Eleanor Coade was a remarkable woman who rose to the top of the male-dominated trade of artificial stone-making in the 18th century. Her own brand of stone was widely used in some of the best gardens of the day. Timur Tatlioglu looks at her contribution to the art of garden ornamentation.
Eleanor Coade, the daughter of a wool merchant from Exeter, was the inventor of Coade stone, one of the most influential materials of the late 18th century and employed by many of the great architects and designers of the period.
Coade stone was a type of mouldable artificial stoneware. It could stand the greatest tests of weathering and erosion thanks to its unique properties, created to a closely guarded secret recipe. Because of its versatility, Coade stone became a highly popular medium for the creation of architectural details, commemorative and funerary monuments, fonts, garden ornaments and furniture. More than 650 pieces have been traced, some as far away as Brazil and Russia (Kelly 2004).
Eleanor Coade ran her business from Narrow Wall, Lambeth, a site now believed to be under the Royal Festival Hall. It was from there that she was able to create and manage the vast number of pieces that went out to architects such as Sir John Soane and John Nash, and in doing so promoted the company as a key component of the neo-classical and Regency movements.
The Coade factory
Eleanor Coade was born on 3 June 1733 in Exeter, the elder daughter of George Coade and his wife, Eleanor. Around 1760 the family moved to London, where Eleanor found employment as a linen draper. In 1769 George Coade died, bankrupt and leaving little to his family.
In the same year as her father's death, Eleanor joined Daniel Pincot, a stone maker who was already working on the Narrow Wall site in Lambeth. It is likely that this business was a continuation of a previous company run by Richard Halt, a manufacturer of artificial stone, who in 1722 had taken out two patents for a kind of liquid metal or stone and another for making china without the use of clay (Kelly 1990, 31).
Eleanor and Pincot worked together until 1771. Their partnership ended when Eleanor took exception to Pincot representing himself as the sole proprietor of the factory, after which she took full ownership of the company.
Shortly after Pincot's departure, John Bacon (1740-1799) was appointed as the factory supervisor. It was his neo-classical models and high standards of design that raised the Coade profile amongst the architectural elite.
During this period it seems that Eleanor Coade gained experience working with the models and in doing so became a talented sculptor. At the factory she was a considerable influence on the pieces being created, while between 1773 and 1780 she exhibited examples of her work at the Society of Artists (Kelly 2004).
When John Bacon died in 1799, Eleanor formed a partnership with her cousin, John Sealy, who had been working at the factory for some years (Kelly 1990, 46). The firm was renamed Coade & Sealy, under which they traded until Eleanor's death in 1821. She never married and therefore made her cousin, William Croggon, her successor. From 1814 onwards Croggon paid rates for the factory (Roberts & Godfrey 1951, 58-61).
Coade Stone: the process
For the best part of 50 years the Coade factory prided itself on its high standards, providing materials that fitted a wide range of uses and styles. The key to this success was the stone itself. Its recipe - tried and experimented with for years - was gradually perfected.
It was believed in the 19th and early 20th centuries that the formula had been lost with Eleanor at her death in 1821. However, it has been shown that Coade stone continued to be used for at least a decade after her death, most notably at Buckingham Palace (Kelly 1990, 55). Research at the British Museum during the 1990s confirmed this when the recipe was determined for the first time in over a century.
Most modern artificial stone is a form of concrete, where materials are hardened by chemical action without the use of heat. Coade stone was a form of ceramic, which is very different, as the final product involves subjecting the constituent materials to a considerable period in a kiln. With a low shrinkage rate during the firing process and a shiny, vitrified surface, the stone developed at the Coade factory was very strong and weather resistant (Kelly 1990, 56).
There were a number of steps in the production process of a Coade stone feature. First, a model of the proposed piece was built at a scale of 13 inches to the foot in modelling clay. Next, a plaster mould was made from the model and finally, the Coade clay was pressed into the mound and fired.
For very complicated pieces, a number of moulds were made up and the component pieces brought together by a skilled sculptor or ‘repairer'. The joins of the moulds are rarely seen on Coade pieces, as the marks left behind were removed through a process of ‘fettling' and ‘towing' (Kelly 1990, 61).
Once neatened and dried, the stone was fired for four days and nights continuously, under the constant watch of a fireman, who relied on his own judgement in maintaining the correct temperature. The finished article was then ready to be shipped.
The use of Coade Stone in gardens
From 1771 a stream of ornamental features left the Coade workshop, bound for the finest designed landscapes in the country. Fountains, herms and terms, pineapples, orbs, animals and human figures all left the kilns in Lambeth for gardens designed by the most prominent designers of the day, such as ‘Capability' Brown and Humphry Repton.
Among the many figures created by Eleanor Coade and her designers, there were only a small number of males. The finest example, and certainly the most advanced, is the River God at Ham House near Richmond in Surrey. The reclining figure is nine foot long and is placed on a Coade stone rock. The figure itself was fired in one piece and was designed by John Bacon. It was the most expensive piece in the Coade catalogue of 1784, priced at 100 guineas (Kelly 1988, 127).
The Coade workshops also created a host of other forms. Of particular note were the array of vases that were, in the main, created between 1771 and 1827. During her study of Coade stone, Alison Kelly located a number of Medici- and Borghese-style vases, a form revered by Georgian connoisseurs (Kelly 1988, 111).
One pair, which includes Borghese reliefs on a unique body, can be found at Killerton House in Devon. Eleanor Coade also designed a series of animals, such as standing lions and tigers. These proved a particular challenge when firing as the heavy clay bodies were placed on the small legs on the animals.
Despite the difficulties, the result was some of the finest examples of animal sculpture for the period. The sitting lions guarding a flight of steps in the garden at Audley End in Essex are an example of a particular piece that could be altered: purchasers could choose versions facing either left or right (Kelly 1988, 112).
A number of memorials were also produced in Coade stone. One of the most apt examples was found at Croome Court in Worcestershire, where ‘Capability' Brown was commemorated. Built in 1809, almost 30 years after Brown's death in 1783, the monument was made up of a casket and pedestal. The inscription read: ‘To the memory of Lancelot Brown who by the powers of his inimitable genius formed this garden scene out of morass' (Kelly 1988, 115). Unfortunately a falling tree destroyed the memorial in 1972.
It is remarkable that Eleanor Coade, a single woman in the late 18th century, rose to the top of her trade during a period dominated by men. With her strong will and creative mind, she was able to create a fine and elegant product that remained at the pinnacle of British applied arts for 50 years - from the neo-classical through to the romantic period - and that still remains one of the finest examples of artificial stone in the world.
Kelly, Alison, ‘Coade Stone in Georgian Gardens' Garden History, 16.2 (1988),109-133.
Kelly, Alison, Mrs Coade's Stone (Upton-upon-Severn: Self-publishing Association, 1990).
Kelly, Alison, ‘Coade, Eleanor (1733-1821)', rev., Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004) [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/37296, accessed 22 Jan 2009].
Roberts, Sir Howard and Walter H. Godfrey (eds) 'Coade's Artificial Stone Works', Survey of London: volume 23: Lambeth: South Bank and Vauxhall (London, 1951), pp. 58-61. [http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=47044, accessed 22 Jan 2009.