How many times have you crossed Westminster Bridge and gazed up at the large Lion Brewery feline on the southern end of the bridge? Or admired the two Chinese figures above the doorway to Twining’s in the Strand? Both sculptures were the product of a remarkable businesswoman by the name of Eleanor Coade.
She was born in 1733 in Devon, the daughter of an unsuccessful wool merchant. In her thirties she headed for London and began to set up her own drapery business. She added the title ‘Mrs’ as a courtesy as it was highly unusual at the time for an unmarried woman to run their own company. Before long Mrs Coade had gone into partnership with a Daniel Pincot, who ran an artificial stone business in Lambeth but they soon fell out. Undaunted, Eleanor Coade established her own factory at Narrow Wall, the present day site of the Royal Festival Hall.Mrs Coade did not invent artificial stone - that had been around for some time. What she did do, however, was perfect the formula.
She called her product ‘lithodipyra’ (Greek for twice-fired stone), though in fact it wasn’t stone - it was a ceramic, a mix of clay, terracotta, silicates and glass, fired at a very high temperature for four days. The result was an extremely durable material, impervious to rain and pollutants and ideally suited to sculpture. The eighteenth century was a boom time for architecture and design. The neo-classical designs of Robert Adam, William Chambers and Sir John Soane craved ornamentation and Mrs Coade’s factory was much in demand. She used her entrepreneurial skills to the maximum, keeping the recipe a closely guarded secret and only employing the most talented of people.
You can find her work all over the country, from her home in Lyme Regis to stately Ham House in Surrey as well as in the City. On the exterior of Trinity House look out for two medallions containing portraits of George III and Queen Charlotte, the arms of the Corporation, and a frieze containing putti and lighthouses, all designed by Bacon. Though Trinity House was heavily bombed in 1940 these survived intact, a testament to Mrs Coade’s remarkably hardy material. The City’s only 18th century livery hall, Waterman’s, displays Coade stone outside their St Mary at Hill entrance. According to the minutes of 1779, the Company paid ‘Mrs Coate’ (sic) £37 5s 0d for their arms, comprising a boat with crossed oars, supported by two dolphins. Two panels of tritons and a bearded river god in the keystone of the doorway completed the order. A grander design was provided for Skinners’ Hall. Within the pediment sit the arms’ supporters, which look like hounds but are in fact a lynx and a marten, while below is a frieze comprising lions’ heads and lion skins - a nod to the company’s interests.
Though much of their hall is modern, look up at the beehive above the entrance to the Wax Chandlers’ Hall on Gresham Street - a survivor of the previous 1791 hall. And outside Founders’ Hall sits the ornate coat of arms of the Company, made in 1800, subsequently lost in the nineteenth century and returned to the Company in the twenty-first. Inside the Vintners’ Hall you’ll discover two swans and a Bluecoat boy - all Coade. City churches are graced with Coade stone as well. On the south aisle of St Sepulchre there’s a memorial to John Yates, who died in 1807, embellished with a classical urn and weeping figure, and another one in St Michael Cornhill. For a grander funerary monument, however, hunt out the tomb of William Bligh of Mutiny on the Bounty fame at St-Mary-at-Lambeth. You can also see a Bluecoat schoolboy and girl in the niches of the hall by St Botolph, Bishopsgate.
Eleanor Coade died a spinster aged 88 in 1821 and was buried in an unmarked grave in Bunhill Fields. On her death the business struggled to survive and eventually closed in 1840. With that, the secret of her formula was lost until the 1990s, when researchers managed to rediscover her ingenious composition. Thanks to this, conservators at the National Trust and English Heritage have replaced lost sculptures with new Coade stone.