From my regular series of Design Icons written for ABC RN Blueprint. You can find others on my main page and also on the Blueprint and Podcasts pages.
Coadestone was broadcast on the 19th March 2022. You can listen to the audio here.
Eleanor Coade was a woman ahead of her time. Not only did she run an extremely successful business in 18th century London but she helped develop an outstanding artificial stone known as Coadestone. It wasn’t the first but it was the best.
Eleanor started life working in her family’s textile business in Devon. When her father was declared bankrupt, she moved to London and set up a linen company. It was there that she came across an artificial stone business in Lambeth and saw an opportunity. From 1769 until after her death in 1821 her business employed sculptors and craftsmen, creating copies of famous works as well as new designs, all in artificial stone. This was to her own recipe, combining clay with powdered glass, flint and crushed pottery, and then firing it at high temperatures over a long period so that the end result was remarkably strong and looked like the finest pale stone. It was even better, though, as it shrugged off the grime of the industrial city and retained its sharpness when real stone had begun to erode. She liked to call it ‘lithodipyra’, a Greek word that meant twice-fired stone, thereby eliminating any notion of fakery and cheapness, although it was most definitely a ceramic, a little like vitrified brick.
The beautifully proportioned architecture of the Georgian period is often seen as one of the most refined. Embellishments were popular, from decorative urns and ornamental medallions to statues and fountains. Eleanor employed the sculptor Joseph Panzetta, whose finest work in Coadestone is a richly detailed commemoration of Admiral Nelson’s death at the battle of Trafalgar in 1805, where his body is passed to Britannia by the winged figure of Victory. It was copied from a painting by Benjamin West and fills a pediment at the Royal Naval College in Greenwich. Such sculptures became especially popular after Lord Elgin stripped the Parthenon in Athens of all its sculptures, causing a sensation in Britain and kick-starting a new fashion for classicism in all its forms.
Lions were popular, used at the base of columns or atop grand gateways, and the one that sits today on Westminster Bridge used to grace the entrance to the Lion Brewery that once stood nearby. This was the perfect material for fine work and Coade lavishly employed it on her own home, Belmont, in Lyme Regis, which she embellished with a frieze of garlands, a row of classical urns along the parapet and rusticated window surrounds that were totally up-to-the-minute. Work from her workshop found its way around the world, from a Nelson statue in Montreal to a Classical portico for a palace in Rio de Janeiro.
Eleanor’s success made her an inspirational figure. When she died, she left money to married friends with the decree that their husbands must not be able to influence how it was spent. While her business continued after her death, new materials like Portland cement made terracotta and concrete mixes cheaper to produce and the Coadestone workshop closed in 1833. Artificial stone remains popular, as seen in the engineered stone benchtops of today’s kitchens. There are cheap versions, too, like architectural mouldings made from polystyrene given a gritty finish and which seldom last when used outside. There’s snobbery around fakery, no doubt, but in certain instances it makes sense. And Eleanor Coade demonstrated that to perfection.