Blank slate or gallery?: art in the quarry

Jack Murray - large

“Slate quarrying is not a matter of mere manual labour but an art which years of patient practice will hardly acquire…a slate splitter is like a poet…and contends with the poet on an equal footing at the National Eisteddfod where slate splitting, music and poetry are stock subjects of rivalry.”

So wrote the Pall Mall Gazette, in 1885 in acknowledgment of the skill and craft of the slate worker, and it’s place within the culture of North Wales. Wrenching the lumps of slate from the hillside rock mass was one thing, but doing so in a way that produced workable slate was something else. As one Ffestiniog rockman put the artistry of applying explosives to rock faces in 1893: “to bore a hole is one thing, but to know where to put it is quite a different matter” (quoted in Jones, 1977: 121).

The quarryman’s artistry comprised an intimate acquaintance with the qualities of the rock – an ability to read it, and through reading it to know how best to engage with it. This human/rock  interaction was acted out upon the hewn terraces of this vast quarry, spaces known as ‘galleries’ by those who formerly worked there.  But should these desolate spaces now become galleries for the display of art brought to this place? And what art is fit for a carved mountainside?

The picture above was taken in October 2012. It is a photograph of Jack Murray, a rising star of the street art scene,  laying down a preliminary glyph at the former Dinorwig slate quarry at Llanberis in North Wales as a prelude to returning and executing a much larger work. But that larger piece is now unlikely to go ahead, for Murray’s plan caught the attention of the climbing fraternity, and he was told in no uncertain terms to leave the quarry’s rock faces alone.

I examine this culture clash in a short article published today on the website. The article focuses on the themes emerging from the reaction to Murray’s plan, and what the on-line debates show us about the territorial, ethical and aesthetic sensibilities of climbers. You can read it here:

Another recurrent theme in the opposition to Murray’s plan was that it was out of keeping with the area – that art per se was fine within quarryscapes, but that it needed to reflect the character of the place, to fit with it and ideally enhance it. Murray’s ‘urban’ offering was seen as an unmerited (and unsympathetic) addition to this landscape. To be acceptable here, art would need to work with the grain, to acknowledge the qualities of the rock and the working lives lived here. In echo of the slate worker’s hands, and of the climbers’ fingers, it would need to be art underscoring each of their engagements with (and ability to read) the “posts, crychs, bends, sparry veins, faults, joints and hardened rock” (Davies 1880).


Davies, D.C. (1880)  A Treatise on Slate and Slate Quarrying, London.

Jones, M. (1977) ‘Y chwarelwyr: the slate quarrymen of North Wales’ in Samuel, R. (ed.) Miners, Quarrymen and Saltworkers, Routledge & Kegan Paul: London

The photo above is reproduced by permission of Jack Murray.


About lukebennett13
Reader & Course Leader, BSc Hons Real Estate, Sheffield Hallam University, UK. I TEACH: built environment law to construction, surveying, real estate and environmental management students. I RESEARCH: metal theft; urban exploration & recreational trespass; occupiers' perceptions of liability for their premises. I THINK: about the links between ideas, materialities and practices in the built environment. I WAS: an environmental lawyer working in commercial practice for 17 years before I joined academia in 2007. I EXPLAIN: the aims of my blogsite site here: LINKS: Twitter: @lukebennett13; Archive: EPITAPH: “He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glances.” James Joyce, Dubliners

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