If you visited the Wonders of the Peak exhibition before it closed in January this year, you may recall that towards the end of the gallery, there was a replica ‘Petrification’ Shop. Its dimly lit interior was a showcase for the Museum’s collection of household and decorative items made from locally quarried materials. Examples of the items on display included, but were not limited to: tables, urns, thermometers, crucifixes and obelisks. The majority of these items were made from Ashford Black Marble and had come to the museum when Derbyshire County Council acquired the Tomlinson collection in 2005.
To the modern eye, the contents of the displays might have seemed dour and funereal and a world away from the light and airy interiors that society favours at present, but these items deserve closer inspection as they not only reveal exquisite workmanship, but also the Victorian’s obsession with ancient civilisations and a lost industry that once dominated the local area.
Despite its name, Ashford Black marble is not a true marble in the geological sense. It is actually an impure form of biluminous dark grey limestone that turns black when it is polished. Its name derives from where it was quarried, close to Ashford by the Water.
The Victorians were not the first to recognise the value of this limestone. Its use can be traced back as far as the Iron Age. In 1795, an excavation of a cairn near the hill fort at Fin Cop, revealed a grave topped with Ashford Black Marble. Bess of Hardwick also used the marble for a chimney piece in her Great High Presence Chamber at Hardwick Hall and her descendents, the Cavendish family at Chatsworth, continued to support the industry’s growth through decades of continued patronage.
One of the most exciting items on display in the Museum is a table that dates from 1850 in the William Boyd Dawkin’s Study. Made by T Woodruff, inlayer to Queen Victoria, in his Buxton workshop, it was a prize winning exhibit at the Great Exhibition of 1851.
The Victorians had an enduring interest in ancient civilizations and were particularly fascinated by Egypt and the treasures being found there. In 1878 an obelisk known as Cleopatra’s Needle was erected on the Thames Embankment. Many souvenirs were created to commemorate this achievement and the museum houses two such examples. Crafted from Ashford Black Marble the obelisks have false hieroglyphs etched into their surface. Made in Derbyshire, the etching was done by hand with a stencil and acetone. One can imagine them gracing the fireplace of a family eager to keep up with the fashions of the time.
Following the death of Prince Albert in 1861, Queen Victoria’s intense grief became the inspiration for funereal vogue. Dark clothing, furniture and adornments became the norm. The artisans working with Ashford Black Marble were quick to capitalise on this fashion, similar to contemparies based further North in Whitby who were working with Whitby Jet.
The funereal theme was further emphasised in the design of the items. Urns, a classical symbol or Roman cremation were very popular.
This example has an inlaid floral design featuring pink and white roses and forget-me-nots
Crucifixes were also popular – their potency reinforced by the black marble from which they were made and the symbolism of the inlaid designs. The example below features forget-me-nots and jasmine. Forget-me-nots, as their name suggests represent long lasting memory of a loved one and jasmine flowers were said to represent affection and purity.
The Ashford Black Marble industry continued to flourish in the Peak District throughout the 19th Century only falling into decline with the death of Queen Victoria in 1901. Her death together with the turn of the Century heralded not only a change of monarch, but of fashions as well.