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Torquay Marble Plaque of Babbacombe Beach

calendarno date by Barry Chandler

Founded in 1844, Torquay Museum is the oldest museum in Devon.  It contains over 330,000 items, and has Designated status for its quaternary cave collections and archive. It sits in the world’s only urban UNESCO Geopark.

For me this remarkable object embodies so much about Torbay and the remarkable geology that surrounds the Museum. This pietra dura landscape – literally ‘hard stone,’ is actually still something of a mystery. It was donated to the Museum in 1930 by Mrs. Blackler, as a hardstone picture in Florentine style, that is, made entirely of stone in the style of the master mosaic stone workers of Florence. 

We know very little about the manufacture of this piece. It is likely to be made by Woodleys, which were taken over by the Blackler family. We can tell from the development of the beach that it cannot date after 1889 and it is likely dates a bit earlier perhaps to the 1860s. 

We do not know who the expert artist was, but they have managed to convey the scene of Babbacombe Glen in full colour, conveying light and shade using only stone. Many of the stone types shown in the landscape could have been found on the beach. These are 400 million year old, fossil-bearing limestones, that gave rise to the South Devon marble industry. 

Until very recently we thought this piece was unique, perhaps a demonstration piece to show the skill of the artist. However, there is another in a private collection, so this maybe an example of an elite souvenir for Victorian superrich visitors. These included Queen Vitoria and Prince Albert who visited this very beach. 

The plaque is a wonder of Devon craftsmanship, the equal of anything from Italy. It not only depicts Torbay’s glorious scenery, which brings tourists from all over the world, it is actually made from the incredible local geology. The landscape is on display in the Museum’s entrance hall and more information on the South Devon marble industry can be found in our gallery ‘Marvellous Marble’.  

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