Set in stone

Pi­etra dura flow­ered un­der the Floren­tine Medi­cis, but there’s only one man in Bri­tain cre­at­ing th­ese pre­cious-stone mo­saics to­day. Oc­tavia Pol­lock meets Thomas Green­away

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Pho­to­graphs by Mark Wil­liamson

One man is keep­ing the Floren­tine art of pi­etra dura alive in Bri­tain. Oc­tavia Pol­lock meets him

Un­der the dust in the old sta­bles, colours gleam. evening-sky blue, deep­est black, frog-pond green, turquoise and pale pink as translu­cent as fairy wings. Shelves are crammed with lumps of rock in all sizes, some with cut faces that shine with jewel shades when Thomas Green­away sprays a mist of wa­ter onto them. An unas­sum­ing fig­ure with a wide smile and quiet en­thu­si­asm, he’s the only per­son in the UK who can look at this se­lec­tion and see what could be cre­ated.

He’s a master of pi­etra dura, ‘hard stone’ in Ital­ian, cut­ting stones into a jig­saw of shapes and fit­ting them to­gether to cre­ate an image. Commesso, or Floren­tine mo­saic, was de­vel­oped un­der Cosimo de Medici and his son Grand duke Fer­di­nando I in 16th­cen­tury Florence, where the Gal­le­ria dei La­vori, now the Opi­fi­cio delle Pi­etre dure (the Work­shop for Hard Stone) was founded in 1588. It’s still open, to­gether with a mu­seum.

Widely col­lected by those on the Grand Tour un­til the age of mass pro­duc­tion, pi­etra dura adorns many coun­try houses and mu­se­ums, par­tic­u­larly Charlecote Park, War­wick­shire, and the V&A. One of the great­est pieces ever cre­ated, the Badminton Cabi­net, made for the 3rd duke of Beau­fort and sold for £19 mil­lion in 2004, was a key in­spi­ra­tion for Thomas.

Mar­quetry is pi­etra dura’s nat­u­ral cousin and it was work­ing with wood that first claimed Thomas’s at­ten­tion. ‘I started at the Chip­pen­dale School of Fur­ni­ture in east Loth­ian,’ he says. ‘We learnt lots of dif­fer­ent tech­niques—ve­neer, carv­ing and so on— but I par­tic­u­larly loved mar­quetry. Then, I went to Florence with Art His­tory Abroad, to one of the few re­main­ing work­shops where they teach the tech­niques as they were done in the 16th cen­tury. I was sit­ting next to a Michelan­gelo of pi­etra dura.’

In his northamp­ton­shire work­shop, once a car­riage house and pleas­antly warm thanks to re­cently in­stalled un­der­floor heat­ing, is a mix of new and an­cient tools. Lurk­ing against one wall is a for­mi­da­ble me­chan­i­cal saw from Cal­i­for­nia, on the far side is a huge pol­isher and, in good light un­der a win­dow, is a desk sport­ing a se­lec­tion of tiny di­a­mond files, made be­spoke in Italy and Ger­many.

Pol­ish­ing re­veals the stones’ full glory, black mar­ble chang­ing from dusty chalk­board to jet

In the cen­tre of the room is a tool that’s changed lit­tle since the 16th cen­tury. It’s an archetto bow saw, a half-moon of ch­est­nut steamed into shape and strung with a length of smooth iron wire. With this, in­tri­cate fig­ures are cut, the stone held firm by a clamp and turned as needed, so the saw­ing is in the same di­rec­tion. The cut­ting abil­ity comes from car­borun­dum paste, a semiliq­uid emery board that al­lows the wire to grad­u­ally work its way through the stone. Once cut, the crafts­man files off the last nooks and cran­nies, coax­ing del­i­cate pat­terns from jasper, por­phyry, agate or quartz.

Each piece is cut with its sides an­gled, so that, al­though the vis­i­ble edges meet pre­cisely, with not a hair space be­tween them, the re­verse of the piece has troughs to re­ceive the ad­he­sive, made by Thomas from a mix­ture of beeswax and pine resin. ‘It’s lovely to work with be­cause it’s nat­u­ral,’ he notes.

To reach the del­i­cate stage, he must ex­tract thin slices of stone from large rocks, thin­ner pieces be­ing backed by slate to re­duce the risk of break­age. This is where the big me­chan­i­cal saw proves in­valu­able. ‘Cut­ting a slice from a block of Egyp­tian por­phyry can take three hours even with the saw,’ he ex­plains. ‘In the old days, two men with a bow saw would have taken days.’

Where it makes sense, Thomas has no ob­jec­tion to 21st-cen­tury tech­nol­ogy and even cre­ates his own tools where nec­es­sary; this be­ing such an es­o­teric world, few can be bought off the shelf and not many places make such spe­cialised ma­chines, hence look­ing as far afield as Cal­i­for­nia. If some­thing goes wrong, it’s also dif­fi­cult to find some­one to fix it: ‘You have to be a de­signer, ge­ol­o­gist and an en­gi­neer, too.’

Fi­nally, on the gi­ant pol­isher, tables up to 6ft long can be smoothed with mag­ne­site and di­a­mond plates in ever-finer grades. ‘Pieces must be kept ab­so­lutely free of grit,’ the crafts­man points out, ‘as a scratch can take hours to re­move.’ Smaller pieces are pol­ished

by hand in cir­cu­lar mo­tions with a block of agate and car­borun­dum paste. It’s at this stage that the colours are re­vealed in their full glory, black mar­ble chang­ing from dusty chalk­board to jet.

