Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2249:
MRS. COADE'S STONE

John Lienhard presents guest Margaret Culbertson

Today, architectural historian Margaret Culbertson tells about a woman who made artificial stone. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Eleanor Coade's name spread far beyond her London home in the late 18th century. It was stamped on the bases of thousands of statues, architectural pieces, and tomb sculptures. The royal family, famous architects, and middle-class gardeners all bought her work. But little is known about her early life or the invention of what became known as Coade Stone.

Eleanor was born in 1733 in Exeter, England. She probably helped with her family's wool business, and she ran her own linen and drapery business after the family moved to London in 1759. She developed a powerful will to succeed after her father's businesses twice ended in bankruptcies. Although she never married, she became known as Mrs. Coade -- society's way of acknowledging her position in business.

Eleanor's switch from linen to artificial stone occurred soon after her father's death in 1769. She may have met a man named David Pincot through her religion -- both were Dissenters from the Church of England. He had been producing an artificial stone for two years when Eleanor joined the firm. She probably helped improve his recipe for the stone, as well as providing business experience and capital. The product and commissions improved, but Pincot failed to acknowledge Eleanor's role or her name. In 1771, Eleanor took over and published announcements of Pincot's departure. She hired other artists and managers, but didn't take on a partner until, almost thirty years later, when she was in her sixties.

Coade Stone was made from clay and fired in a kiln, like terra cotta. It differed in the extra ingredients and higher firing temperatures. The mixture was pressed into molds before firing, and the result looked like sculpted stone. But it lasted much longer.

When Eleanor began her business, neoclassical ornament was the rage, due in large part to architect Robert Adam's work. Coade stone was the perfect medium for the delicate column capitals, decorative plaques, and statues that his work popularized. Adam himself began to use it. So did almost all the other major architects of the day. Eleanor sculpted some of the molds, but she also hired the best artists. Coade stone statues adorned the first royal pavilion at Brighton and the grand monument to Lord Nelson at Greenwich. A massive lion that once stood atop the Lion Brewery now greets London visitors at the south end of Westminster Bridge. Closer to my home, a life-sized Greek maiden graces the gardens of Rienzi. That's the center for European decorative arts at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

The factory continued for twelve years after Eleanor's death in 1821, but cheaper concrete and terra cotta eventually prevailed. The strength and beauty of Coade Stone guarantee that Eleanor's name will not be forgotten. But her stone might be better known if she hadn't been so successful. It's so often mistaken today, for the real thing.

I'm Margaret Culbertson from the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, where we too are interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


A. Kelly, Mrs. Coade's Stone. (Upton-upon-Severn: Self Publishing Associa-tion, c1990).

H. van Lemmen, Coade Stone. (Princes Risborough: Shire, 2006).

My thanks to Christine Gervais, Assistant Curator, Rienzi, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, for her assistance with sources and advice for this episode.

Margaret Culbertson is Director of the Hirsch Library, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and author of Texas Houses Built by the Book.

Upper image below: Figure known as Lady Gandes. 1794. Coade's Artificial Stone Manufactory. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; The Rienzi Collection. (Photo by John Everett). Lower image: Father Thames rendered in Coade Stone (courtesy of Wikipedia)

Coade Stone statue in the MFAH Rienzi Gardens

Father Thames, rendered in Coade Stone

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2006 by John H. Lienhard.