Culture and creativity are mainstream elements of social and economic life all around the world. Innovation emerges during times of difficulty when humans have to become inventive if they wish to keep going forward. It is the key to shaping future prosperity and shared opportunity.
At London in England during the last forty years of the eighteenth century real stone was terribly expensive when the local Building Act of 1774 banned all but the minimum use of wood because of the fire hazard. Stone was the preferred high-status building material, despite being labour intensive, expensive and loaded down by taxes.
An artificial stone both durable and elegant, which was really made from ceramic material, came along just at the right time to be used extensively for creating stunning architectural embellishments for beautiful exteriors and interiors.
This ceramic ‘stone’ developed and refined in the influential Lambeth manufactory founded in 1769, by impressive eighteenth century business woman of influence Eleanor Coade (1733 -1821), became a game changer for the architectural industry.
Author John Fowles (French Lieutenant’s Woman) described her as “that very rare thing, both an artist and a successful early woman industrialist”. He had a unique perspective at the time, living in her former home.
Coadestone was not a first.
Many other products had been put forward for consideration to builders and architects throughout the first half of the eighteenth century, but none successfully survived the elements or passed the aesthetic test.
Malleable enough to allow sculptors to make objects with fine detail, Coadestone became the wonder material of its age.
In fact the finished product was so fine it enabled the style of rich detail previously only associated with Italian and French artists working in stone.
And, it also had the added bonus of only having a small percentage of shrinkage. Its most enduring quality was that it appealed to everyone because its colour meant that it really looked like stone.
London was in the grip of a building boom at the time, with the burgeoning new middle and upper classes, declaring their own good taste and status in society by building and renovating in the fashionable ‘archealogically’ inspired design styles now known as Neo-classical and Regency.
In an industry dominated by men, Eleanor Code’s achievement was more than impressive.
She promoted her products by giving them a ‘Grecian air’, which was highly fashionable among the well to do, in an age of extensive archeological discoveries.
Free from the huge taxes imposed on stone, it was most attractive for the growing number of architects to use. Scottish born London based Robert Adam who led the way.
He placed a great many orders with Mrs Coade on behalf of his clients. Her timing in its production to contribute refashioning the buildings of Britain was spot on.
Eleanor Coade helped met morph Britain into the industrial age. She was the right woman in the right place at the right time, as was Adam the right man. They were both responding to the fusion of the revolutionary trends in industry and political thought with the new neo-classical movement in architecture.
Adam returned to London in 1760 the year George III came to the throne to set up practice after his Grand Tour adventures in Rome and Herculaneum in 1760, bringing back copies of the famed Medici and Borghese vases.
Mrs Coade copied them for him so they would flank the entrance steps of Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire where he worked 1760 – 1768 for Sir Nathaniel Curzon, who had just inherited the estate.
Adam seized the day and the beautiful spirit of antiquity by uniting elegance and utility in all his work.
He was a member with William Shipley, Josiah Wedgwood and the growing membership of the Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, whose Fellows believed creativity of ideas could enrich social progress.
His family also patented a new stucco invented by a Swiss Clergyman Mr Liardet to render and score brick buildings to make them look like they were built with stone.
Being completely impervious to frost or freezing, a necessary attribute in the weather conditions of the time, was the best bonus for Coadestone.
It is no surprise the leading architects in Britain at the time began to use Coadestone once they had heard of its unique properties.
Today their names read like a who’s who list and apart from Robert Adam also include, Sir Charles Barry, Henry Holland, John Nash, Sir William Chambers, Sir John Soane and James Wyatt.
They used it on such buildings as St George’s Chapel, Windsor, Culzean Castle in Ayrshire Scotland, Alnwick Castle in Northumberland, Carlton House for the Prince of Wales, Sir John Soane’s House now a museum at Lincolns Inn Fields, Ickworth House on the Frieze, Castle Howard, the Royal Pavilion at Brighton, Nelson’s Memorial at Burnham Thorpe, the Westminster Bridge Lion, Buckingham Palace, the Bank of England to name a few.
Eleanor also underlined its sheer quality herself by engaging England’s celebrated sculptor of his age John Bacon (1777-1859) and commissioning him to design some very ambitious pieces to showcase all its possibilities.