As it’s an un­avoid­ably pain­stak­ing process —a 4in by 6in panel might take two weeks to com­plete—even Florence is suf­fer­ing from a dearth of ap­pren­tices. ‘The sur­viv­ing crafts­men are mostly 70 or 80 years old,’ laments Thomas. ‘It’s been passed down gen­er­a­tions, but peo­ple don’t have the pa­tience any more. The re­ces­sion bit badly and some are just do­ing tomb­stones now. It’s so sad, con­sid­er­ing the skills they have.’ To help re­verse the de­cline, he hopes to open a work­shop, run­ning short cour­ses and tak­ing on ap­pren­tices.

Thomas spent nearly four years in dif­fer­ent Floren­tine work­shops be­fore set­ting up on his own. He reg­u­larly ful­fils pri­vate or­ders, from pa­per­weights of an orange-tip but­ter­fly set in black mar­ble to pan­els for the lids of jew­ellery boxes, such as a shoot­ing scene for his sis­ter’s wed­ding present, a ro­tat­ing chess­board/backgam­mon ta­ble and even pan­els for su­pery­achts. A paper­weight is about £350 and jew­ellery boxes start at £4,000.

At the sug­ges­tion of The Prince of Wales, whom he met at the INTBAU Ex­cel­lence Awards in 2015, where he re­ceived an hon­ourable men­tion, he joined the Art Work­ers’ Guild. ‘It can be a ben­e­fit work­ing with other mak­ers, such as stone carvers and let­ter­ing de­sign­ers.’

Thomas’s pub­lic com­mis­sions in­clude a Latin in­scrip­tion in West­min­ster Cathe­dral to com­mem­o­rate the in­au­gu­ral visit of Pope Bene­dict XVI to Eng­land in 2010, each let­ter cut by hand from Egyp­tian por­phyry. Next is the restora­tion of a Tu­dor rose on the floor of the House of Lords, for which he will use some of the last pieces of Duke’s Red from Chatsworth: ‘It was quar­ried in 1823 and there’s only a small amount left.’

He also used it in the tomb of Richard III, erected in Le­ices­ter Cathe­dral in 2015. The King’s coat of arms, with its six lions pas­sant, took 350 in­di­vid­ual pieces of stone. ‘The lapis-lazuli claws nearly drove me mad!’ Ap­proved by the Col­lege of Arms, the de­sign used pre­cious stones, in­clud­ing yel­low chal­cedony, cal­cedo­nio gi­allo. ‘It’s re­ally rare to get the shad­ing from dark gold to light.’

The yel­low chal­cedony il­lus­trates a vi­tal el­e­ment of pi­etra dura: the choos­ing of the ma­te­rial. It’s not sim­ply a mat­ter of pick­ing a blue or green stone, but find­ing ex­actly the right piece. ‘Some­times, the stone sug­gests

an image,’ ex­plains Thomas. ‘Some­times, I look for the stone to cre­ate a pic­ture.’

He will cut tem­plates of pa­per into the shape needed and search myr­iad shards for the shad­ing of leaves (verde d’arno), a Floren­tine street (oro­bico), a lap­wing’s plumage (Africano) or a stag (paesina). For a win­ter sky, he might choose a piece of trans­par­ent onyx painted blue on the re­verse or, for the cen­tre of a conch-shell lily, agate backed with gold leaf. The del­i­cacy can be ex­tra­or­di­nary, such as onyx only 1mm thick for a drag­on­fly’s wings.

Reg­u­lar trips to quar­ries in Italy and quar­ry­men who know what he’s look­ing for keep his shelves full. Some stones are in­creas­ingly rare: ‘It’s very hard to find black mar­ble with­out vein­ing now,’ he re­veals. ‘You have to be able to see what a rock will be like in­side.’

On a trip to the Pitti Palace in Florence, the young Thomas found ‘ev­ery­one else was look­ing at the paint­ings, but I was look­ing at the pi­etra-dura floor’. He adds, won­der­ingly: ‘They used to do pi­etra-dura re­lief work, too, but that tech­nique is all but lost.’ If any­one can re­vive it, it will be this ded­i­cated artist of stone.

Pre­ced­ing pages: Thomas Green­away searches for the colours hid­den in the stones. Above: Fit­ting pieces for a dam­aged Floren­tine ta­ble

Above: Restor­ing a ta­ble de­signed by Wil­liam Burges in about 1867 from Lother­ton Hall, West York­shire. Be­low: Green Rus­sian mala­chite and verde Valle d’aosta in a par­rot’s plumage

Pre­ci­sion is all: un­like mo­saic, where grout­ing is vis­i­ble, pi­etra-dura tech­nique in­volves fil­ing the tini­est pieces so that they fit per­fectly to­gether, with­out any per­cep­ti­ble space

Just 10in by 8½in, the coat of arms set in the new tomb of Richard III was cre­ated with 350 in­di­vid­u­ally cut pieces of stone

Thomas cuts stone with an archetto bow saw, a method used by 16th-cen­tury masters This chess­board, which uses flourite and green por­phyry among oth­ers, ro­tates to re­veal a backgam­mon board

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