Determined to challenge French dominance in the market, in 1768 he and partner John Fothergill (1730-82) created a department for the large-scale production of ormolu at the newly built Soho Manufactory in Birmingham. The workshop, complete with the most advanced metalworking equipment (the partnership spent over £20,000 in building and equipping the premises), was managed by Richard Bentley, chief craftsman at Soho between c.1770-82.
Polished stone vases with mounts satisfying the craze for the ‘antique’ accounted for the majority of the firm’s ormolu production – the most popular made from the purple, blue and yellow fluorspar known as blue john. Such was their appeal that in 1768 Boulton himself attempted to purchase or lease the mines in Castleton, Derbyshire, to secure sufficient stock.
In March 1770 Boulton – whose image toady appears on the back of the £50 note –visited the court and sold several vases to Queen Charlotte while others were offered at sales held by one James Christie in 1771 and 1772.
A number of variations on a ‘Roman’ theme are extant, most with reversible covers allowing the vases to function as either a candle sconce or as a cassolette to hold perfume or incense.
As detailed in Nicholas Goodison’s book Matthew Boulton: Ormolu (2002), vases with leaf-capped loop handles follow the sketch numbered ‘859’ in Volume 1 of the Boulton & Fothergill pattern book preserved in Birmingham City Archives. A stock list at Richard Bentley’s workshop in 1782 listed ‘1 pair vases 859 blue john bodies ready to gild £2 3s 0d’.
When the Canterbury Auction Galleries got back to business this month – conducting a sale behind doors on June 6-7 – the firm offered a pair with an estimate of £15,000-25,0000. Standing either 7½in (19cm) high with the cassolette covers or 8½in (21cm) with the candle sconces, they came from a local consignor who was left them by a relative in the London antiques trade. Saleroom chairman Tony Pratt had received plenty of pre-sale enquiries both before and during lockdown, including several private offers around the top estimate. “They were just such a nice honest pair – really crisp and untouched. I did nothing more than just wash them very gently,” he said.
Bidding came from Ireland, Germany, Netherlands and some of the biggest dealers in the UK but they sold to a Kent collector at £40,000 (plus 20% buyer’s premium).