Matthew Boulton—Manufacturer of “what all the world desires to have”

Janine Skerry, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

Tuesday, May 10, 2011Mini-exhibit: 7:15 pmLecture: 8:00pm
de Young Museum
Two-handled covered cup, Matthew Boulton and John Fothergill

Two-handled covered cup, Matthew Boulton and John Fothergill, Birmingham, England, 1778-1779, sterling silver. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

Pair of candlesticks, Matthew Boulton and John Fothergill

Pair of candlesticks, Matthew Boulton and John Fothergill, Birmingham, England, ca. 1780, fused silverplate (Sheffield plate). Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

Table clock with figure of Titus, Matthew Boulton and John Fothergill

Table clock with figure of Titus, Matthew Boulton and John Fothergill, Birmingham, England, ca. 1775, copper alloys (brass and bronze), gilding, glass, enamel and steel. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

Two-pence and penny coins

Two-pence and penny coins, Soho Mint, 1797, copper. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

Birmingham, England’s Matthew Boulton (1728—1809) was famous in the last quarter of the 18th century, in much the same way that we think of Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg. Like them, Matthew Boulton’s talent for technology showed itself at a young age. Boulton was trained in his father’s craft, making silver trifles or “toys” such as buttons, cane heads and snuff boxes, and, by the age of 17, he had perfected a method of inlaying enameling on buckles that earned great acclaim. It was the first of many innovations to come from this technological wizard and entrepreneur.

Boulton became a partner in the family toy-making business at age 21 and assumed full management prior to his father’s death in 1759. Soon thereafter, Boulton purchased what became the Soho complex: 13 acres with a house and rolling mills, to which he added a three-story factory for the production of a variety of metalwork. In an age when engineers built factory buildings, Matthew Boulton engaged the architect William Wyatt to build his Palladian-façade factory.

It was from this seat at Soho House and the Soho Manufactory that Boulton expanded his partnership with the merchant John Fothergill, which lasted until Fothergill’s death in 1782. Fothergill’s trade contacts in Britain and abroad furthered the spread of Soho’s fame throughout the European continent, as far as Russia, and to the American colonies. Boulton withdrew his initial support for American independence in 1775 because of the potential negative impact on British manufactures. However, much like the Staffordshire potters who featured patriotic American themes on their ceramics after independence — Boulton eagerly resumed trade with the former colonies.

In addition to making silver and steel toys, Matthew Boulton became a leading manufacturer of fused silverplate, popularly known today as Sheffield plate. While Boulton did not invent the technique of silver-plating copper, he mechanized its production to a new level of efficiency and dramatically increased output. He also successfully petitioned Parliament for the establishment of additional silver assay offices in both Birmingham and Sheffield, stimulating the rise of sterling production in the industrial north of England. Boulton’s efforts to obtain a Birmingham assay office, like Josiah Wedgwood’s involvement in developing the Staffordshire canals, helped develop the infrastructure for the British industrial heartland.

Among his many business ventures, Boulton acquired a two-third’s share in inventor James Watt’s patent for a newly improved steam engine. Hundreds of Boulton & Watt steam engines were installed in mines, and then factories, in Britain and abroad. The Soho Manufactory’s metal goods productivity and quality was unprecedented. Their improved steam engines garnered the partnership considerable profits as well as fame in the press.

Boulton also revitalized British coinage by introducing the use of steam power at his Soho Mint to fabricate large quantities of coins and medals in record time. Each of many steam-driven presses struck 70-84 coins per minute. The Soho Mint produced coinage for Britain, the East India Company, Sierra Leone and Russia, and supplied blanks to the Philadelphia Mint of the young United States. Copper “cartwheel” pennies from the Soho Mint also featured innovative impediments to counterfeiting, milling along the edges and slightly concave planchets (disks for stamping).

Another venture, with Ami Argand, produced a new type of lamp that gave brighter light without offensive smoke and smell. American customers for these attractive lamps included George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Boulton’s ventures also included the manufacture of ormolu, the gilded bronze mounts for hard stone and ceramic ornaments, that had previously been the purview of French metal smiths.

Through organizations such as the Society of Antiquaries and the Lunar Society, of which he was a founding member, Matthew Boulton forged associations and friendships with leading thinkers, scientists and inventors of the period. Lunar Society members included inventor and poet Erasmus Darwin and Josiah Wedgwood (both of whom were Charles Darwin’s grandfathers), minister and chemist Joseph Priestley, diarist James Boswell and the seemingly peripatetic printer, postmaster, author, diplomat and scientist Doctor Benjamin Franklin. The Lunar Society functioned as the brain trust for the Industrial Revolution, the “Midlands Enlightenment.”

Boulton’s Lunar Society contacts, of course, had practical benefits. Don Carpentier, the Forum’s February speaker, demonstrated the multi-cam lathe developed by Matthew Boulton to produce engine-turning decoration on Wedgwood ceramics. Boulton metal products also framed Josiah Wedgwood’s jasper ware plaques, cameo brooches and buttons.

Although Boulton attended a Birmingham school until the age of 15, he was largely self-educated in “philosophical” subjects (then meaning scientific experimentation) such as astronomy, meteorology, chemistry, electricity and medicine. The wealth accumulated from industrial pursuits enabled him to develop gentlemanly interests in the fine arts and landscape gardening. His zeal for new undertakings was boundless. When Boulton boasted to James Boswell in 1776 that “I sell here, sir, what all the world desires to have — Power,” he was referring to his partnership with James Watts and their steam engines. Matthew Boulton could just as well have been describing his entire manufacturing career.

Dr. Skerry is a graduate of Yale, Winterthur and Boston University, where her doctoral dissertation was the topic of her August 1999 presentation to the Forum, “ ‘Ancient and Valuable Gifts’: Silver at Harvard College.” She was a museum assistant, then registrar, for the Essex Institute, before interning at the Peabody Museum. (Both Salem, Massachusetts institutions have subsequently combined as the Peabody Essex Museum.) After serving as the acting associate curator of American decorative arts at the Yale University Art Gallery, Dr. Skerry curated at Historic Deerfield.

Dr. Skerry was the curator of ceramics and glass at Colonial Williamsburg from 1993 to 2009 when she switched media to become Williamsburg’s curator of metals. Her curatorial responsibilities for American and English silver, fused silver plate (i.e., “Sheffield”), polished steel, brass and jewelry also include expanding Colonial Williamsburg’s collection of early American silver.

Dr. Skerry has also been a member of the American Ceramic Circle’s board of trustees from 1992 to 2009. She co-authored, with Suzanne Hood, Salt-glazed Stoneware in Early America (2009), the first comprehensive examination of the diverse range of German, English and American stonewares used in America before 1800. Her contributions to The Magazine Antiques are “The Philip H. Hammerslough Collection of American Silver at the Wadsworth Atheneum” (October 1984); “Images of Politics and Religion on Silver Engraved by Joseph Leddel” with Jeanne Sloane (March 1992); and “Setting a Stylish Table” (January 2001).

7:15 pm mini-exhibit

Share your Sheffield, silver and silverplate. Contribute your coinage and medals. Enlighten us with your Argand lamp.


Koret Auditorium, de Young Museum, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. Enter from Level B1 of the parking garage; pedestrians enter from the concourse side of Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive and down the steps across the street from the museum’s main entrance.