King James’s new Banqueting House building project in London’s Whitehall. Using Stone as an intermediary, de Keyser intended to import large quantities of stone from Portland’s coastal quarries for his Amsterdam buildings.
Jones calculated that de Keyser’s ready cash would help to pay the Portland stone workers and allow him to complete the Banqueting House on time. This cash bonanza would not be available if Jones used stone from traditional inland English quarries, such as those in Oxfordshire.
In the event, Jones’s plans were interrupted by a nasty incident at Portland involving a confrontation between Luke Wilson, the Portland stone purveyor, and three Dorset characters, Arthur Gregory, Mayor of Lyme Regis, Sir George Trenchard, of Wolveton Hall, and Sir Thomas Freke, of Iwerne Courtney. Explained in Williamson’s book, this incident resulted in the diversion of Portland stones intended for de Keyser to the Banqueting House project.
However, thanks in part to the interest from de Keyser, Jones had by now laid the foundations of the Portland stone industry. He had shown how well suited the material was to the carving of the mouldings of the new Italianate classical architecture. Having already shipped to London some Portland stones for the Queen’s House, Greenwich, he soon completed the Banqueting House and went on to use the stones in the new church of St Paul’s, Covent Garden, and other buildings in Francis Russell’s new Covent Garden development.
But these early London projects required relatively modest quantities of Portland stone. In the 1630s, money was found to carry out long-mooted repairs to the crumbling medieval St Paul’s Cathedral, and build for it a grand new Corinthian portico, intended to project the royal power of King Charles I. Many thousands of tons of stone were required.
Some of the stones – for example, for the columns, capitals and architraves of the portico – had to be very large, weighing up to 15 tonnes. The Portland quarrymen made huge efforts to locate huge blocks of stone free from joints and other planes of weakness for the portico’s giant columns and capitals.
One of Jones’s portico columns, topped by a giant capital carved from a 50-tonne block of stone supplied by Portland Stone Firms Ltd from their Combefield quarry, was recreated about ten years ago as the centrepiece of London’s new Paternoster Square development, adjacent to St Paul’s.
Jones’s new portico and refaced cathedral suffered during the civil wars and were severely damaged in the 1666 Great Fire of London. However, many of Jones’s old Portland stones survived the fire well enough for Sir Christopher Wren to use them in his new cathedral. But Wren also needed much new stone. So he exploited Jones’s stone-loading pier and other facilities on Portland to quarry many thousands of Portland stones for the new cathedral that we know today.
After Wren completed St Paul’s in 1710, the Portland stone industry flourished in the 18th century, supplying stone for prestigious buildings in Dublin as well as for important London buildings such as Sir John Soane’s Bank of England.
A group of Portland merchants further improved the efficiency of the industry in the early 19th century by constructing the innovative Merchant’s Railway to transport stones from the quarries – that had by now moved inland from the coast – to the shipping quay. And later in the 19th century, architects used Portland stones in grand London buildings such as the British Museum, government buildings in Whitehall and commercial offices in the City of London.
So on June 22, 1897, when the Queen’s great-great-grandmother, Victoria drove in her carriage to St Paul’s Cathedral on the occasion of her Diamond Jubilee, buildings clad in Portland stone lined her processional route.
When she reached the cathedral, if she glanced at its walls, Queen Victoria would have seen some of Jones’s original Portland stones, mingled with stones later quarried by Wren, in the building’s soot-blackened walls.
In 1913, when the present Queen’s grandparents, King George V and Queen Mary, were concerned about Buckingham Palace’s crumbling façade, Portland stones were chosen to face the palace’s redesigned east front.
And on June 5, 2012, when the Queen and other members of the Royal Family appeared before rapturous crowds on the fourth day of her Diamond Jubilee celebrations, she was flanked by these very same stones from her own royal manor.
Royal demand for Portland stone has continued in recent times. Albion Stone Ltd has supplied stone from its Independent quarry for the fluted columns, capitals and architraves of the extended Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace. And, despite the 2008 financial collapse, demand for commercial developments in London continues.
For example, this year masons working for Portland Stone Firms Ltd have been using large, specially selected blocks of stone from their Perryfield quarry to carve classical panels and lintels for the Farringdon Street façade of the large new ‘Sixty London’ development at Holborn Viaduct.
So what is Portland stone’s secret? The clue, Williamson explains in his book, lies in the fossilised trees and old pebbly soil beds that lie above the exceptionally thick beds of building stone on Portland.
Not long after a warm, shallow sea deposited the tiny egg-like growths called ooliths that make up Portland stone, the sea retreated, soils formed, trees grew and dinosaurs roamed the new land.
Rainwater carrying oxygen sank through the soils, percolated through the porous young Portland stone, burning away the impurities just as laundry detergents remove dirt from soiled clothing.
The purity of the creamy white stone and the thickness of the bedding made it possible to quarry attractive stones of large size and excellent weathering performance, particularly in the polluted London environment.
This article is based on the content of Tom Williamson’s new book: Inigo’s Stones: Inigo Jones, Royal Marbles and Imperial Power, published by Troubador, priced £11.99