Monty Don has done it again. A couple of months ago I wrote a post about scything and lawns and he then immediately demonstrated how to do it on The Secret History of the British Garden. Next, I was writing this post about Eleanor Coade and before it was finished Monty talked about her in his next programme. So, not only have I delayed posting this for a while, but I’m keeping quiet about my plans for future posts in case he has a spy in my office!
I hope if you saw his brief introduction to Eleanor Coade it won’t spoil this more in-depth coverage of a fascinating 18thc businesswomen. I’m also pleased that he didn’t know, any more than I do exactly how and why the daughter of an 18thc Devonian wool merchant and bankrupt ended up running a busy industrial operation in London, nor how she managed to make such a success of the artificial stone that carries her name.
The first post in this series [ Nov 2015] explained the fierce rivalry amongst early manufacturers of artificial stone and how one of the factory owners, Daniel Pincott, had to seek a business partner, or possibly a buyer, for his Lambeth factory. That business partner or buyer was Eleanor Coade.
Why it was her is much more difficult to explain, since she no background in this sort of work or anything like it. She was born in Exeter in 1733, the elder daughter of George and Eleanor Coade. In 1759 her father declared bankrupt and shortly afterwards the Coades moved to London , living first at Charterhouse Square in the City and then at Charles Square, Hoxton. By 1766 Eleanor was in business on her own account as a linen draper. It is not known where she obtained the money to do this but the family were Dissenters who, still suffering from religious discrimination, were often financially as well as socially supportive of each other. This religious connection might also explain where she obtained the money to enter into her agreement with Pincott, a fellow Dissenter.
George Coade died bankrupt in 1769 and later that year, aged 36, Eleanor joined forces with Pincott. Pincott presumably bought knowledge of the formula and the process of manufacturing the artificial stone, and Eleanor presumably brought the money, and the management skills that she would have acquired running her shop. Her mother, also Eleanor, may well have been involved as well – the Widow Coade paid the Poor Rates for the factory site in 1773 and 1774 but after that they were recorded as being paid by Eleanor Coade, suggesting perhaps it was the younger who had taken over responsibility. There are also some early bills apparently paid to ‘Miss Coade’. The confusion arises because although her mother may well have been involved with the business, Eleanor, because she did not marry, was also usually referred to as ‘Mrs Coade’, the courteous form of address for a woman running her own business in the 18th century.
In 1770 he had written An Essay on the Origins, Nature, Use and Properties of Artificial Stone promoting its use, and tracing its history and origins and railing against the Luddite tendencies of “persons so obstinately averse to the introduction of whatever they imagine has but the air of novelty, that they will be both blind and deaf to the plainest demonstration.”
There is no mention of Eleanor in his tract despite the fact that she was either his partner or employer.
Pincott continued to push his luck. In 1771 he submitted a copy of the Borghese vase for exhibition at the Society of Artists which although it was not an original design was placed in the entrance ‘in consideration of its being a very fine performance’ and because the society was ‘desirous of giving every encouragement in their power to merit and ingenuity’. This design attracted a lot of attention and Pincott began to take orders for copies of the vase, again presumably without consulting Eleanor. He also told potential customers that copies of the Medici Vase would soon be available too. One of the Borghese copies was sent to Henry ‘the Magnificent’ Hoare at Stourhead where it is still in place in the Tempe of Flora, and another pair went to Kedleston where they can still be seen on the steps.
Eleanor was not best pleased, and despite the fact that these orders were for prestigious clients, she clearly lost her patience. On 11 September 1771 she placed a notice in The Daily Advertiser stating, “WHEREAS Mr Daniel Pincot has been represented as a Partner in the Manufactory which has been conducted by him; Eleanor Coade, the real Proprietor, finds it proper to inform the Publick that the said Mr Pincot has no Proprietry in this Affair; and no Contracts or Agreements, Purchases or Receipts, will be allowed by her unless signed or assented to by herself.” Customers were told to contact her at Mr Demar’s, Bridge Head, Lambeth. Three days later anther notice appeared saying that “Eleanor Coade gives notice that Mr Daniel Pincot having no further Employ at her Manufactory at Kings Arms Stairs” that all orders should be sent to her instead. Pincott then disappears from the scene completely, although it known that he died in 1792 and was buried in the Dissenters’ burial ground at Bunhill Fields.
The Lambeth factory probably continued to use some of Pincot’s moulds for many years after his dismissal, including the one for the Borghese Vase. However, the works were renamed ‘Coades’ and the product ‘Coade stone’, or as Eleanor sometimes marketed it “Lythodipyra”. [derived from the Greek and meaning twice fired stone.]
Legend has it that the formula is unknown and unrepeatable, but in fact, the basic principles were published as early as 1818 by David Laing, the architect of Custom House in London. To a base of ball clay from Dorset was added fine quartz, crushed soda, lime glass, crushed flint and ‘grog’ – a powder made from grinding up previously fired pieces (usually damaged items known as wasters).
When mixed in the right proportions Laing added “the whole is well kneaded together together by means of the addition of water. In this state it forms a kind of paste which has the ductility of the clay usually employed in modelling.” In this raw state the material lacked plasticity and could not easily be modelled, so it was rolled out in thick sheets and then pressed into moulds. Once moulded it was fired at 1100C for four days – a prodigious achievement in an era long before thermostatically controlled kilns. This produced a material so strong and resistant to weathering that even today surviving pieces still look fresh from the mould, despite in some cases having spent 240 years in London’s polluted atmosphere.[Information from Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, citing The British Museum research laboratory’s analysis 1985]
For a fuller technical explanation of the production technique see Hans van Lemmen, Coade Stone, Shire Books, 2006 pp. 8-12.
