In 1954 Faber & Faber published Pebbles on the Beach, by Clarence Ellis. It was the first – and remains the only – book on the subject. Which strikes me as odd, for I don’t think I’m alone in finding them compulsively collectable and curiously satisfying. What I’m trying to do now is work out why.
Like the leaves on the trees they’re ubiquitous yet rare. Every one is different, different in shape or marked in a different way. But unlike leaves they have weight and heft in the hand. They’re solid and heavy and (though this, of course, is an illusion) reassuringly permanent. They’re cool to the touch but comforting to hold. They’re free but precious, too: a favourite pebble can become a talisman, a minor household god, a Becketian worry-bead, even a smug little social mark. They’re as refined as the most delicate sculpture, yet they’re also tough as nails.
I think it’s this sculptural quality that forms the strongest part of their appeal. Reduced enough in scale to sit comfortably on a shelf in the smallest modern flat, their smooth curves and subdued colours give them a striking resemblance to miniature Barbara Hepworths or Henry Moores – which is hardly surprising, given how important pebbles were to them both.
Pebbles have paradoxes of their own. Their hardness is relative, for every pebble is a boulder being rolled, scraped and beaten towards its end as gravel and sand. Their gentle colours are, in fact, largely illusory too: when their pearly salt glaze is ground away they often reveal brilliant, far less harmonious tones. And their placid weight belies their former role as lethal weapons.
From the age of about four, dropping pebbles into rivers and streams was one of my favourite occupations. Plus ça change. I’ve just bought an old stone house overlooking the largest pebble beach in Europe. It’s a strange and compelling place, detached from the land and heaped with pebbles to a height of 50 feet, but its greatest mystery – still not satisfactorily explained – lies in the grading of its stones from east to west. Below my house, where its 12-mile length ends in a scooped-out cove, all the pebbles are bigger than a fist, but at its western end they’re the size of peas. It’s often been said that local fishermen could tell exactly where they were along its length simply by looking at the size of the pebbles on the shore.
Pebbles obsess me: like many people I love collecting them, but I wonder how recent an interest this is. Were pebbles collected for their beauty before, say, the late-19th century, or (if at all) solely for their utility? Their earliest use seems to have been far from aesthetic – think David and Goliath. Even in the historic past they’re associated with violence and death. When Mortimer Wheeler conducted his famous excavations at Maiden Castle between 1934 and 1938, one of the pits then uncovered contained thousands of pebbles from Chesil Beach, which I live above today. They, and hundreds of others nearby, had been stored as slingshot for use in a vain – and ultimately fatal – attempt to repulse the attack of the Roman Second Legion in 44BC.
Did anyone collect pebbles for pleasure then? It seems unlikely, and yet… They’ve never, to my knowledge, been found among the grave goods extracted from the ground, nor do they figure in any painting or manuscript I’ve ever come across. But one of the most pathetic objects in the British Museum is a stick from Ancient Egypt, touchingly labelled ‘child’s doll’. It’s just a foot-long splinter of wood, no more, and yet – if the experts are to be believed, it gave comfort to a playing child four thousand years ago. The transfiguring strength of childish fantasy is such that it’s possible that pebbles provided equally pleasurable playthings.
It’s a groundless speculation, of course, yet it might help explain why certain found objects such as sticks and pebbles retain a faintly magical hold over us, an echo of childhood make-believe. On the other hand, it’s rare that pebbles suggest the kind of anthropomorphic associations one might have seen as a child: now it’s their formal beauty that attracts me most. It’s a half-way house, I suppose, between the childish approach and the drier, more dispassionate approach taken by serious-minded pebblistes like Clarence Ellis.
Interestingly, it’s in the dry, scientific spirit of inquiry that pebble collecting seems to make its first documentary appearance, at some point during the early 19th (or possibly late 18th) century. Even then, however, pebbles played a subsidiary role, a mineralogical spin-off from the rise of modern geology and the study of fossils (Charles Darwin, for one, was a great pebble-collector as a boy). You won’t find pebbles, as such, in the display collections of the Natural History Museum, though some of the crystals may have been found inside them.
Ellis follows this 19th-century path in his book, concentrating almost entirely on helping the reader determine the particular mineral origins of each pebble he or she may find. From this perspective, the soft grey bloom which gives beach pebbles much of their subtle colouring (and, for me, much of their allure) is seen as a veil: Ellis suggests polishing your pebbles in a grinder or cracking them in half to reveal the real beauty beneath. I remember being taken, once, to a meeting of my mother’s WI, where one of these polishing machines was demonstrated. In, to what looked like nothing so much as a toy concrete-mixer, went the pebbles and out (eventually – I suspect we were offered the ‘some we prepared earlier’ get-out) came brilliantly coloured, gleaming gemstones. Their dazzling hues and glossy surfaces had all the appeal of glitter and gilt – superficially attractive and instantly appealing, they were like boiled sweets: aesthetic tooth-rot compared to the restrained, Shaker-style purity of raw, unprocessed pebbles on the shore.
And perhaps this is something else that appeals to us collectors: pebbles’ sameness and subtlety is something that appeals to tacit assumptions about restraint and ‘good taste’. There’s nothing brash about pebbles: they’re John Pawson not Frank Gehry, Tacita Dean not Tracey Emin, Ralph Lauren not Alexander McQueen. And I guess this is the weakness of pebble collecting too: like all careful manifestations of good taste it can be boringly, achingly dull.
But that’s not to say that pebbles haven’t been creatively inspiring: Hepworth and Moore are the obvious examples, but they were also collected by Brassai, and their suggestive, inchoate forms were much prized by the Surrealists - is that a pebble or a cloud, a boulder or a skull? They also appealed to Jim Eade, the wide-ranging curator and collector whose former home in Cambridge, Kettle’s Yard, has been called ‘the apotheosis of the pebble’. More recently, the late Derek Jarman gave them a starring role in his influential garden at Dungeness, and they’ve turned up repeatedly as motifs on everything from greetings cards to B&Q floor-tiles to coasters and Paul Smith cabinets. So what gives pebbles their enduring appeal? Maybe Isaac Newton's famous quote can give us a clue. For Newton they were, it seems, a symbol of humility, and they are humble things: modest sculpture, minor beauty, quiet allure. In a world addicted to brashness and overstatement, those are qualities to be treasured.