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SERPENTINE IS special because it's just soft enough to turn by hand on the lathe, but just hard enough to take a good polish. It has a very, very silky texture," says Ian Casley as he busies himself in his workshop on Lizard Point, Cornwall.
The other special thing is the tremendous variety of its colours. It could be anything from a green base to red to grey, with mottles, veins and stripes. No two examples are the same."
Ian is one of only five remaining craftsmen on The Lizard turning and polishing serpentine, a rare metamorphic rock. He prospects for it by agreement with local landowners and farmers and makes traditional ornaments. But stocks are slowly dwindling, raising doubts about its future use.
It doesn’t occur in many places worldwide and I know of only five or six places where the quality is such that you can turn it," he says. These include the veins underneath The Lizard, formed in the earth’s crust beneath a deep ocean millions of years ago, before being torn up and pushed onto mainland England’s most southerly tip. The serpentine left close to the surface was so named because of the similarity of its rich markings to snakeskin.
Serpentine ornaments, clocks and decorative household goods became popular in the 19th century after Queen Victoria had a coffee table and other items for Osborne House on the Isle of Wight made from this stone. The industry thrived, providing work for locals in a serpentine factory at Poltesco. When the factory closed in the 1890s, turners set up their own small businesses in Lizard village to serve tourists. Ian’s little wooden workshop and showroom was a serpentine shop as early as 1896.
"I've been a turner all my life," he says. "It’s in the family. I followed my maternal grandfather and my father. "We dig the rock ourselves. It tends to be in little clusters within four or five miles to the north of the village, in traditional areas that people dug in the past. Occasionally we prospect by hand using an auger and probe, but that’s very hard. So we mainly use a digger with a small, narrow bucket to trench the ground.
"When we strike a vein, we clear off all the topsoil and dig it out. As a rule, the best-quality stone comes right up to the topsoil and it tends to be smaller with more sharply defined colours. The deeper you go, the larger and more mottled the pieces are. Near the surface we might get fingers of stone from three inches upwards; deeper down pieces could be several hundredweight. We have had pieces up to a ton."
Ian roughly shapes the rock at the quarry site, checking that pieces are sound to avoid bringing back "rubbish". Once in his workshop, he begins knocking out - shaping a piece more accurately with a hammer to create a round blank. The process loses about 50% of waste. Then he dresses up the bottom and glues it onto the face-plate of the lathe, hand-turning and shaping using a tungsten carbide-tipped tool.
Afterwards, he polishes the item using wet and dry aluminium oxide paper in ever-finer grades of grit, finishing with corduroy cloth impregnated with flour emery. Jeweller’s rouge on a chamois leather with a little olive oil gives the final flourish to the latest addition to his wide-ranging goods - eggs, lighthouses, barometers, pedestals, clocks, vases, bowls and night lights.
"I sometimes do bigger things, like church fonts, but it’s becoming more and more difficult because we are struggling to find the raw materials. They’re running out. Last year we were lucky when we quarried in an old pit and managed to open out another layer of serpentine in the bottom. But that’s a rarity now.
We're living off stocks and replenishing a little with what we still find. It means, though, that in probably five years' time, bigger items will gradually disappear. The diversity of colour will decrease, too, because you tend to use the most attractive first. But we live in hope - you could have a farmer out ditching and he strikes something. We just have to keep a close eye when anything like pipes are laid in case new reserves are discovered."