Many months ago I posted several pieces tracing the story of Eleanor Coade and her artificial stone, which ornamented elite buildings and gardens in the later 18thc. A later post looked at the work of Mark Blanchard and John Blashfield two of her successor companies, and today is a look at yet another: Felix Austin, who was much admired by John Claudius Loudon.
As is so often the case very little is accurately known about Austin or his story, but what is clear is that after an independent start he went into partnership with John Seeley and their company, Austin & Seeley, became one of the leaders in the field of architectural and garden ornaments by the mid-19th century supplying every one from the middle classes to Queen Victoria herself.
A Biographical Dictionary of Sculptors in Britain says Austin’s business starts in 1828 by buying the moulds and stock of one of Eleanor Coade’s minor competitors. This was Van Spangen, Powell and Company who seems to have owned a factory at Bow in the east end of London, manufacturing architectural pieces such as like keystones, quoins and moulded panels, as well a tombstones, and statues in artificial stone. They probably used a new form of cement [Parker’s Roman] rather than a complicated formula like Coade, but are said to have gone bankrupt in 1828. [The Builder 25th July 1868]
In fact Austin was in business as an “Artificial Stone Ornament Manufacturer” by 1826 at the latest, and had held a sale of a large quantity of stock, as well as the leasehold of some premises in Albany Street Regents Park in June 1827. But he was more than a maker of garden ornaments. According to Ray Desmond’s Dictionary of British Botanists and Horticulturist he was originally a nurseryman, whilst trade directories describe him as an architect, statuary mason and sculptor.
He lived at 1-3 Keppel Row, New Road, Fitzroy Square from 1830 and had premises further down the street on what is now Euston Road, near Regents Park. Keppel Row was a short terrace and evidently an “industrial” area on the edge of the metropolis. [His neighbours on the Row were, according to Robson’s street directory 1832, a stonemason, a malleable zinc works and Jonathan Saunders another maker of artificial stone items .
His early range included garden and architectural ornament such as chimney pots, and was approved of by John Claudius Loudon and featured in two of his journals The Garden Magazine and The Architectural Magazine and Journal. Loudon described Austin’s “extensive and most interesting establishment [which] has occupied the whole of Mr Austin’s time, and we believe we might add, his money for many years and it richly deserves to be visited by all architects and architectural amateurs”.
At the same time Austin is also known to have worked with marble, and is recorded in A Biographical Dictionary of Sculptors in Britain as making six funerary monuments.
He was clearly held in high regard and worked with leading architects. In 1834 he made a set of a set of five garden vases for Holkham Hall in Norfolk to designs by Sir Francis Chantrey, as well as vases and pedestals for buildings designed by Sydney Smirke. John Papworth worked with him on designing a series of large fountains, and he is known to have made a considerable number of ornaments for gardens designed by such as Charles Barry and William Nesfield.
What was the secret of his success?
Austin used a new formula to make his pieces. Unlike Coade and her successors whose artificial stone was clay-based and fired, his was cold-cast and incorporated cement into the mix, and not any old cement but “Portland cement” because mortar made from it resembled “the best Portland stone” when it set. It also incorporated broken stone, pounded marble and coarse sand making it more like concrete, and giving it a more textured surface than its rivals. [For more on its composition click here]
Austin’s was the first recorded use of a cement-based material for the manufacture of artificial stone. His first surviving catalogue dates from 1835 with a later edition describing the material as being “of a light tint” which ‘ requires no painting or colouring, will not sustain injury from the severest winter, and, being impervious to wet, is particularly applicable to all kinds of water works. Its superiority is now so thoroughly established, that the most eminent architects and scientific gentlemen have expressed, in their highest terms, their approbation of its durability, and close resemblance to the real stone.”
Around 1840 Austin was joined in business by John Seeley, who had trained at the Royal Academy Schools and sculpted funeral monuments, as well as making an artificial stone, which he called ‘ artificial limestone’.
In 1841 they published their first joint catalogue, Pleasure Grounds etc. from Austin’s address in New Road which included a collection of designs from garden vases, tazzas and fountains to statuary, church fonts and porticos. Loudon recommended people to go and see “the splendid assemblage of sculptural works.”
They also took over a cement factory, at 24 Church Street, Rotherhithe, although there is a note in the London Gazette that a partnership between the two, as owners of the works, was dissolved in 1842.
Thereafter there are adverts from Austin alone offering stone coloured cement for sale from his factory, although this split doesn’t seem to have affected the rest of the artificial stone business.
The company also went into the export trade, publishing The Specimen Book of Austin and Seeley’s Artificial Stone Manufactory in 1841 in both English and French, with prices in francs.
