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Matthew Boulton

Matthew Boulton’s repertoire of ornament was drawn from books, models borrowed from other makers, plaster casts, other artifacts, architects (particularly William Chambers who was his major influence after 1770), indeed from anywhere and anyone who suited his aims. He set out to rival the French bronziers who had mounted all sorts of china vases with gilt mounts, but rather than use china bodies he preferred to find his raw materials nearer home. In some cases, Matthew Boulton used glass bodies from his friend James Keir’s works at Stourbridge, but in most of his vases, he used stone bodies from Derbyshire. Best known for mounting blue john, a beautifully veined fluorspar, he also used local marbles and sometimes gilt copper.

The range of Matthew Boulton’s products included candle vases, perfume burners, clock cases, watch stands, candlesticks, ewers, girandoles and sconces, furniture and door mounts, tea urns, ice pails, picture frames and several other objects. But the vast majority were candle vases and perfume burners, often combined.

It was with designs such as these that Matthew Boulton and his partner John Fothergill hoped to make money out of the nobility and gentry. Boulton put a huge amount of effort into developing his contacts with potential buyers of his ornaments, and had some considerable success, as both his archives and many surviving ornaments show. But the business was a financial failure, being in Keir’s words ‘too expensive for general demand, and therefore not a proper object of wholesale manufacture’. On the credit side, it greatly enhanced his reputation for manufacturing objects of quality in metal and gave him plenty of contacts among influential people. both of which paid off handsomely when he developed his businesses in steam engines and coinage. It also provided him with many designs and models which he was able to apply to his silver and silver plate business.

Today’s discerning collectors have very much taken to Matthew Boulton’s ormolu
ornaments. They are right to do so, because they are among the most outstanding
examples of English decorative art in the antique taste (the contemporary term for
what later became known as neo-classical taste). It is instructive to see them accompanied by other fine objects made in the same taste, particularly
the superb marquetry roll-top desk and the small cabinet with pietra dura
panels and English ormolu mounts, designed by Robert Adam for George Keate
in 1777 .

Extract from Mallett, The Age of Matthew Boulton, by Sir Nicholas Goodison.

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