The Collectors: Margaret Howell's Pebbles

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Margaret Howell's pebble collection
Margaret Howell's pebble collection

Next in our series on collectors, Margaret Howell explains her extensive collection of etched pebbles

Margaret Howell’s utility overalls and merino knitwear have always had an air of the seaside to them, evocative of the rural landscapes and beaches near her seaside home in Suffolk. When not designing her eponymous clothing line, Howell likes to collect pebbles. But not just any pebbles – only those which come printed with naturally occuring numbers and lettering, caused by the motion of the sea. They embody both the roughness and the refinement of her collections: white shirts, flannel tops and corduroys, reminiscent of the clothing she wore herself when studying fine art at Goldsmiths College in the 1960s. Here, we speak to Howell about her extensive collection.

When did you start collecting pebbles?
It started because I just love walking on long empty beaches in Suffolk. I found a smooth grey stone with a very finely sketched number 6, or a 9 depending on which way you looked at it. It looked like a letter that a craftsman had etched into the stone, but it wasn’t – it was just a natural formation. This sent me and my two children off looking for marks in the pebbles. It became quite fun to collect pebbles with numbers on them.

Where do you find them?
You don’t actually look for them – if you did you would never find any. It is just when you stumble across them. The big number eight is on a flint-like stone, which was found on a Sussex beach where pebbles are much bigger. I can’t walk along a beach without picking something up, whether it is a pebble or wood or anything, and I’m sure I’m not alone in that. Barbara Hepworth often took inspiration from natural forms. If you have a creative mind you do hone in on these things.

What appeals to you about these marked pebbles?
I just find them interesting graphically I suppose. I have one with an E on it, and it is almost slightly Japanese, like black brush strokes. It’s just what the pebble has become by being turned around by the sea. Sometimes if it’s somebody’s birthday I make a birthday card out of a stone. Sometimes I just line them up in various ways and look at them.

Do you ever use them within your own work?
I don’t think directly, but it could be connected to the graphics and imagery that we produce. For instance, when I walk around a graveyard I see the beautiful craft of carving letters and stones. It is a lovely art, and some of these pebbles have a sort of resemblance.

Words by Mhairi Graham