In 1843, the company advertised in The Builder that their present stock consisted of: “capitals and fluted columns; trusses, brackets, and medallions; the Royal Arms and Prince of Wales Feathers; centre ornaments for entablatures and bas-relievos; balustrading and coping…; rustic and rough stone facing, and pier ornaments, such as pine-apples, &c; Gothic work in great variety including fonts, communion tables, and screens; tazzas and vases, to the extent of nearly one hundred models; flower boxes, and garden-border edging; fountains; monumental urns; figures-statues from the antique as well as some chaste subjects of modern design, animals, birds, &c; chimneys and chimney-pots.”
I was therefore somewhat surprised to find a notice dated January 1845 saying that the partnership between Austin and Seeley had been dissolved, [Globe 29th January 1845] and that was there a large sale of stock that summer. However the business still traded as Austin and Seeley so I suspect, the partnership ended because Austin wanted to retire – he was to die in 1850 – and Seeley wanted to buy him out. Certainly in the 1850s Seeley advertises as being based at 1-4 Keppel Row, and always refers in the most respectful terms to Austin, and then “the late Mr Austin”.
The company’s wares varied in colour from a dull grey-white to a light brown yellow. They altered the mix in 1843 to improve the colour and counter discolouration from London’s atmosphere. They are often indistinguishable from natural stone once weathered and although lacking the fine detailing of Coade or rival Blashfield’s clay-based designs, when their products can be identified either by the maker’s impressed mark [which for some reason was rarely used] or by documentary evidence surviving pieces they have been described as ‘remarkably crisp’ and ‘almost unaffected by exposure to the weather’.
Austin and Seeley quickly became one of the country’s largest manufacturers, producing garden ornaments in a wide range of styles, so that as early as 1841 Loudon could comment “there was scarcely a flower-garden in any part of England that does not boast of a vase, a fountain, a sundial or a statue from his manufactory. The establishment has been greatly enlarged in consequence of the widely spreading demand not only ornaments to gardens and pleasure grounds, but for finishings to buildings.” (Gardener’s Magazine 1841.
They were certainly well known enough to be mentioned in a comic story about the auctioning of a newly discovered bust of Homer, supposedly excavated from the ruins of Pompeii – as someone asks the auctioneer to “explain the meaning of the motto Austin and Seeley on the shoulder.” [Lancaster Gazette 1st Jan 1842].
Sites where their work can be found include the Swiss Garden near Biggleswade in Bedfordshire which was laid out around 1830. The Dolphin fountain there was probably designed for the company by the architect Charles Barry. Although many ornaments have been replaced, there are still some surviving Austin pieces there. A recent Heritage Lottery Fund grant included a conservation analysis of some of these which yielded information on Austin’s materials and manufacturing process, and provided an insight into the early use of artificial stone and an understanding of its decay.
There are Austin and Seeley sphinxes, finials and a dog at Blickling in Norfolk, several statues at Hampton Court, a fountain at Wilton, and a collection of urns at the orangery of West Park, and more urns at Kingston Lacey in Dorset, this time filled with stone fruit, and apparently [although I have not been able to find images or further evidence] other pieces can be found at …Castle Ashby in Northamptonshire, Wimpole Hall in Cambridgeshire, Highnam Court and Badminton in Gloucestershire, Margam Orangery in Wales and Alton Towers in Staffordshire, although perhaps their most famous commission was to supply ornaments for the grounds of Osborne House on the Isle of Wight from c1844 for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.
The firm also exhibited a remarkable fountain designed by John Papworth standing over twenty feet tall at the 1851 Great Exhibition.
Austin and Seeley were amongst the contractors for the new RHS gardens at Kensington, alongside their rivals Blanchard, and Mintons, and also someone else I’ve blogged about John Weeks.[Morning Post – 5th June 1861]
They developed an export trade too, although its difficult to know how extensive this was because most of their work is not stamped with a maker’s mark. However some pieces definitely reached Australia.
Austin died in 1850 but Seeley continued alone, advertising an increasing range of items all through the 1850s including over 200 designs for fountains at prices ranging from £10 to £400 and “an immense collections of vases and figures”, and often citing Austin’s invention of the artificial stone compound in 1826.
It looks as if Seeley died in 1870 because adverts appear in early 1871 selling off stock from “the late firm of Austin and Seeley …which had stood through the present winter.” Whatever remained was eventually auctioned off, without reserve in 1877.
Sanders and Co bought up the moulds and claimed they “can execute work in every kind of garden ornament” but they do not seem to have lasted very long.
Nowadays Austin and Seeley’s work is very collectible but having weathered well, is virtually indistinguishable from natural stone. As a result, and because of the lack of makers marks there must be many more pieces unrecognized and just waiting to be identified in historic parks and gardens all over the country.
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