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Giving back to Portland

The Portland Sculpture & Quarry Trust is successfully combining creativity, conservation and respect for the traditional skills of the Portland quarrymen. John Newth has been to find out more.

Tout quarry

A general view of part of Tout Quarry

Go to West Bay and look at some of the older sea defences, and you are looking at boulders from Portland’s Tout Quarry. Walk along the Strand in London to the Royal Courts of Justice and you will see more stone taken from Tout. The last stone was quarried there in 1982, and in the following year it was taken over by the Portland Sculpture & Quarry Trust as the first sculpture park in a quarry. At that time sculpture parks were a comparatively new concept, but Tout is still one of Dorset’s more extraordinary artistic experiences and the Trust itself has developed and flourished.

The outstanding figure of the Trust’s early history was Jonathan Phipps. Although brought up in Weymouth, he was an ardent Portlander by adoption, living at Fortuneswell. He had served as a pilot in the Fleet Air Arm and then became an art dealer for Waddington Gallery in Cork Street. He would hear and see the lorries taking stone off the island; he felt passionately that artists could give something back to Portland and that worked-out quarries should not just become rubbish dumps. He was also anxious that the unique skills, traditions and identity of the island should not disappear in a more mechanised and uniform age.

Still Falling' by Antony Gormleyy

‘Still Falling’ by Antony Gormley

At the same time, the subject of landscape and environmental sculpture was growing within the teaching of art. One of its most enthusiastic promoters was Philip King, a professor of sculpture at the Royal College of Art, where he had started a new course in the subject. In 1983, the year of Beautiful Britain, many threads came together. In that first year, forty artists created work in Tout, whose stone had always been popular among sculptors, including Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, for its texture, colour, workability and quality of holding very fine detail.

From the start, an essential element in the Trust’s raison d’être was to establish a relationship with the Portland quarrymen, some of whose families had worked in the industry for twelve generations. The artists valued these men’s skills and understanding of working with stone in the landscape from which it comes. As well as deriving benefit, the artists were showing their respect for what Antony Gormley (whose ‘Still Falling’ is one of the sculpture park’s best-known pieces) called the ‘science, intuition and hard teamwork’ of the men who worked with the stone.

Fallen Fossil' by Stephen Marsden

‘Fallen Fossil’ by Stephen Marsden

Part of the understanding of the stone is that it had its origin 250 million years ago, when it was part of the sea-bed. Hardy called Portland ‘an isle carved by time from a single stone’, and time’s carving is evident in the horizontal levels and vertical gullies which give Tout its character and through which its story may be read, a story that the old quarrymen understood so well.

This sense of almost unimaginable time, along with the combination of sea, sky and stone, makes it for an artist a very elemental pace to work. The balance of the elements is reflected in the Zen garden designed by Philip King for the centre of the quarry. For the visitor, there is the experience of discovering the landscape and coming across the sculptures at the same time. None of them is labelled but their apparently random distribution is an illusion: artists have to put projects and their locations before the equivalent of a ‘hanging committee’ for approval.

'Window' by Justin Nichol

‘Window’ by Justin Nichol

The Trust plays an important part in the life of the community, emphasising local ownership and pride and involving many volunteers as well as, on a practical level, contributing an estimated £160,000 a year to the local economy through visitors and students at its workshops. Regeneration through the arts, environment and industrial heritage of the island was recognised recently with an award from the British Urban Regeneration Association.

At the Drill Hall, which is a centre for stone and a gateway to the quarry park, the Trust holds an important educational record of Portland’s quarry landscape. Open to visitors over the summer, it shows the arts, ecology, geology and working histories. Universities and art colleges have been involved from the start. In particular, Jane Francis of Leeds University has brought students down to examine the historical landscape in the minutest detail; fossilised dragonfly wings and tiny dinosaur footprints have been among their discoveries. Alongside, the Trust has also branched into other disciplines, encouraging writing, painting and photography connected with their work, for example, and providing spaces for the performing arts.

A course in progress ,Tout quarry

A course in progress at the open-air workshop in Tout Quarry

Tout Quarry is also a site of special scientific interest and is the home of rare grasses, butterflies and orchids, so the Trust has always involved an ecologist in its work and has close links with the Dorset Wildlife Trust.

The Trust is run by a Board of Trustees and has two employees as well as part-time seasonal staff and volunteers. Workshops, commissions and education courses, using the Trust’s creative and teaching skills, generate some of its funding, while grants and donations enable project development and special events. There is no charge for entry into the quarry and the Trust does not go out of its way to promote it to the general public; it is important, of course, that it is accessible to everyone, but it would lose part of its specialness if it was seen as a commercial tourist attraction.

One of the most important sources of revenue for the Trust is the LearningStone workshops that it runs in an outdoor workshops built into one of the side gullies of Tout Quarry. Anyone can go on one of the courses, which vary in length from one to four weeks. Beginners are helped to familiarise themselves with the quarry, the stone and what makes it so special, and are taught the finer skills of carving, sculpting and finishing the stone. You can take your finished piece home at the end of the course as long as your car has good springs – a block of Portland stone one foot by one foot by one foot weighs 140 pounds!

 Independent Quarry and the Drill Hall

Independent Quarry and the Drill Hall

The educational element is to the fore in the Trust’s next project: the development of the Drill Hall and Independent Quarry into an educational centre. The Crickmay-designed Drill Hall was built for the Volunteers and later became a dance hall. Albion Stone took it over as offices, then invited the Trust to establish there a learning resource about stone, which this summer will include an exhibition on geology, quarrying and stone carving skills. Albion Stone are also the leaseholders of Independent Quarry, next to the Drill Hall. The quarry is going to be re-landscaped specifically for educational purposes. It will become in effect a walk through time, with a series of ‘geological rooms’ as the visitor climbs up from the bottom of the quarry.

Independent Quarry will also include an amphitheatre space for multi-purpose use from lectures to drama and dance, a geological viewing tower and a site-specific sculpture by Peter Randall-Page. The wildlife will be allowed to regenerate naturally and there will be a series of shallow ponds which, it is hoped, will attract species like red-veined darters and scarce blue-tailed damselflies. This will be the first time that a Portland quarry has been specifically regenerated for public use and education.

If the Trust is largely about learning, it is also about searching for a wider elemental truth through creativity. Antony Gormley again: ‘Working with stone is a fine job, working with stone in a quarry is a challenge, you have to consider the material as part of the place; part of the earth.’ Now there are only six working quarries on Portland, where once there were over a hundred; it was said that the tapping of the mason’s tools on stone was the heartbeat of the island. Standing where art, geology and quarrying history meet, the Portland Sculpture & Quarry Trust is playing a vital role in ensuring that in a radically changed world, that heartbeat can still be heard.

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