Eleanor Coade (1733-1821) was an unusual woman for her age. Born into a prosperous merchant family with ties to Cornwall and Devon, as well as London, she was a well-known business woman and entrepreneur who successfully ran her business for nearly fifty years by combining artistic flair with marketing skills.
“Coade Artificial Stone Manufactory” made statues, fountains, urns, garden features, mantelpieces, commemorative and heraldic devices and other interior decorative carvings such as candelabra. Every eminent architect of the time from Robert Adam to Sir John Soane, John Nash, James Wyatt and Samuel Wyatt commissioned her work which can still be found today throughout Britain. She also exported to North America, for example, Philadelphia and Washington (“new Federal building friezes, keystones and chimney pieces”), as well as South America, Russia and Poland.
Mrs Coade was inspired by the classical style but also referenced gothic style, Egyptian works of art, and Chinese heritage. In the UK, her commissions adorn the Royal Naval College at Greenwich, Buckingham Palace, St George’s Chapel at Windsor and Windsor Castle itself. The great lion on Westminster Bridge is made from Coade Stone and you can also find the stoneware surmounting doorways on London streets and porticos at various great country houses.
She was a remarkable woman yet largely unknown to most people today, partly perhaps because her ceramic product so well imitated the stone it represented. She never revealed the complete detail of the constituent parts of her product or her exact firing technique and always remained closely involved in the production side. She was not the first person to create artificial stone – the Romans did as well but her particular secret formula seemed to die with her. The significant attribute of her stone was that it did not shrink when fired which would have been achieved by incorporating preshrunk clay into the mixture. Even today the precise mixture and firing techniques are not exactly known.
Records give an insight into her marketing techniques. She had an impressive showroom, conducted tours and printed what we today would call brochures, quoting classical authors. These “brochures” also listed her clients, one of whom was the first Earl of Carnarvon. He commissioned a number of ornaments in 1793 to surmount the new entrance to his “Capability” Brown Park at Highclere. In fact the splendour of London Lodge is almost entirely due to Mrs Coade.
Geordie and I began the restoration of this building about 5 years ago and it was a fascinating process. It started from dereliction with trees growing out of, and around, the two lodge buildings on either side of the gates. An experienced stonemason from the Midlands, Eric Knight, and his team undertook the project and almost completely rebuilt the arch. The Coade stone by contrast had stood the test of time. We also found a stamped Coade stone and Peter, our architect, gave me a book on Coade stone which is full of detail but still light on knowledge of the lady herself! Gratifyingly our efforts received a Georgian Society commendation and this gatehouse is now rather comfortable and the one building we rent out for visitors and guests to enjoy whenever the Castle is open for tours.
Mrs Coade, a devout Baptist, was a philanthropist and proponent of women’s rights. She never married and after her death left her fortune to family, educational charities and women in difficult circumstances, stipulating that their husbands should have no control over the money. I hope she would approve of our occasional practice of offering London Lodge as an auction prize to favourite charities to help those less well off.