On the south side of Westminster bridge stands a large stone lion, or so it seems, but it is not made of stone at all, but of Coade’s artificial stone. The process for the material was invented in the 1720s by Richard Holt who took out a patent in 1722. The exact composition of the material is not known, but the ingredients were finely ground, poured into a mould and then fired in a furnace, producing a very durable stone-like product. In 1730, Holt wrote a booklet, A short treatise of artificial stone, as ’tis now made, and converted into all manner of curious embellishments and proper ornaments of architecture in which he alleges that the stone made according to his “secret composition” “is more strong and durable than the best natural stone” and “will last forever”. It can be made into all sorts of objects: tomb-stones, statues, pipes, sun-dials, vases, etc. The goods are to be seen at Holt’s Artificial-Stone-Ware-House, over-against York-Buildings-Stairs in the Strand, near Cuper’s Bridge, Lambeth. And although the goods are produced in a white colour, if the customer so wishes, they could be painted into all possible colours.
So much for Holt, because the story of the artificial stone is taken up after the lapse of Holt’s patent by Mrs. Eleanor Coade from Lyme Regis. She set herself up as a linen draper in 1766, but by 1770 she and her daughter, also called Eleanor, had taken over the artificial stone factory of one Daniel Pincot at the King’s Arms Stairs, Narrow Wall, Lambeth, opposite Whitehall Stairs. They improved Holt’s recipe by adding ground quartz or glass and although Holt’s claim that the material would last forever may not be quite accurate, it is true that everything the climate can throw at it in the guise of rain, hail, thunder, sunshine or frost has very little impact on it and quite a lot of items from Coade’s factory still exist in pretty good order. I will just give one example: the caryatids at St. Pancras Church, Euston Road.(1) They were designed by J.C.F. Rossi and consist of sections fitted over a steel column which carries the weight of the roof above. Unfortunately, when they came to put the caryatids in place, they found them too tall and a section had to be cut from their waists.(2)
The Coade business flourished and artificial stone became quite the fashion, not just in England, but also in America and continental Europe. The Coades took in a partner, nephew John Sealy, and published a catalogue in 1784, listing more than 700 items. After the death of Mrs Coade sr. in 1796, Eleanor jr expanded the business with an exhibition gallery on what became known as Coade’s Row at the corner of Pedlar’s Acre and Bridge Road. They produced a separate catalogue for the gallery in 1799, Coade’s gallery, or, exhibition in artificial stone. In 1802, they even managed to get their factory mentioned in the European Magazine (vol. 41). The engraving for the frontispiece to the magazine shows the entrance to the gallery as designed by John Bacon, one of the artists employed by the Coades. Other artists’ names that have come down to us are John Bacon, John Flaxman, Benjamin West, John Charles Felix Rossi, and James Wyatt.
After Sealy’s death in 1813, Eleanor took William Croggon, a cousin, into the business as manager and proposed successor. Croggan indeed continued the business after Eleanor’s death in 1821, and was in turn succeeded by his son Thomas John Croggon, but the latter gave up the factory in 1837. One of the last items made by the Coade Works must have been the lion for the Lion Brewery. The plaque on the plinth says that it graced the brewery compound since 1837, although it does not say it was made in 1837, but where else do you store a large lion than on top of your brewery?
When the area was redeveloped after WWII for the Royal Festival Hall, the lion was temporarily placed at the entrance of Waterloo Station, by that time painted bright red.(3) The London correspondent for the Manchester Guardian relates on 9 Feb. 1949 that
Down by the river’s edge, where a fine promenade is to stretch by 1951, the Lion Brewery still stands, though not at all steadily; small bits of it rain on your head if you stand on the ground floor. The celebrated red lion on the top of it, seven tons in weight and 111 years of age, was to be lowered through the wrecked building this morning and borne off in a lorry to the place near the County Hall where it is to be stored against the reappearance, at the Festival of Britain. This task proved tricky, to say the least (for the building looks as though it might crumble at any moment), and the lion in its cradle did not complete its journey to the ground today.
When the lion was moved to its present location in 1966 and returned to its original colour, the items found in a small cavity discovered in 1949, a Coade trade card and some George IV coins, were supplemented with The Times for 17 March 1966.
(1) See Alison Kelly, Mrs Coade’s Stone (1990) for a comprehensive listing of extant Coade stone pieces. See also the post on Jane Austen’s London: ‘De-coding Coade stone’.
(2) Information made available in St. Pancras church.
(3) For a photo of the lion’s removal see here