Centuries ago, alchemists attempted to discover the means to turn lead into gold. They never succeeded, but in the early 18th century the spreading popularity of French-style formal gardens created a booming market for statuary, urns and vases. Lead was the perfect material for these items — it was easily worked and highly durable, and even if not quite rendered into gold, lead certainly became a golden commodity in gardens of the period, and it remains so today.
The use of lead flowered in England during late 17th and 18th centuries, especially in the shops gathered around the Hyde Park area of London, which produced extraordinary statuary and vases for the English nobility. The English adoption of the French garden style, with its emphasis on parterres and terraces, created a need for large quantities of statuary to ornament these newly laid-out gardens. Prior to this time, statuary for the garden had to be sculpted laboriously from stone or marble, a slow and expensive proposition. Casting statuary in lead not only offered the advantages already noted but also meant that the same piece could be repeated quite easily.
Many of the earlier artisans producing these works came from the Continent, particularly the Low Countries, and were either schooled in the sculptural arts or had extensive knowledge of sculpting techniques. Among the most famous of these was Arnold Quellin (1653-1686), who came to England from Antwerp and was a renowned sculptor of his time. His assistant, John Van Nost (1687-1710), later became perhaps the greatest of this period's leadmakers. Interestingly, Quellin died in 1686 and Van Nost subsequently married his widow, thereby acquiring much of Quellin's work.
The increasing popularity among the English gentry at this time for the "Grand Tour" of Europe exposed them to classical statuary and contemporary sculpture evident in Italy and France. It was, therefore, similar statuary they wanted for their new gardens. Van Nost stepped in and supplied them with lead versions of these great works. His many commissions for Melbourne Hall in Derbyshire included representations of Andromeda, Perseus, a grouping of Amorini and perhaps one of the most elaborate lead pieces made, the Vase of Four Seasons, standing eight feet high. John Cheere (1709-1787) was the most prolific of all leadmakers. His brother, Sir Henry Cheere (1703-1781), may have been a pupil of Van Nost but it was the younger Cheere who became more famous for producing lead ornaments. For Bowood House he produced fine figures of Apollo, Venus, Mercury, Flora. He created sphinxes for Blenheim Palace and at Stourhead, depictions of Pomona, Bacchus, Minerva and Venus, among others. One of his greatest works, the splendid River God in the Grotto, is also at Stourhead. And there was so much more elsewhere - Punch, Harlequin, kneeling Blackamoors, Shepherds, Shepherdess Fauns, Father Time and the incredible life size Gamekeeper firing a Gun at Biel House.
Much of the lead statuary made at this time was painted, either to simulate stone or in lifelike colors or even gilded. This is sometimes surprising to modern eyes accustomed to the silvery gray of old patinated lead, but in fact it was common practice. Only later in the century was the natural weathering of lead appreciated for it own qualities. Modern restoration of lead statuary from these times has begun to include painted surfaces again. Painted lead statues can be seen today at Powis Castle and Clifton Hampden near Oxford. John Cheere also recommended that leadwork be rubbed down every so often with linseed "oyle" to retain a dark, polished surface.
Statuary was the highlight of these times but, of course, many smaller items were made as well, and much of the 17th and 18th century lead that has survived to this day includes items such as urns, vases and cisterns.
With the advent of the English landscape movement of the late 18th century and its abolition of formal gardens and parterres in favor of the naturalistic pastoral settings, ornamentation in general was largely abandoned and the demand for lead statuary fell. Many of the great lead ornaments were torn down, melted and turned into bullets for wars. It is curious to think that lead originally incorporated as part of some heroic piece by John Van Nost might be now lying under the sod in Lexington, Massachusetts, or some other Revolutionary War battle site!
Thankfully, statuary and urns came back into fashion toward the end of the 19th century, both in England and the U.S., and once more lead returned as a popular material for garden ornaments. Several foundries were opened in the early 1900s, some of which survive to this day. One of these, H. Crowther, still produces a wide range of lead ornaments. Still other foundries have opened in more recent years, making planters, fountains, animals, cisterns and statuary. As gardening gains in popularity and the joys and benefits of a well-made garden become apparent, lead ornaments — so noble and so durable in the harsher climates — have become ever more sought after.
To the modern American gardener seeking to incorporate lead ornaments in a restoration garden, or for that matter any garden, it might seem confusing to glean direction or guidance from all this information as to what may or may not be appropriate. As we have seen, colonial gardens used ornamentation sparingly. However, it may be argued that lead is the most sympathetic of materials for this period. Used contemporaneously in Europe, it certainly was present in period gardens and would have been used more extensively in the Colonies but for the high cost of transportation and lack of domestic production facilities.
The post-Civil War period, with its development of great American wealth, led to the creation of spectacular gardens. Lead ornaments, once again in favor in England, were of course introduced into these great gardens. Later Victorian and Edwardian gardens also used English lead ornaments. Examples of gardens in the U.S. that have significant displays of lead ornaments are the Ladew garden near Baltimore, Filoli in the Bay Area of San Francisco, Winterthur in Delaware and Old Westbury on Long Island.
Fortunately, today there is a wide selection of lead materials available for the garden enthusiast. Since 1987 New England Garden Ornaments, Inc. has imported lead ornaments from England, including lead animal figures, vases, urns, troughs, fountain heads and sundials, to name a few, many based on historical molds.
As Gertrude Jekyll, that famous English garden designer of earlier years pronounced firmly, "There can scarcely be a doubt that the happiest material for our garden sculpture and ornament is lead."