Objects in Focus: Hardstones

This year, Hinton Ampner turns the spotlight on specially selected hardstone objects in its collection, some of the finest in the National Trust. The displays will also feature an important loan from the Gilbert Collection in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Objects in Focus: Hardstones is available to view every day from Sunday 1 September until Sunday 17 November, 11am to 3.30pm.

The history of hardstones

The term hardstones comes from the Italian pietre dure (hard stones), which includes semi-precious stones such as fluorite, agate, onyx, carnelian and rock crystal. The technique of decorating furniture and display objects in a hardstone mosaic was developed from the 16th century in Italy and some of the most luxurious objects were made in the Grand Ducal workshops in Florence. By the 18th century hardstone panels, often composed with landscapes, birds and flowers, were incorporated into furniture and snuffboxes, and in the 19th century micromosaics were created to imitate oil paintings. 

A close up image of one of the many semi-precious hardstone objects in the house
A close up image of a hardstone object
A close up image of one of the many semi-precious hardstone objects in the house

Ralph, the Collector

Ralph Dutton (1898-1985), 8th Lord Sherbourne and last private owner of Hinton Ampner, was a connoisseur, collector and writer on art and architecture, avidly buying at a time when the art market was flooded with the dispersal of major private collections.

Ralph Dutton stands in the garden of his Hinton Ampner home
Ralph Dutton stands in the garden of his Hinton Ampner home
Ralph Dutton stands in the garden of his Hinton Ampner home

A fire in 1960 destroyed a good deal of his original collection, as he recalled ‘I could find no trace at all, amongst the cinders, of the library chimney-piece which had been my pride.’ Undeterred, Ralph went on to create a second equally impressive art collection including monumental porphyry vases, elaborate perfume burners and vases designed by Matthew Boulton, significant furniture mounted with Florentine plaques and eighteenth-century ‘Blue John’ obelisks. In rebuilding the house Ralph even installed porphyry and marble interior decoration on walls and floors. These objects will be highlighted in the forthcoming displays.

Ralph was often competing against his own friends to buy these objects, leading to some awkward moments at his house parties;

" The Duke [of Wellington] and Ralph shared many tastes in common and both had a passion for ‘hard-stones’…This led to a friendly rivalry between them, and in the course of the conversation it transpired that both had left bids for the same piece of porphyry which was coming up at Sotheby’s. The cageyness about how much each was prepared to pay was a source of amusement to the other guests."
- A Memoir of Ralph Dutton, Sir Brinsley Ford, 1988

A generous loan from the V&A

This passion for hardstones was shared by many other collectors in the 20th century including Sir Arthur Gilbert (1913 – 2001) and his first wife Rosalinde (1913 – 1995). The Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Collection is famous for European and British masterpieces including furniture decorated with hardstones. The forthcoming displays at Hinton Ampner will include a 17th-century cabinet and stand loaned by kind permission of the Trustees of the Gilbert Collection. Decorated with pietre dure plaques made in the Grand Ducal workshops, the Gilbert Collection cabinet will be displayed alongside an equally impressive and finely made example from the National Trust’s own collection bought by Ralph Dutton around the same time in the mid-20th century; both are part of a small group of comparable cabinets originally acquired by wealthy European collectors in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Find out more about the The Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Collection at the V&A here https://www.vam.ac.uk/collections/gilbert-collection

What's On

Self-led tours

Every day from 1 September - 17 November, 11am - 3.30pm

Pick up a brochure for Objects in Focus: Hardstones to follow a self-led tour around the displays. 

Tours with the Curator

1 October, 22 October, 12 November, 2pm - 3pm

Explore the Objects in Focus: Hardstones display on a tour lead by Curator, Rebecca Wallis.

Specialist demonstrations by Thomas Greenaway

13 September, 4 October, 1 November, 2pm - 3pm

Discover more about ‘painting in stone’ from Thomas Greenaway, one of the very few craftspeople in the UK traditionally trained in the sixteenth-century techniques of inlaid hardstones.