- Matthew Boulton: Enterprising Industrialist of the Enlightenment. edited by Kenneth Quickenden, Sally Baggott, and Malcolm Dick
When Matthew Boulton died in 1809, his funeral was one of the most elaborate public events seen in his native Birmingham, attracting hundreds of official mourners and thousands of bystanders along the route from the dead man’s house at Soho to his parish church. The inscription on his monument noted how Boulton had “improved, embellished and extended the arts & manufactures of his country; leaving his establishment of Soho a noble monument of his genius, industry and success.” Boulton’s success was attributed to his “application of a taste correct and refined” to the business of manufacturing. This was a notion that Boulton had tirelessly promoted in life. The portraits commissioned in his later years show him as a savant, a man of science and social poise, far removed from the grubby “mechanicks” for whom Birmingham was famed.
In the decades that followed his death, however, Boulton’s renown faded. To be more accurate, he was increasingly overshadowed by his erstwhile partner, James Watt. The Victorians saw Watt as the true harbinger of steam-powered modernity. The real substance of the Boulton & Watt partnership had lain in the taciturn, unshowy Scot. Boulton had been a mere facilitator, albeit one of uncommon gifts. That was a travesty, of course. As the contribution of Jim Andrews to this volume makes clear, Boulton was keenly interested in the design of the “Watt” engine and contributed to numerous technical improvements. Even so, it has taken some time for Boulton’s reputation to recover the ground lost in the nineteenth century. Yet it has recovered, of that there can be no doubt. Indeed, appreciation of Boulton must surely now be at an all-time high.
Much of this is due to shifts in our understanding of early industrial Britain. The historiographical consensus of the mid-twentieth century, which gave primacy to revolutionary technologies like steam power, encouraged a focus on engineers like Watt. Historians in recent decades have painted a very different picture. Emphasis is now placed on the slow pace of change and the limitations of new technologies. A focus on production has given way to a focus on the consumption of luxury goods and consumer novelties. Given this, a renewed fascination with Matthew Boulton is understandable. His interest in decorative wares in ormolu or Blue John no longer seems a distraction from the real business of engine making, it seems emblematic of his age.
Boulton’s bicentenary in 2009 was therefore celebrated with considerable fervor. A major exhibition, sumptuously cataloged, was mounted by Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery to mark the event. There was also, inevitably, an international conference at which the papers in this volume [End Page 271] were first delivered. What is noteworthy about Enterprising Industrialist of the Enlightenment is its range. The authors include art historians, archaeologists, museum professionals, historians of science, and materials scientists. Their diversity testifies to Boulton’s intellectual breadth and entrepreneurial restlessness. The Enlightenment provides the frame of reference, occupying the conceptual center ground once taken by the “Industrial Revolution.” This seems wholly appropriate. Matthew Boulton might not have recognized that he was living through an industrial revolution, but he would certainly have claimed that his was an age of widening knowledge.
What was the relationship between Enlightenment and industry? Several contributors employ the notion of an “industrial enlightenment,” not in the sense used by Joel Mokyr (as a bridge between the earlier Scientific Revolution and a later Industrial Revolution) but as an intellectual practice that was intertwined and coincident with industrial change. This is not to say that Enlightenment was a smooth or linear process. On the contrary, several contributors draw our attention to the difficulties Boulton and his collaborators had in realizing their enlightened aspirations. Peter Jones points out that Boulton shrank back from Birmingham’s urban tumult in his later years. Joseph Melling explores the troubled relationship between the Boulton & Watt firm and its...