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Two centuries ago, Eleanor Coade (1733-1821) lived in Belmont, a family villa by the coast in Lyme Regis, Dorset. Its façade was adorned by rusticated voussoirs, chunky blocks of weathered stone marching round the ground-floor windows with classical regularity. Except they weren’t stone, and were unlikely to become weather beaten. They were her own moulded ceramic “Coade stone”, as were Belmont’s quoins and urns, stringcourse and frieze, all made to dress her inhabited self-advertisement.

“I think she played down the fact her material was ceramic,” says Philip Thomason, “perhaps because she didn’t want her clients to think of it as artificial as it was so fashionable and matched natural stone so well.” Thomason clearly has a soft spot for Eleanor Coade. And he has revived Coade stone by reformulating it.

Thirty years ago, Thomason was a stone sculptor working for seven summers on Wells Cathedral, recarving countless medieval “stiff-leaf” details. He realised that much of what he was replacing were Victorian restorations that proved much less durable than terracotta and fired clays of that period. After moving to London and seeing how the city’s architectural ceramics had triumphed through the era of coal pollution, he challenged himself to recreate the best fired material. And Georgian Coade stone — which came earlier than the great Victorian builders, of course — was the most legendary.

Coade stone emerged in 1769 with the Coade family’s purchase of an ailing manufactory of artificial stone near the south bank of the Thames. Richard Holt of Lambeth had filed a patent in 1722, in conjunction with Thomas Ripley, for a “compound liquid metal, by which artificial stone and marble is made, by casting the same into moulds.”

There were other makers but Lambeth’s artificial masonry industry became synonymous with Eleanor Coade. In a marketing triumph, she gave her products a Grecian air by naming it “Lithodipyra”: “twice-fired stone”.

After Eleanor’s death the factory was run by her second cousin William Croggon until he died in 1836, but it declined and closed in the 1840s.

By the 1950s what remained of the Lambeth manufactory was swept away to regenerate the South Bank.

Coade stone was now lost from the builder’s lexicon, and many historians thought Eleanor’s recipe irretrievable. But was the mixture consistent? And couldn’t her statuary just be chemically analysed?

“It’s very difficult to identify the components of any material that was transformed in the kiln,” says Thomason. “Ceramics are metamorphic. So, to some extent, you have to deduce the basic mixture from trial and error.”

Eleanor Coade’s Belmont Villa home in Lyme Regis, undergoing restoration

Thomason moved to Cudworth, in Somerset, near the borders of Dorset and Devon. His workshop lay a few miles from Eleanor Coade’s villa at Lyme Regis, which was then home to John Fowles (1926-2005), author of the psychological twister, The Magus. Thomason had his own mystery: deducing Eleanor Coade’s recipe — the Coade code. He reasoned that Dorset was a well-established source of building materials in Georgian London, with available transportation for Portland stone and Purbeck slabs. But she used clay, and the kind nearest to Belmont is Devon ball clay. Experimentation suggested it might make up two-thirds of the mixture. Cornish china clay was also within reach. Add flint, silica from ground soda glass, and an aggregate from local beach sand and grog (crushed pottery). Permutations of that grey, gritty, sparkly material were mixed and fired. They resembled creamy limestone — and through trial and error the proportions were refined to match Coade stone. Laboratory analysis has deemed it an extremely close comparison.

In a notable departure from tradition, Thomason loads his mixture into a contraption that replicates Georgian elbow grease. “I got a 1950s dough mixer from an old Mother’s Pride bread factory,” he says. And once thoroughly kneaded, the mix is pressed into a mould, and prepared for firing.

He has built two kilns, one lined with insulative silicone: even so, firing still costs an eye-watering £500 in gas. It takes a week to raise the temperature in its 200 cubic feet gradually, so that the ceramic expands uniformly, reaching the optimal 1120C for only an hour or two, then cooling gradually. Only when the pieces leave the kiln can their surface be fine-cut by a sculptor.

One of two lions in need of restoration at Gosford House, Edinburgh

Eleanor Coade used the best sculptors of the day for her models, notably John Bacon (1740-1799). The results were magnificent, especially since her kilns used coal, a much less controllable fuel than gas. Thompson is in awe of those Georgian originals, but wonders how much was spoiled in the process. He sees the consequences of minor imperfections after their exposure for two centuries or so, and does much to restore Coade stone statuary.

“It’s extremely gratifying to give work of this magnitude a new lease of life, especially after you have witnessed the 200-year-old finger prints of the person who pressed the soft clay into the mould; it is somehow more intimate than the chisel marks of a stone carver or mason.”

Repairing the two grand Coade lions at Gosford House near Edinburgh was a particular challenge. On a parapet looking out over the Firth of Forth, the pair were in a miserable state.

The lion restored

“Due mainly to the expansion of iron fixings the lions were broken into numerous sections and pieces had gone missing. But the fabric itself had withstood the ravages of the North Sea and still held the fine detail of the original modelling.”

New clay pieces were modelled (oversized to accommodate the shrinkage during firing) to replace missing fragments before Thomason reattached them with giant stainless steel staples. Sometimes, Thomason will experiment with new forms. The Covent Garden fountain next to St Paul’s church was a collaboration with architects Donald Insall Associates. The giant clamshell forming the main body of the fountain was a tough commission, as any clay submitted to firing is extremely fragile and heaviness is a burden.

“It took us three attempts to make the clam shell which weighed just under one tonne.”

His favourite project? That would be Eleanor Coade’s own Belmont, in Lyme Regis. The Landmark Trust has adopted it for holiday rentals and secured restoration funds: among its possible restorers, Thomason best fitted the mould.

The lion of Westminster Bridge

From a zoo in Rio de Janeiro to an 8ft-figure of Lord Nelson in Montreal, Coade stone’s legacy has crossed seas and centuries since its founder’s death in 1821, writes Claudia Knowles. The most celebrated work, however, may be one that stands closest to the factory’s original London site — what we know now as the South Bank Lion. William F Woodington carved the 13-tonne sculpture for the Lion Brewery, a neighbour to the Coade factory, in 1837. The lion became a mascot for the brewery, and admired by novelist Emile Zola during his England exile: “I noticed the mist parting . . . And, in the rent between, I espied a lion, poised mid-air. It amused me vastly.”

Had Zola returned in 1949 he may have been less amused to find that the brewery, long abandoned, had been demolished to make way for the Royal Festival Hall. Thankfully the lion was salvaged, at the request of another of its admirers — King George VI. Restored and clad in the red paint of British Rail, it moved to a plinth at Waterloo station. The Red Lion, as it was known, remained there until the station was extended in 1966. Stripped of its glossy coat to reveal the smooth Coade stone, it was placed on the south end of Westminster Bridge, which it has guarded proudly ever since.

This Coade stone cat was in fact one of two brothers at the brewery — the second has stood guard at Twickenham Stadium since 1979.

Photograph of Eleanor Coade’s home: Stuart Leavy/The Landmark Trust

Slideshow photographs: Alamy; Stuart Leavy/The Landmark Trust; Nick Redman, London Photos

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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