Eleanor Coade was born into a wool merchant’s family in Exeter, where she remained until the family moved to London in the 1760s. Eleanor became a prosperous linen draper but when her father died a bankrupt in 1769, she changed direction. Aged 36 and still single, she bought Daniel Pincot’s struggling artificial stone business. The factory, which produced decorative architectural features and statues, was in Lambeth (approximately where the Festival Hall stands today). She developed and expanded the business, initially employing Pincot as her manager - probably needing to learn from his experience and build on his contacts. However, Pincot behaved more like a partner than an employee, representing himself as the chief proprietor, so she fired him in 1771. Rather more successful was her employment of the talented sculptor John Bacon, to supervise her factory and design for the company, which he continued to do until his death in 1799. In that same year, at the age of 66 she finally took on a partner, her cousin John Sealy, to help run the business, which until his death in 1813 came to be known as Coade and Sealey. Yet age had not dulled her enthuisiasm for new ideas since she also opened a show room in Westminster Bridge Road, where a wide array of artificial stone ornaments produced by her manufactory could be viewed. She herself had taken over residence of the imposing Belmont House, in Lyme Regis from her uncle in 1784, which she had decorated with Coade Stone. After Sealey’s death the company reverted to its old name of Coade’s and Eleanor appointed William Croggon as manager, under whom the firm continued to flourish, even after her death in November 1821.
It is debateable whether Eleanor actually invented (although she was widely believed to have done so at the time) or merely improved the Coade Stone that bore her name. This ceramic material was made from a special recipe mixed with West Country clay then fired at extremely high temperatures. Coade herself named it lithodipyra (literally translated as stone/twice/fire) and it proved to be both easy to mould and extremely weather resistant. The moulds could be kept for many years and the finished designs stayed perfectly sharp even in the harsh London environment. Indeed, many of her designs survive unchanged today. Contemporaries waxed lyrical about its ability to withstand frost and water and the fact that it cost less than real stone and most wood. Hence Coade stone proved very attractive to designers and builders who were flourishing during the building boom of the period. Mrs (an honorary title often adopted by businesswomen) Coade also produced a less expensive alternative to importing costly foreign statuary, at a time when demand for neo-classical decoration was high.
Her business talents were evident in the very high standards of manufacturing that she insisted on. She supervised the preparation of clays and closely controlled the use of her kilns to ensure the continued durability for which her stone became famous. Her techniques had an impact on both the economics and practice of classical architecture. Previously architects had to pay a sculptor to travel to the site and carve each feature individually, which was both time consuming and expensive. Now they could pay for just one model of each feature – whether of an Ionic Capital or decorative border mouldings - and have multiple copies of it made by Coade in London, which were then sent to the site. After a special design had been made in Coade stone it was often available for others to order and use on different buildings. A catalogue from 1784 listing the firm’s products, details 746 separate designs: these range from statues and busts, to whole panels and friezes and fascia, medallions, paterae, coats of arms, balusters, pinnacles, stone chimneypieces, ‘furniture’ and interior ornaments and mouldings. One historian has claimed that ‘Mrs Coade’s revolution’ resulted in a proliferation of this kind of decoration and encouraged architects to add ornaments as cosmetic additions to buildings, rather than as integral to the original design. Coade stone from her manufactory was used to decorate ‘royal palaces, landed estates, city terraces, Government buildings and churches from Scotland to Brazil, from the United States to the palaces of Catherine the great of Russia’. It remained in high demand until the 1840s, long after Mrs Coade’s death, when it was replaced by Portland cement.
Eleanor Coade was by no means the first person to set up in manufacturing artificial stone, but she was the first and only one to succeed in doing so. This was at least partly because, in addition to her managerial skills, the entrepreneurial Eleanor Coade had a talent for marketing and public relations. She had spotted an opportunity for selling culture as commodity and invested wisely in a product that was bound to be in high demand, but she still needed to market it successfully. She used both printed and visual methods to promote her manufactory. Her trade cards (see Figs 2 & 3) would have been widely circulated and used as bills for clients. She exhibited her designs at the Society of Artists in the 1770s - as ‘Mrs Eleanor Coade Sculptor’ even though some if not all were probably created by Bacon – which visibly demonstrated the ‘artistic’ nature of her products. When the French Wars threatened the British economy she made use of public demand for ‘exhibitions’ to bolster her profile - by opening her own Manufactory’s showroom, Coade’s Gallery, in 1799. She printed a catalogue and carefully laid out the sculptures and architectural exhibits in such a way as to create the first ‘permanent, commercial public space where craft items were elevated to artistic status.’ She also cultivated enduring and highly productive relationships with some of the most respected architects and designers of the time, including Robert Adam, James Wyatt, Hunphrey Repton, John Nash and Sir John Soane. In fact the list of architects using her stoneware encompassed almost every recognised name in the business at that time. In building up such a list of supporters, who brought their wealthy clients with them, she had bested some of her more famous contemporaries, such as Josiah Wedgewood, who had complained bitterly that he could not get architects to endorse his new chimneypiece plaques. Coade’s success was crowned by gaining the royal appointment to both George III and the Prince Regent – her manufactory produced stoneware for St George’s Chapel, Windsor; The Royal Pavillion, Brighton; Carlton House and the Royal Naval College, Greenwich. In the eighteenth-century business world, reputation and the possession of a long list of wealthy, titled clients was an even more significant marker of success than profit alone.
Eleanor’s success earned her a substantial obituary in the fashionable Gentleman’s Magazine after her death in 1821 aged 88. The Magazine declared her ‘the sole inventor and proprietor of an art which deserves considerable notice’ and went on to extol the virtues of Coade Stone at some length. There was no mention of Eleanor’s private life or character however, which remains almost completely hidden. Her will, and contemporary comments on it, suggest only that she was a deeply religious woman and devout Baptist, who left much of her fortune to charity schools and clergymen as well as her family. There is certainly little to suggest that she flaunted her wealth or her success, but apart from her religion her business seems to have been her most passionate interest in life.