Matthew Boulton is known in the antiques field as a premier maker of fine Neoclassical silver,
particularly excelling in 'Old Sheffield Plate' silverwares.
Regarding both silver and Old Sheffield Plate wares, Boulton's quality exceeded most makers in the trade.
His works epitomized the Neoclassical, showing influences British architect & designer Robert Adam -
a 2011 publication even entitled 'The Age of Matthew Boulton, Masterpieces of Neoclassicism',
illustrating a collection of Matthew Boulton objects, and great Neoclassical furniture.
As well, most silver aficionados know that Boulton was responsible for obtaining
the first assay office for Birmingham, as well as for Sheffield.
However, much more than a producer of silver wares,
Matthew Boulton was
'intensely ambitious, restless, far sighted, ingenious, shrewd and intelligent…
an entrepreneur, an innovator, a problem solver, a perfectionist'.
He played a major role in paving the way for the industrial revolution in Great Britain -
not only with his participation with James Watt in the development and patent for the steam engine,
but the invention of in-line manufacturing process - the production line of modern industry.
It is further said, that
'if he done nothing more in the world than ...improving the coinage (see below),
his name would deserve to be immortalised'.
From the mid-1760s, these innovations to the developing industrial world
originated from Soho Manufactory, on the outskirts of Birmingham.
A short list of these innovations follows.
Boulton's father had been a toymaker, specializing in buttons and buckles.
In 1749 young Matthew went into partnership with his father, in charge of management.
He decided that, rather than following the traditional practice of specializing in a single branch of the business -
leaving co-ordination, marketing and the like to another -
he wanted to form a business that would encompass both manufacturing and its own marketing.
He envisioned a much larger space. And he had the property.
On the 13 acres of common grounds that accompanied his residence,
Boulton built the most impressive Soho Manufactory, operational by 1765.
'View of the manufactory of Boulton & Fothergill, Birmingham' / Francis Eginton* 1773
The Building : The principal 3-storey building, designed by architect William Wyatt, had a Palladian front,
19 bays for loading and unloading, showrooms, workshops,
and quarters for clerks and managers in the upper floors.
For Soho, Boulton and his silver-making partner John Fothergill (from 1762-82) purchased
(at a tremendous cost) the most advanced metalworking equipment available.
And the manufactory was soon admired as a 'modern industrial marvel'.
Steam Engine : In 1782, Soho Manufactory became the first site with a Watt steam engine having a 'sun and planet gear',
the engine being perfected by Soho's engineer William Murdoch.
and patented under the partnership of Boulton and Watt.
This engine played an important part in the development of devices in the Industrial Revolution.
Coinage & The Mint : Boulton turned his attention to coinage in the mid-1780s,
and in 1788 established the 'Soho Mint' as part of his industrial complex.
Two-thirds of the coinage in circulation in 1786 was counterfeit.
When financial crisis arose in 1797, Boulton single handedly set about solving the nation's coinage crisis
with a fraud resistant coinage, featuring a raised rim with incuse or sunken letters and numbers.
Soho, home to the first steam-powered mint,
became the first 'Birmingham Mint',
The manufacturing method is still in use today.
Among His Social Innovations : During the 1770s Boulton introduced a very early social insurance scheme,
funded by workers' contributions of 1/60th of their wages, and which paid benefits
of up to 80% of wages to staff who were sick or injured.
Unlike many workshop owners of the day,
Boulton always ensured that the works were clean, well lit and well ventilated.
Back to Silver : The silver related products Boulton sought to make at Soho Manufactory
included both sterling silver -- and what we today know as 'Old Sheffield Plate'.
But his resolve was not to make the ordinary,
but to produce jewelry, silverware and plated goods of the highest quality that could be made.
Thus the thicker quality of silver used, lessening the traditional 'bleed' of copper through the plate,
and the outstanding quality and detail of craftsmanship that survives well today.
The many superb examples of his work in the Birmingham City Museum
testify to his success in achieving these goals.
The Assay Offices : The production of the silverwares led to the other previously mentioned 'first' .
Boulton's larger wares were the first such silver or Sheffield Plate made in Birmingham.
As the lengthy 150 mile round trip to neighboring Chester for assay proved both costly and dangerous,
Boulton further petitioned Parliament to establish an assay office in Birmingham.
Although vigorously opposed by London silversmiths, he was successful in this effort by 1773.
And Boulton's was Birmingham's first customer on the first day of operations.
Boulton & Fothergill entered their joint silver mark at Birmingham in 1774 (initials, MB before IF),
and for Sheffield Plate wares in 1784, with the well known'twin suns';,
originally under the name Boulton M. & Co.
After Boulton's death in 1809, his son Matthew, and James Watt Jr.
continued to produce wares with the Boulton mark until 1832.
His further contributions to society, manufacturing and science are too lengthy to list here.
Perhaps it is tribute enough to say that on May 29, 2009,
the Bank of England announced that Boulton and Watt would appear on a new £50 note.
* Together with painter Francis Eginton, Boulton created a process for the mechanical reproduction of paintings for
middle-class homes, but eventually abandoned the procedure.
The portrait above : 'Matthew Boulton' (1792), by Carl Frederik von Breda,
depicting the Soho Manufactory in the upper right background.
Below are is a selection of 'Matthew Boulton Old Sheffield Plate & Silver Wares',
from both our past, and our current stock :