Eleanor Coade (1733-1821), a Georgian businesswoman, successfully adapted a secret formula to manufacture an elegant artificial stone.
This ‘Coade stone’ became widely used, including as neo-classical architectural decoration on some of the country’s finest buildings by the pre-eminent architects of the day, such as Robert Adam, James Wyatt, John Nash and John Soane, as well as for the creation of sculptures and monuments.
2021 marks the 200th anniversary of Eleanor Coade’s death. Here we commemorate her life and work.
Born in Lyme Regis, Dorset, to a family connected with the wool trade, Eleanor, with her mother and two sisters, relocated to London following her father’s bankruptcy, trading as a linen draper in her own right – an acceptable occupation for women then.
For reasons unknown, in 1769 Eleanor and her mother went into business with the owner of a struggling artificial stone manufacturer, Daniel Pincot, based at King’s Arms Stairs, Narrow Walk, London, a Thames South Bank location that has now disappeared, but was probably where the Royal Festival Hall is today.
Two years later, the partnership foundered in acrimony, with Eleanor stating she was the real proprietor. Picot was dismissed. She took complete control of the business and employed a talented young sculptor, John Bacon. He became her business partner and supervisor of manufacture and design.
How did Coade manufacture artificial stone?
Eleanor Coade did not invent Coade stone. The search for an artificial stone – cheaper and more versatile than natural stone – had a long history, pre-dating her involvement. There were already existing patents and secret formulas, along with fierce rivalries between artificial stone companies.
No doubt Mrs Coade – Mrs was a courteous title assumed by unmarried businesswomen then – was a forceful strong-willed character in her own right, but there were other reasons for her coming to dominate the market in artificial stone: Hers was a fired ceramic, unlike cements which were cast. The finished result was high quality, frost-resistant and aesthetic; uniquely suitable for fine neo-classical ornamentation, as well as for statues and monuments.
She adapted and refined an existing formula, using a mix of finely ground clay, silicates such as flint and glass, and pre-fired terracotta (‘grog’). The manufacture was labour-intensive, relying heavily on the skills of the clay mixer/modeller and those of the kiln firer.
To produce an object, a clay model was made of the design and a plaster mould created from it (such moulds were reusable and adaptable). The Coade raw paste mix was rolled into thick sheets and pressed into the mould before firing at extremely high temperatures over 4 days, with final finishing and smoothing when cool. Large sculptures were cut into sections for firing, then reassembled.
Eleanor promoted Coade stone as being better than natural stone, keeping her formula a closely-guarded secret, but never patenting it.
In addition, by going into partnership with sculptor John Bacon – a rising star – Eleanor infused her business with vital artistic credibility at the sophisticated end of the market. Other renowned sculptors also worked with the Manufactory over the years.
Mrs Coade’s business flourises
Coade stone was transformational of Georgian architecture.
The huge 18th-century building boom had created a pressing demand for craftsmen to produce neo-classical ornamentation, especially for great country houses and grand terraces. Carving natural stone was slow and expensive. Coade stone could be manufactured relatively quickly by kiln firing; it was weather-resistant and cost less.
The firm’s catalogues displayed hundreds of designs within a classical vocabulary – including statues, fascias, panels, busts, medallions, chimneypieces, swags, festoons, flowers, pedestals, architraves, urns, columns, capitals, keystones and ornament for tombs.
Leading architects used Coade stone as architectural embellishments on the exterior of their buildings, as well as within the interiors and for garden statuary – including Robert Adam at Buckingham Palace, John Nash at Brighton’s Royal Pavilion, and John Soane in his own home. Coade stone was also used for other prestigious commissions, including the fan vaulting on the organ screen and for the font in St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, Berkshire.
The Coade Stone Manufactory was granted the Royal Warrant to King George III (reigned 1760-1820) and George IV (reigned 1820-1830).
However, Coade stone was not just employed on grand architecturally significant buildings, it was also used on more modest properties, as pictured above, as well as providing ornamental detail – such as keystones – to the exteriors of ordinary homes in towns and cities across the country.
John Bacon died in 1799 and Eleanor went into partnership with her cousin, John Sealy. They opened a Coade stone gallery together that same year – Coade and Sealy’s; spacious premises for exhibiting and selling their numerous products.
Their partnership lasted for fourteen years until Sealy’s own death in 1813 when the firm’s name reverted to Coade.
Early in the 19th century, the Coade Manufactory was asked to create a Coade stone memorial to Admiral Horatio Nelson. This was the company’s greatest honour. Nelson was one of the most renowned naval commanders in history. His death on 21 October 1805 at the Battle of Trafalgar – where the British Navy overcame the Franco/Spanish fleet – convulsed the nation in mourning.
The colossal Nelson Pediment, completed in 1812 and pictured above, is full of classical and national references. It was based on a painting by Benjamin West, famous for painting historical scenes. The Pediment features the body of Nelson at its centre, along with Britannia and the sea deities, Triton and Neptune, as well as the emblems of Scotland (thistle) England (rose) and Ireland (shamrock).
The final years
After Sealy’s death, Eleanor appointed a distant relative, William Croggon, as manager of the business, rather than as a partner. Orders continued to flood in, including from across Britain’s then Empire, as well as from Russia and America.
Eleanor Coade died on 16 November 1821, aged 88, at her home in Camberwell Grove; exactly where remains a mystery. This pioneering and unusual woman, unmarried and a devout Baptist, also left no images of herself and was buried in an unmarked grave in the Nonconformist Bunhill Fields Burial Ground, now a public garden, just to the north of the City of London.
She did not leave her business to Croggon. He bought the company from her heirs; going bankrupt in 1833 and dying around ten years later. The firm eventually closed in the 1840s as cheaper Portland cement began to replace Coade stone.
Mrs Coade was very wealthy; a philanthropist in later life, often helping women in difficult circumstances. She left many bequests in her will, including to the Baptists and to several married women, stipulating that the money was theirs alone.
There is no memorial to Eleanor Coade. But hundreds of examples of Coade stone ornamentation across Britain and elsewhere – much of it as pristine today as when first manufactured – act as her enduring legacy.
Header photo caption: Belmont, Lyme Regis, Dorset, dating from 1774, with its Coade stone ornamentation, including keystones to the window arches featuring the faces of the god Neptune, centre, and to either side of him, Amphitrite, goddess of the sea. The lease of this seaside villa was given to Eleanor Coade by her uncle in 1785. The world-renowned author, John Fowles, lived in the house from 1969 until his death in 2005. It is now owned by the Landmark Trust. Listed Grade II*. Image via Creative Commons.
Written by Nicky Hughes.