Sculpture in Stone

Geologist and science writer Nina Morgan* visits the bi-annual OnForm sculpture show in Oxfordshire – the only UK exhibition dedicated exclusively to stone sculpture…

Asthall Manor

Asthall Manor

It’s generally a lot easier to examine the lithological characteristics of rocks away from their natural setting in the field. The bi-annual OnForm sculpture show, a spectacular exhibition of contemporary stone sculpture now taking place at Asthall Manor, near Burford in Oxfordshire, offers geologists a wonderful opportunity to get close and personal with some beautiful examples of a range of rock types.

Many of the 268 sculptures – particularly the larger ones – are artfully displayed throughout the beautiful gardens of the Manor (well worth a visit to see these alone!) The smaller pieces are arranged for show in the Manor’s ballroom, cloister and office, and in the adjacent churchyard and church.

Unsurprisingly, many of the pieces are carved from various marbles. But a number of other rock types, such as travertine and alabaster as well as good range of British and Irish stones, including various granites, and a variety of Carboniferous and Jurassic limestones are also represented. Many of the surfaces are highly polished, while others are finished in a range of different textures. The organisers specifically invite visitors to touch. And a good thing too – because it is almost impossible to resist stroking such often smooth, and always sensuous, surfaces.


‘Shadow’, Sarah Smith

To ‘enhance the visitor experience’, the organisers have commissioned geologist Philip Powell, an Honorary Associate of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, to lead geological walks around the site. The next will take place at 3pm on 3 July. Although aimed at the general public, these walks have also proved to be of great interest to the sculptors themselves and to visitors with geological backgrounds.

Two of the sculptures featured on the walks will particularly catch the eyes of, and generate discussion amongst, geologists. The first is a work by Sarah Smith titled Shadow (161 in the catalogue), which is composed of two highly polished panels of Lake District slate. The surfaces provide a clear display of a range of sedimentary structures, including fining upwards sequences, along with later faulting and shear cracks. The origin of the contorted beds around halfway up the panels is up for discussion – but whatever the conclusion, the result is a wonderful pattern to enjoy.

The second, by Angela Palmer, titled ‘The Geological Spine of Britain: from 3 billion years to the Anthropocene’ (126 in the catalogue), in some ways echoes the Geological Walk opened at the British Geological Survey headquarters in Keyworth in 2012. Both ‘works’ celebrate the fact that the geology of the UK is amongst the most varied on the planet, with every major geological era and rock formation represented. They demonstrate examples of the rocks formed in Britain from the Precambrian to the Quaternary, laid out in chronological order. But where the BGS examples take the form of pavements and walls, the examples here consist of large lumps of rocks, cut flat and polished on one side, but left in their natural weathered state on the other, and laid out like a curved spine on an amphitheatre-like ridge. The Anthropocene – here referred to as the Age of Man – is represented by an angular three-dimensional shape of mirror-polished stainless steel made in England in 2015.


‘The Geological Spine of Britain: from 3 billion years to the Anthropocene’, Angela Palmer

An accompanying leaflet provides some general information about each of the Periods and identifies the rocks chosen to represent them, but without specifically commenting on their composition or origin. Although it contains a few inaccuracies – including a transposition of the labels for the two Carboniferous examples – the leaflet does convey a strong geological message to the public at large. And overall, aside from its visual impact, the installation provides a beautiful opportunity for geologists to get their hands on a wonderful range of samples of British geology that many of us have not had the opportunity to examine in the field.

For all stone lovers, whether geologists or not, the OnForm exhibition is a great day out. But beware – all the sculptures are for sale, and with price tags of up to £35,000 or more for the largest ones, falling in love with one of them can prove a very expensive business. But, as they say, it costs nothing to look – or in this case, only a modest entrance fee of £10, which includes a full colour catalogue.

The OnForm exhibition is open until 10 July from noon to 6pm Wednesday – Sunday, with a late night opening until 9pm on Thursdays. For more information see

*Nina Morgan is a geologist and science writer based near Oxford. She writes the monthly Distant Thunder column for Geoscientist magazine. For information about her latest book, The Geology of Oxford Gravestones, see


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