Eleanor Coade quickly capitalised on the mixtures malleability and ease of manipulation. No sooner had she dismissed Pincott, but she brought in John Bacon, the sculptor and future Royal Academician, as her artistic advisor and collaborator. It was a very shrewd move. Bacon had worked as a modeller of porcelain in both the Bow and Lambeth works, and had also worked for Sir William Chambers and Josiah Wedgwood. He was to provide the firm with some of its most popular designs over the next 3 decades.
Eleanor Coade was in the right place at the right time. Great architects such Robert Adam, James and Samuel Wyatt, Sir William Chambers, John Nash, and John Soane were at work and the Georgian building boom was underway. This created huge demand for stonemasons and other skilled craftsmen who could produce neoclassical ornaments for the grand neoclassical terraces and country houses that were going up. However carving these by hand from natural stone was a slow and expensive job. Eleanor’s artificial stone was a simple answer to such problems. The flexibility of her ‘raw’ product meant that she could effectively guarantee almost mass production of any required architectural or ornamental piece. It became possible to reduce reliance on expensive skilled masons, but still produce consistent quality items with all the detail required. And her stone had added advantages. Not only did it have the colouring, texture and general appearance of natural stone, but unlike the real thing, or its nearest rival, cold cast stone, Coade stone was extremely durable and stood to the vicissitudes of the English climate much better than the real thing. Furthermore although it wasn’t cheap it was still less expensive than the real thing.
For architects like Robert Adam who had suffered the indignity of using cold cast stone by George Davy [see post Nov 2015] for the embellishment of the Brentford gateway at Syon House and then watching it disintegrate in the first serious frost, it was a small to pay. Adam replaced the defective work by Davy with panels in Coade stone which are still in a virtually perfect state two hundred years later. However, Not everyone was happy with the cost. Horace Walpole, for example, ordered some gate-piers for Strawberry Hill in 1772 but disputed the £150 price tag when they were delivered. After arbitration by Sir William Chambers and others it was agreed that the gates had actually cost Coade £151 14s 10d to make, exclusive of profit.
Coade stone was versatile enough be used not only for all architectural features, but more complex and detailed items like funerary monuments, statues, busts, coats of arms, as well as more solid items such as chimney-pieces or garden ornaments. Even better, smaller pieces could be combined to make seamless larger compositions. In fact most large scale works were cast in sections and then put together just before they went to the kiln. This had other less obvious advantages, in particular a few standard parts could adapted simply to suit different purposes. Thus many basic stock pieces could reasonably priced: a lifesize statue of a charity school child could be bought for 16 guineas whilst a bust of King Edward IV or Queen Elizabeth cost only three.
Coade was a good business woman and she energetically promoted the factory’s products, aiming at the upper end of the market. This included marking them with her name, and although the legend would be concealed once the piece was put into place, it is an early example of branding! James Ayres, in Building the Georgian City (1998), also suggested that such goods “may be seen as one of the first steps towards ‘system building’.”
Presumably this paid off because as early as 1773 she could advertise that her enterprise was ‘employed by many of the Nobility and first Architects in the Kingdom’. By 1784 her published catalogue listed no less than 778 available items.
The Coade factory exhibited at the Society of Artists throughout the 1770s and 1780s with the items on display under the name of “Miss Eleanor Coade, sculptor” – this was a proprietorial rather than actual creative attribution, as the designs were probably all by John Bacon.
Perhaps not surprisingly Eleanor’s business expanded rapidly and became very profitable. Rival firms could not compete and either went out of business or were, like Bridges of Knightsbridge bought up, asset-stripped and the factory closed.
Eleanor returned to her roots, in 1784 by acquiring the lease of Bunter’s Castle, now Belmont House, at Lyme Regis, which had belonged to her uncle Samuel, for use as a country retreat. This has recently been restored at a cost of £1.8 million by the Landmark Trust.
In 1798 she built a row of houses in Pedlar’s Acre, at the south end of Westminster Bridge, one of which became ‘Coade’s Gallery’, effectively the firm’s exhibition centre and showroom, for which an entry charge of 1/- was made. The façade was decorated with a relief, The attempts of Time to destroy Sculpture and Architecture, defeated by the vitrifying aid of fire. This was a Bacon design also used on the firm’s trade card. An introductory guidebook to the gallery was published in 1799 which listed the sites for which Coade stone had already been supplied.
Most of Bacon’s designs were neo-classical, but as the century drew to a close there was also a demand for Gothic style pieces. For example, the factory made the screen for St George’s Chapel, Windsor and 10 candelabra decorated with dragons and tracery for the conservatory at Carlton House.
It is a sign of the universality of Coade stone’s appeal that there are 50 references on our database for items in historic parks and gardens the length and breadth of the country.
John Bacon died in 1799 at the height of his powers and the scope and extent of the business. Eleanor must have missed his advice, as well as design managerial input, but she was determined to carry on. Now she sought a new partner to take the business forward with her. That partner was her cousin John Seeley.
More on the final phase of Eleanor’s enterprise in the another post soon.