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MATTHEW Boulton probably exaggerated when he said of his Soho factory workforce that he had “a thousand mouths to feed” but it was an exaggeration copied by others.

According to a local directory of 1773, Soho consisted “of four squares, with shops, warehouses for a thousand workmen, who in a great variety of branches excel in their several departments”. An American visiting Soho in 1776 said: “The front of the house is like a stately palace of some Duke. Within it is divided into hundreds of little apartments, all which like bee hives are crowded with the sons of industry.” These sons of industry saw the firm’s turnover rise from £7000 in 1763 to £15,000 in 1766, reaching £30,000 in 1767. Even so, come the costly rebuilding of Soho – started in 1765 at an original estimate of £2000 and spiralling to a final total of £10,000 – Boulton knew that the new buildings were far bigger than necessary and that the creation of the firm’s debt, the Bill Account was from its investment in buildings. In 1771, short of liquid assets, Boulton believed Soho’s fixed assets to be “dead stock” and “monstrously large.”

Josiah Wedgwood described Matthew Boulton in 1767 as “the most complete manufacturer in England in metal” and in this book Nicholas Goodison revisits his earlier fine and scholarly study of the ormolu ornaments produced by Boulton and Fothergill at their Soho Manufactory between 1768 and 1782. From the French term ‘or moulu’, meaning literally ‘ground gold’, gold that is reduced to a powder and mixed with mercury for gilding, in Boulton’s day it came to be used to say “made of gilt brass, bronze or copper” and as a brass, copper or bronze piece which has been gilt by mercurial gilding. In the 1770s Boulton and Fothergill’s reputation for “ornamental pieces in or mulu” stood supreme, their ornaments “admired by the nobility and the gentry, not only of this kingdom but of all Europe… surpass anything of the kind made abroad”.

Exaggeration again, as Soho’s workmanship never surpassed the quality of top French craftsmen but the firm were, for a brief time, the largest producers of ormolu ornaments in the country, and thanks to Boulton’s gifts for publicity and puffery, they were certainly the best known.

Chairman of the National Art Collections Fund, Nicholas Goodison has made extensive use of the surviving archives, correspondence and notes of Boulton’s business, and since the book’s first publication in 1974 has discovered much new and unpublished material. The chapters cover Soho’s ormolu trade and there is a delightful dry comment here about Boulton, who admired Wedgwood’s vases, causing Josiah to say of their visit to Harrache, a London retailer who imported ornaments: “Mr Boulton is picking up vases and is going to make them in bronze.”

Further chapters cover design, “fashion hath much to do in these things”, the complexities of manufacture and Boulton’s remarkable personal interest in production, gilding research, quality of the work and in the workshops’ ability, or rather inability, to complete commissions.

There follows a detailed survey of many ornaments; the candlesticks, candelabra, chimneypiece mounts, clock cases, furniture mounts, girandoles, sconces, tea urns and the rest, and above all the ornamental vases, by far the most numerous and lavish of Boulton and Fothergill’s ormolu ornaments.

Shown to lavish effect are the King’s candle vases at the National Trust’s Saltram House which have escaped the fate of many other elaborate candle vases, that of being wired for electricity.

Of particular interest for collectors, dealers and historians are the sale catalogues of 1771 and 1778, the inventory of 1782 and a short list of numbered ornaments. There is much new photography in this important book which includes the sources of their designs and in many cases information about their original purchasers, thus making attributions to Boulton surer. The chapter on marketing in this huge study is a wonderful read, with shopkeepers described as being the “bane of all improvements”, with classic Boulton and Fothergill reasoning that leaders of fashion would seldom buy an object which had become common currency in the shops. How little has changed.