There is a class of objects whose status in the hierarchy of things, as objects for curiosity or aesthetic appreciation, is defined only in the eye of the beholder. On the one hand, there are clearly man-made objects which imitate nature, ranging from the optimistic rockery-stones of contemporary garden-centres to the fictive mermaids of renaissance cabinets of curiosities. On the other hand, some natural objects, like narwhal tusks or gemstones, are natural products which have a ready-made status as things of value or delight. Between, there is a curious third category of things whose status is in flux, in that it is defined by the human application of pictorial criteria to naturally ocurring 'pictures'. One of the most fascinating classes of object within this category is landscape marble.
The geological phenomenon of an apparent picture in a slice through the strata of a rock has been observed since the middle ages. In the renaissance, slices of marble, quarried near Florence, were read as representations of the ruins of Roman antiquity. The baroque cryptographer, Egyptologist and savant Athanasius Kircher found a set of stones bearing the alphabets of east and west. In the early modern world, a fossilised spiral in a split flint was easily read as the Virgin and Child, surrounded by overlapping waves of radiance.
Looking at engravings of these phenomena now, or at the surviving examples of Florentine ruin-stone, it is almost impossible to read them as they were read on their discovery, as though the renaissance and baroque delight in the marvellous (and in the prodigious) was accompanied by a differently directed vision, interpreting as pictorial what a modern eye sees as formless. (Equally, the middle ages tended to see religious images in split stones, as in the column in San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice, which manifested a spontaneous crucifix in its polished surface to the late-mediaeval eye.)
It is equally possible that the same process would work in reverse, and that the polished slices of stratified limestone from the west of England, which read to our eyes as unequivocal representations of landscapes, might have failed to read at all in earlier ages where landscape was (literally and metaphorically) a background in the visual arts. Thus Cotham marble is a nodal example of a naturally occurring phenomenon which only becomes an artefact if it is perceived as one.
A geological definition is comparatively simple: 'landscape marble' is in fact a limestone (there is no true marble in England) found in Rhaetic beds in the West Country, particularly at Cotham in Bristol. The strata of mud are interrupted by darker bubbles, which are petrified into the forms of trees, bushes and clouds, while the dun-coloured strata of mud suggest the lines of ploughed fields, or sometimes (in the larger pieces) a river-valley with cliffs and rocks.
The phenomenon of the recognition of the landscape within the stone is more complex, but must be at least roughly dated, if we are to plot the process by which geology becomes a thing, an aestheticised object. To my eye, the landscapes in Cotham marble associate powerfully with the years around 1800: to the time when the Napoleonic wars turned cultivated interest inwards on the landscapes and phenomena of the British Islands. The grey and brown landscapes of the marble are not unlike the monochrome landscapes on late 18th-century porcelain, not unlike the thumbprint whorls of the trees in Thomas Bewick's engraved tailpieces, and very like the landscape murals in blue monochrome at Llanfyllin near Welshpool, painted there by a French prisoner of war.
The recognition of the landscape in the split stone is obviously conditioned by 18th-century focus on landscape parks and landscape painting. A contributing factor is also the romantic celebration of fading light: evening walks and painted night-pieces are both phenomena of the turn of the 19th century, and it is a dim landscape of mist or twilight which emerges from the stones.
There are two examples of landscape marble in the room in which I write: one of mist, one of twilight. The first is an uncommonly long piece, perhaps half a metre, with a continuous row of dim trees in the foreground and behind a streaks of dark in light grey seem to form themselves into a continuous river-landscape seen in fog or occlusion of light.
The smaller piece which lies on the table beside me is more startlingly pictorial, in a style which seems more mid-Victorian than Regency. The configuration of field, hedgerow and trees is unmistakably English. The coloration is that of autumn, late afternoon: ploughed fields of yellowish clay rise towards a shadowy hedgerow with trees still in leaf, some darkened, some still brown. Pale light is fading at the horizon, although the greater part of the sky is filled with darkening, wind-blown clouds. The landscape is insistently melancholy with the melancholy of the 19th century. It is late in autumn; the wind which blows the trees and clouds will soon scatter the leaves and it will be winter. Tennyson or Matthew Arnold: 'Locksley Hall' or 'Rugby Chapel'. What makes this piece of stone potentially referential to the mid-Victorian poetry of lonely twilights is that a figure is perceptible under the tree at the right, cloak or ulster held across the body, leaning against the wind which threshes in the trees. Like the solitary twilight speakers of Tennyson's and Arnold's poems, here is a figure walking in a landscape otherwise unpeopled.
The other association which comes unbidden to mind is with the ghost stories written by M.R. James (18621936), provost of Eton and King's College, Cambridge, and the most eminent of the late Victorian writers of supernatural fiction. This would make the figure in the stone less of a solitary walker and more of a revenant, one of those wronged dead who lurk and approach in James's fictions, until they take their vengeance on the living at the climax of the story. In this mode, it might be that the figure might move within the marble, stalking the living, moving from right to left, appearing in a different gap between trees every time that the stone is taken from its place in the cabinet to be inspected.
Yet it is less the supernatural that
dominates the landscape in the stone, so much as an implied mood of the
infinite sadness of Victorian England: twilight, loneliness, mists rising
from ploughland. The earliest discoveries of figures in split stones were
held to be talismanic, rather than aesthetic: in a very different way this
arrangement of mud strata petrified into limestone is a post-romantic talisman
in that it can invoke at a glance a season, a world, a century.