He produced free standing classical figures and vases he could take moulds from so that they could be used as roof and garden ornaments.
Today Coadestone decorations and sculptures in London and all over Britain have survived the passing of time and harshness of the elements to remain crisp, retaining their sharpness of detail.
Croome Park has a collection scattered throughout its grounds, landscaped by Capability Brown. He liked it so much he had his own tomb made from it.
Coadestone’s original manufacture required special skills: extremely careful control and skill in kiln firing, over a period of days. This skill is even more remarkable when the potential variability of kiln temperatures at that time is considered.
James (Athenian) Stuart (1713-88) an English architect born in London had travelled to Rome in 1741 and then on to Athens in 1751.
Together with Nicholas Revett he would publish Antiquities of Athens in volumes starting in 1762, revealing the full glory of the Greek Style.
Over the period until 1814 it would become the source book for decoration with its excellent illustrations drawn to scale.
Stuart and Revett showcased the achievements of the ancient Greeks for the first time and influenced the Greek revival design style of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
Written under the auspices of the Dilettante Society, a men’s club for the upper classes devoted to “eating, drinking and discussing the arts”, Antiquities of Athens also had a huge impact at home and abroad.
The Dilettante Society promoted expeditions of architects and draughtsmen to survey and draw reconstructions of the almost-lost classical ruins and Eleanor Coade recognising an opportunity, cleverly named her product Lithodipyra; from the Greek for stone fired twice.
Coadestone was fired in a kiln and made from a combination of china clay, sand, crushed glass and crushed and ground previously fired ceramics (known as grog).
The product could be ‘bronzed’ too, producing objects that were much less expensive than a sculpture made of real bronze and it was near impossible for many people to tell the difference.
Mrs Coade’s factory was the only really successful manufacturer.
The formula she used was: 10% grog, 5-10% of crushed flint, 5-10% fine quartz, 10% crushed soda lime glass and 60-70% of Ball clay which came from Dorset and Devon.
Coadestone was also used for interiors, with faux marble carved mantelpieces, niches with sculptures standing inside and candleabra.
Exported abroad it can be found in Philadelphia a mansion built for William Bingham and his family on his arrival from England.
It can also be found on a bank in Boston Massachusets, as well as at Tsarkoe Selo in St Petersburg, where Scottish born architect Charles Cameron was redecorating for Catherine the Great.
English Regency Architect John Soane used it in a number of his buildings, including at Pitshanger Manor, where he used yellow London stock bricks in conjunction with Coade Stone producing a small neo classical villa for his sons.
Garden seats, benches, chimney pots, friezes and column capitals were among the products produced over a forty year period and literally thousands of pieces still exist all over the British isles.
Eleanor Code lived her life on her own terms in a world when women were expected to be subservient to men. She was a ‘dissenter’, who were Christians separated from the Church of England who were encouraged to study, learn and to think for themselves.
They were renowned for basing their opinions on reason rather than slavishly following tradition or authority.
Eleanor Code gave all her energies to her business, hiring staff, keeping the accounts and directing operations. She used her product to embellish her family’s maritime villa Belmont, built nearby the coast in Lyme Regis in Dorset, which was the author John Fowles home until he died in 2005.
Now restored by the Landmark Trust, a charity that rescues important buildings at risk, it is opening again this September and can be leased as a holiday destination.
Although known as Mrs Coade, Eleanor never married. Instead she devoted her life after her father had declared bankruptcy and then later died, to supporting her family.
Later in life Eleanor Coade was known to be benevolent to women in need.
The bequests she left to three married women in her will stated that none of their husband’s were to have access to the funds, despite her actions not being supported in law at the time.
We could say that her ideas were at the forefront of the changing society for women who as ‘suffragette’s later in the 19th century, would radically fight for equal rights with men.
All her life she protected the ‘secret’ of her stone’s success and its recipe went to the grave with her.
Until recently Coadestone remained a phenomenon of the Regency era until its recipe was rediscovered and today a range of Coade sculpture can be found at new workshops in Wilton.
Eleanor Coade was indeed, a woman of considerable influence.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2015