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STONE - BETTER REAL OR ARTIFICIAL?

Published by the Society in the Ripon Gazette, 21st May 2010
This week David Winpenny looks at stone – real and artificial.

Some might blame Sir Christopher Wren. His love of Portland stone, used extensively for St Paul’s Cathedral and for his many city churches, led a fashion that turned architects away from the native stones of their local area and to fashionable imported stone instead.

Of course, Wren had good reasons for his choice. Portland is one of the great limestones of Britain. It is very fine-grained, strong, easy to carve and weather-resistant. To a large extent it is self-cleaning (though the soot from a couple of centuries of coal-burning in London eventually turned St Paul’s black – its cleaning last century revealed Wren’s original intention for a startlingly white building). London has little available stone, so some would have to be imported. And, perhaps even more important , the quarries on the Isle of Portland in Dorset were owned by the Crown, so the stone was free.

Still, by setting such a precedent, Wren didn’t do much for local quarries. And he was not the only one. Ralph Allen of Bath was also busy changing building methods by quarrying Bath stone commercially and shipping it around the country. So it was not too hard for architects anywhere in the country – particularly if they were near navigable rivers for easy transportation – to demand some of this fashionable stone rather than using the stone from their own local quarries.

It could be argued that this trend went back to prehistory, when the builders of Stonehenge transported the blue stones 250 miles from the Preseli Hills of Wales to Salisbury Plain. But this was presumably for mystical, not architectural, reasons. In the main, people built local buildings with local stone. If there was no stone, they used wood, brick or even mud. Ripon, on the boundary between stone types, used both sandstone and limestone in its buildings, nearly all of it locally hewn. It is said that some of the stone for the Cathedral comes from Hackfall; that is possible, though even that was quite a distance to bring it in the Middle Ages. The quarries at Quarry Moor were much nearer.

From the time of Wren and Allen it wasn’t good enough to use the local building materials if you had any pretentions to a smart house. But what if you had neither a good local stone nor a budget big enough to buy the fashionable Portland or Bath stone? As always, there were entrepreneurs ready to fill that gap. A new material grew up – artificial stone.

Artificial stone was never intended to replace quarried stone as a complete construction material. But used judiciously it could add style to a building when used for doorways, around windows, in quoins and for decorative panels, for instance. The most famous artificial stone was that sold by Mrs Eleanor Coade from 1769 onwards. Known as Coade Stone, it appears all over the country – though it never seems to have reached Ripon; the nearest is a monument in the church at Kirkby Overblow.
Coade Stone was not stone at all, but a type of ceramic that was produced in moulds and gave a very fine and very durable finish. This technique was not followed by later inventors, who all used ground-up stone and cement in their productions. Victoria Stone mixed granite with Portland cement, for example.

Parallel to these developments was a simpler solution – stucco. This was originally a mixture of lime and sand, though later Portland cement was added to make it tougher. This could be moulded and scored to look like expensive masonry – a technique seen to good effect on the ground floor of Ripon Town Hall. This technique was especially useful where brick was the local building material.

For many years from the late 18th century stucco was all the rage. By the 20th, though, it had fallen out of fashion. Alec Clifton-Taylor, in his seminal book ‘The Pattern of English Building’, neatly categorises how the early 20th century viewed different building materials: Brick (unless Tudor) – plain; Brick (for a church) – ugly; Stucco – pretentious; Half-timbering – highly picturesque; Stone – good.’

Yet as the mood swung back to stone, the cost of stone swung out of reach. Local stone is hardly quarried any more, and such stone as is available is today more likely to come from India or China than from a local quarry. To fill this gap, there is now a wide range of artifical stones; look round the new buildings of Ripon and you’ll spot them in window cills and lintels, round doorways and in quoins. They are distinguished by their pale buff colour, their geometric precision and their reluctance, because of the very smooth surfaces, to provide a home to the lichens that can make natural stone even more beautiful.

These artificial stones have the virtue of looking handsome when contrasted with good brickwork. The same cannot be said of those other stone substitutes, the cement blocks produced in great quantities for walling. They may be cheap but, as the saying goes, at what a cost! Such stones are usually a dull grey, boring and soulless. It would be better to have a fence or a hedge.

Stone is what one quarryman, quoted by Clifton-Taylor, calls ‘a miracle of nature.’ We should treasure it.


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