As intrepid women go, Eleanor Coade (1733-1821) left very little of herself behind for posterity. There are no grand portraits, no insightful journals or letters, no grainy newsreel footage. There is, in fact, almost nothing known of her personal life. But as an entrepreneur and businesswoman, Mrs. Coade left her mark all over Georgian Britain with an exuberant grandeur that remains today.
Born into a merchant family in Lyme, Eleanor Coade moved to London with her family in 1760, soon she was running her first business as a linen draper. She never married; the "Mrs." is an honorific of respect, used for business purposes. In 1769, she brought a failing manufactory of artificial stone in Lambeth. She set to work perfecting her own formula for a ceramic-based artificial stone that had the strength and integrity to outlast real stone, combined with an ability to be molded in endless ways to replicated carved marble. Although she called her creation Lithodipyra (twice-fired stone), it was more commonly known as Coadestone, and every piece was stamped on the base or back with her name. Within two years, she had not only made the manufactory profitable, but had also drawn the attention of every prominent architect working in London at the time.
She hired the best sculptors to make her moulds and kept her standards high. Soon Coadestone sculptures and architectural elements were appearing everywhere from Buckingham Palace to the Brighton Pavilion, and even in Russia. Her work was produced by royal appointment to both George III and the Prince Regent, and was used by renowned architects like Sir John Soane, Robert Adam, and Thomas Nash.
But Mrs. Coade didn't rely entirely on royalty and the aristocracy for her business. A savvy businesswoman, she realized that the increasingly prosperous middle class wished to improve their houses, too. Soon Coadestone porches, statues, and other elements in the best classically-inspired taste were being added to plain-fronted brick houses all over London. Keystones to place over doors or windows were particularly popular choices from the Coade catalogues. This Smiling Philosopher keystone, lower left, now decorates a house in Manchester Street.
The masculine, muscular term (an architectural support in human form), upper left, is from Schomberg House in Pall Mall, and is part of the porch, right, that was added to a plain-fronted 1690s house. (Click on the images to enlarge for more detail.) The terms must have been among Mrs. Coade's favorites (who can argue?), because they also appeared on the entrance to her own display gallery, opened in 1799.
Mrs. Coade continued to oversee the manufactory until her death in 1821, aged 88. Her success merited an obituary in The Gentleman's Magazine - a rare honor for an 18th c. woman - which praised her as "the sole inventor and proprietor of an art which deserves considerable notice." Family members attempted to keep the business going, but by 1840, it had closed. By the 1950s, the last remnants of the once-thriving site along the Thames were obliterated, and even Mrs. Coade's grave in Bunhill Fields Cemetery was destroyed by the Blitz.
All that remains is Belmont, her house in Lyme Regis. Overlooking the water and splendidly enhanced with examples of her own products, the house later became the much-loved home of 20th c writer John Fowles. It was his wish that Belmont be restored and preserved to inspire future generations. Now owned by The Landmark Turst, the house is in the early stages of renovation; click here for a wonderful video showing the house's history and more examples of Coade stone, plus information about the campaign to preserve Belmont.
Many thanks to Caroline Stanford, who suppled these photographs as well as much of the information for this post.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.