J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, November 18, 2021

A King of Bath Stone and Coade Stone

Here’s a news story from London that caught my eye a couple of days ago and made me go digging for more detail.

This statue representing Alfred the Great stands outside Trinity Square Church in the borough of Southwark. At one point people thought that it or part of it was a medieval sculpture salvaged from an old church.

That would put Alfred among the contenders for the oldest outdoor statue in the British capital. Considering London’s smog problem in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it must have weathered a lot.

Recently a team of conservators led by Dr. Kevin Hayward and Prof. Martin Henig studied the statue and announced that it is both younger and much older than people thought.

That team concluded that the lower part of the statue was originally carved from Bath stone to make a sculpture of the Roman goddess Minerva. Its style is typical of the early second century, around the time of the emperor Hadrian. When complete, that statue was about ten feet tall.

The upper part of the statue, including the chest, arms, head, and cloak that hangs down around the legs, wasn’t carved at all. It was molded in Coade stone, a mix of clay, terracotta, silicates, and glass fired in a very hot kiln for four days.

That process shrinks what the sculptors molded from that clay mixture, so making the top part of Alfred fit so well on the ancient stone bottom required expert calculations and manufacture.

Here’s where the eighteenth century fits in. The inventor of Coade stone was Eleanor Coade (1733-1821), a London businesswoman. Her father was a Baptist wool merchant in Exeter. Perhaps more importantly, her maternal grandmother, the widow Sarah Enchmarch, ran a very successful textile business from 1735 to 1760. After Eleanor’s father went bankrupt, the Coade family moved to London, and she set up her own business selling linen.

In 1769, Eleanor Coade bought Daniel Pincot’s artificial stone factory in Lambeth, keeping him as the manager. Two years later Coade found Pincot “representing himself as the chief proprietor,” so she fired him and promoted a sculptor named John Bacon to supervise the works.

Coade appears to have improved the formula for artificial stone. And she kept that formula secret; Coade stone wasn’t replicated until the 1990s. She also improved the line of products the company offered, exhibiting sculpture and ornamental goods at the Society of Artists in the 1770s. Among the designers Coade worked with was Benjamin West.

The Coade Artificial Stone Manufactory’s statuary and molded ornaments proved to be long-lasting. It offered designs to fit with the fashionable neoclassical style of architecture. In 1780 Coade landed a royal commission from George III to decorate a chapel at Windsor Castle, so she could boast a royal endorsement as well.

After Bacon’s death in 1799, Coade took on male cousins as her junior partners. She never married. In her will she left bequests to several female friends, stipulating that money would be their property independent of their husbands.

It’s not clear when the King Alfred statue was produced; the earliest record of its presence at the church is from 1831, so the Coade company might have produced it after Eleanor Coade’s death. There’s a Roman archeological site nearby, so one possibility is that the Georgian-period sculptors found the Minerva lower body, assumed it was from a medieval church, and produced the quasi-medieval statue of King Alfred to make the body whole again.

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