… focus on materials forms a path into the study of the artist and craftsperson, their practices and knowledge, the desires of the patron and the cultural significance of the object itself.

C. Anderson, A. Dunlop & P. H. Smith, The matter of art: materials, practices, cultural logics, c.1250-1750, Manchester 2015, p. 3.

It is a remarkable fact that the materials industry responsible for enduring buildings and monuments of the eighteenth century has received scant attention from scholars of architectural history. Many histories of architecture and architects pay little or no attention to stone. Only in recent decades have researchers begun to explore the subject of dimension and decorative stone and their impact on architectural production. And yet, regional geology plays an emphatic role in the character of early modern architecture. While Oxford, London and Dublin share a common classicism in the form of their buildings, there is considerable difference in the colour and texture of Taynton stone, Portland stone and Ardbraccan limestone, not to mention the many other types of local stone employed during the period. And the nature of these materials influences the ways in which they were cut and fashioned.

Used extensively at Saint Paul’s Cathedral (above) by Sir Christopher Wren, Portland stone is a creamy oolitic limestone from the island of Portland in Dorset which subsequently became the material of choice for monumental architecture in Britain and Ireland. In 1756 Isaac Ware proclaimed it ‘the fittest of all for outside work’ and ‘preferred to any other kind’. However, it was problematic to extract and expensive to transport, so alternative sources of fine workable stone were much in demand. Among others, quarrymen and masons from Burford in Oxfordshire developed a successful and far-reaching industry in Taynton stone in the late seventeenth century, Ralph Allen created a burgeoning stone business at Bath in the 1720s, and in 1730 William Colles began to exploit the fine grey limestone of County Kilkenny for use throughout Ireland and beyond. The source of a sandstone combined with Kilkenny limestone at Castletown Cox has eluded scholars. Might there be truth in the suggestion that sandstone from County Down was shipped to the nearby port of Waterford ? There is as yet no joined-up history of the stone industry in these islands in early modern period and part of our research is to understand the movement of materials and men attendant upon the prolific building activity in city and country in the long eighteenth century.


No material so effectively evoked the architecture of classical antiquity as polished stone or marble. The term ‘marble’ was widely used in the period to describe a range of variegated coloured limestones capable of taking a polish and thereby simulating the effect of real marble. William Colles used water-powered saws machinery to polish his grey limestone to a shining jet black, exposing the white fossils within.

Derbyshire fossil limestones such as Hopton Wood stone have been quarried since the 1750s and polished for architectural fittings such as columns, door frames, balustrades and chimneypieces. A mottled Alabaster from Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire was also polished and used very effectively to simulate marble. True marble, white, dove and polychrome was imported to Britain in the eighteenth century, largely from Italy. We need to know more about the marble trade from ports such as Leghorn and Genoa and about the merchants who supplied London and Dublin sculptors, masons and carvers in the period, and ensured that the monumental chimneypiece remained the principal ornamental set-piece of the eighteenth-century interior.

Radcliffe Camera, Oxford, 1737-49, James Gibbs architect, William Townesend and William Smith contractors, the lower storey is faced with Headington freestone, the upper storeys with Taynton stone. Photos: ©CRAFTVALUE


While the pavements of eighteenth-century London were crafted from granite, this hard, igneous rock, plentiful and widely used as a facing stone in Ireland, was much less valued in England where limestone was the material of choice for formal elevations. In Dublin, readily available granite from the Wicklow mountains was used extensively in public buildings combined with sparing use of the softer and more workable Portland stone. This juxtaposition of gritty, sparkling masonry with columns, pilasters and dressings of fossilised limestone has potent haptic impact.  According to geologist Patrick Wyse Jackson ‘the lithological duality of Portland and Leinster granite imparted a distinctive urban ambience which differed from the creamy streetscapes of Britain produced through use of Mesozoic limestones and sandstones’.

Granite and Portland stone juxtaposed in the Examination Hall at Trinity College Dublin. Photo: ©CRAFTVALUE

  Early quarrying of granite Ireland took place in the vicinity of Blessington in County Wicklow and was initially used for paving and service areas such as stables and kitchens. Gradually it became used for masonry, spurred by the example of the Dublin Parliament House and by Russborough House, seat of the Leeson family, later earls of Milltown, near Blessington. Most building contracts requiring granite specified ‘Mountain Granite’ or ‘Wicklow Granite’ but the finest grade of granite was found initially at Golden Hill, and later at Ballynockan. Granite and Portland stone were used together at the Custom House, the Four Courts and the General Post Office.

Wicklow granite at Russborough House, County Wicklow, c.1743. Photo: Stephen Farrell

Further Reading

C. Anderson,A. Dunlop,  & P.H.Smith,eds , The matter of art: materials, practices, cultural logics, c.1250-1750, Manchester 2015

Cristina Bates, ‘The role of British merchants in Livorno in the marble trade between Italy and Britain during the 18th century’, Archeologia Postmedievale, 19 (2015): 61-69.

James W.P. Campbell, ‘The supply of stone for the rebuilding of St Paul’s Cathedral 1675-1710’, Construction History, 28, 2 (2013): 23-49

R.J. Firmin, ‘A geological approach to the history of English alabaster’ Mercian geology, 9 (1984): 161-78.

Tony Hand, ‘Supplying stone for the Dublin house’ in C. Casey ed., The eighteenth-century Dublin town house, Dublin, 2010, 82-97

John Hussey, ‘Granite quarrying and the migration of quarrying communities from Golden Hill to Ballynockan, County Wicklow, c.1700-c.1850’ in Christine Casey and Patrick Wyse Jackson, eds, The Museum Building of Trinity College Dublin: a model of Victorian craftsmanship, Dublin, 2019, pp.79-102

Monica Price, Decorative stone: the complete source book , London, 2007

Isaac Ware, A complete body of architecture, London, 1756

Patrick Wyse Jackson, The building stones of Dublin. Dublin, 1993

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