Friday, 19 June 2020

On Purbeck Marble

Tomb of William Marshal: Temple Church.  Author's photograph
Purbeck Marble was a highly prized building material in the Middle Ages especially from the 11th to 16th centuries, with its heyday in the 12th and 13th.

It can only be obtained from one place and that is the land in the area of Corfe on the Isle of Purbeck in south-east Dorset.  It is not a marble technically speaking, but a polishable limestone, characterised by tightly-packed fossil shells of the water snail viviparus carinfer.  It comes in a variety of shades including blue-grey, red-brown and green.  The vein of this limestone is between 18 and 24 inches thick and was worked from the surface.

Thousands of architectural objects have been fashioned from Purbeck stone, including the the columns at the Temple Church in London, various knightly effigies, including that of William Marshal, and a magnificent fountain that used to stand outside the private apartments at the Palace of Westminster.  Henry of Blois, Bishop of Winchester and brother to King Stephen, used Purbeck for wall shafts, capitals and bases at Wolvesey Palace in the mid 12th century and also for elaborate colonettes at Hyde Abbey.

Working the marble is difficult because of its denseness and it required expert craftsmen for the task.  Such men worked at Purbeck itself and in London.

One of the reasons for the success of Purbeck was the coastal location of the source which made it easy to transport. Columns were shipped up to Durham Cathedral in 1175. Capitals and bases went to Norwich, to Westminster, to Vale Royal.  In 1375 a ship called the Margarite out of Wareham was listed as transporting cargoes of Purbeck to London, including two high tombs for the Earl of Arundel and a large slab for the bishop of Winchester.  In 1386 the same ship took Purbeck from Dorset to London intended for the tomb of Edward III.

Tomb of King John Worcester Cathedral.  photo taken by the author
The London craftsman originally came from Corfe but settled in their community in London. The biggest influx seems to have come with the requirement for building and beautifying at Westminster Abbey instigated by Henry III in 1245. By 1253 there were 49 marblers on the site all cutting and polishing the marble blocks and shafts.  There were probably also centres of marbling at other great ecclesiastical sites - Salisbury Cathedral for example, which was sending worked marble to Southampton in 1231-2.

The most successful Purbeck items for the mass market in the 12th and 13th century were tomb slabs and effigies.  William Marshal's effigy as aforementioned, Henry Bishop of Winchester, King John, Hubert Walter - Archbishop of Canterbury.

Later on Purbeck continued to be in high demand when funeral brass effigies became all the rage and the marble was used as a background to the brass.  It was still also being used for paneled tomb chests and large canopied wall tombs.

Today it is no longer quarried on the former sites except for specialist restoration projects.

Temple Church interior showing the Purbeck columns - these are restored ones following
bomb damage in World War II

1 comment:

Caroline K. Mackenzie said...

Thank you for such an informative blog, Elizabeth. I did not know about Purbeck Marble so you have taught me a lot!

Temple Church is a beautiful building and in such a lovely location. I have been a number of times but on my next visit I shall admire the columns with renewed interest.

Your description of the 49 marblers on site at Westminster Abbey, all cutting and polishing the marble blocks, made me think of the Acropolis in Athens where a large team of stone cutters worked the white Pentelic Marble brought from Mount Pentelikon.

I love the detail of the tightly-packed fossil shells of the water snail! What great stories behind this beautiful marble.