The ‘loveliest’ book I’ve read this year

The Book of Pebbles by Christopher Stocks & Angie Lewin

I was given this book for my birthday some months ago, and what a delight it is.

Many of you will already be familiar with Angie Lewin’s gorgeous nature-based linocuts and wood engravings which grace many a greetings card. Her illustrations essentially get equal billing with Stocks’s writing and there is a wide mixture of techniques on show from her, the aforementioned, plus watercolours, mixed media collages, lithographs and screen prints. Lewin also contributes a foreword, Stocks does the afterword.

In between are ten mostly short chapters, charting different aspects of the ‘allure of pebbles’. This is no dry geological survey, although a little geology does creep into the later chapters.

Stocks lives overlooking Chesil Beach in Dorset, that long pebble spur enclosing a kind of lagoon, on which the action of the sea grades the pebbles in size. Where better to set the first chapter, and from the beginning we’re transported:

Sometimes at night I lie in bed and listen to pebbles being made. The sound is uncanny, yet oddly comforting, like the slow, deep breath of a slumbering giant – or more prosaically, as they used to say on the Isle of Portland, like everyone in Weymouth swishing their curtains open and closed at the same time; but that was in the days of brass curtain-rings.

The subtitle of this book is ‘from Prehistory to the Pet Shop Boys’ – an interesting pairing and over the next few chapters, Stocks does link the two.

We begin with an archaeologist, Sir Mortimer Wheeler who lead the excavations at Maiden Castle, an Iron Age hill fort in Dorset, finding large pits full of pebbles, which were assumed to be slingshots. The pebbles were sold for a penny each to tourists. The next chapter, ‘Picasso’s pebbles’, tells how many artists adopted the pebble form into their work – notably Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth.

Moore was friends with Jim Ede, an art curator, who founded Kettles Yard in Cambridge, known as ‘The Louvre of the Pebble’. The art and sculptures in the gallery are accompanied by found objects, including a large collection of pebbles.

Though Kettles Yard remains a relatively modest visitor attraction in terms of numbers, its influence on the way we think about pebbles has spread far further thanks to books and magazines, and these days one can hardly leaf through an interiors story without noticing collections of pebbles artfully arranged on a shelf.

But there is another exponent of pebbles as art objects that has had more influence still more recently, and that is Derek Jarman, whose sea garden at Prospect Cottage on the shingle at Dungeness in Kent is a place of pilgrimage for many, and the subject of a book, Derek Jarman’s Garden. This is where the Pet Shop Boys come in, for Neil Tennant, a friend of Jarman joked:

‘We have Derek to blame for pebbles, really. If you go to a hotel and there are pebbles in a fucking jar, it’s basically Derek.’

Stocks continues to look at the Victorians’ obsession with collecting pebbles alongside fossils. Many of these would be polished, and Stocks tells about the lapidary shops that set up to supply polished stones.

Stocks and Lewin also visit the Natural History Museum to find out more about the life cycle of pebbles. But you need to crack them open to find out their structure, you can’t tell from the sea-worn outside. It’s amazing to find that while there are accepted sizes for sand, shingle, cobbles and boulders, there is none for pebbles.

The final two chapters discuss types of pebbles, and then some of the best beaches to find them on – with the appropriate caveat that it may not be legal to remove pebbles from some places.

This kind of book could only be published by Thames and Hudson, who always lavish attention to their publications to ensure they are exquisitely designed. This aesthetic pebble appreciation is lovely, and I recommend it wholeheartedly.

Source: Present. Thames & Hudson softback with d/j. illus. 115 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.

15 thoughts on “The ‘loveliest’ book I’ve read this year

  1. A Life in Books says:

    This sounds gorgeous. I visited Kettle’s Yard many times when living over that side of the country and loved it. I even have a few groups of pebbles although not so artfully displayed!

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I lived in Cambridge for several years in the early 1980s, and never knew Kettles Yard was there, relative Philistine that I was back then! If I ever go back there, it’ll be top of my list to visit after the Fitzwilliam, which I never went in either! (Too busy exploring all the pubs in my 20s, I think!)

  2. Calmgrove says:

    When I was at Cadbury Castle during one season of the 1960s dig we also offered slingshot pebbles to visitors (I don’t believe we charged them though) and even indulged in a bit of experimental archaeology by seeing how far our slingshot projectiles got over the ramparts!

    I’m also reminded of Robert Graves’s spooky short story ‘The Shout’ in which a character implied a particular stone somewhere on the beach was the repository of a soul (like Kaschei’s egg or Voldermort’s horcruxes). Anyway, a delightful treasure this, from your account. 🙂

  3. JosieHolford says:

    “Sophia tells me that sometimes Japanese tourists motor into her bay. They want her to sign pebbles, and she has to explain to them that she isn’t Tove Jansson, isn’t really even Sophia, but what worries her most is the depletion of pebbles from the island if too many of them come.”

    From Esther Freud’s introduction to Tove Jansson’s “The Summer Book”

  4. carltonc63 says:

    I read and enjoyed this based upon your recommendation earlier this year, and the production and illustrations are beautiful, but although the text was on point, I thought it rather slight. Nice book though and glad to have read.

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