Matthew Boulton Blue John
It has been well documented that the caverns of Castleton were discovered and mined for their lead resource by the Romans almost two thousand years ago. There is much conjecture as to if they made use of any Blue John for ornamental purposes and no hard evidence that two vases which were reportedly discovered in the ruins of Pompeii were actually crafted from the Blue John of Castleton.
Indeed, although there are no official records to clarify the initial discovery and workings of Blue John, we do know many pieces were in existence throughout various stately homes leading up to the mid-18th century, when Blue John was claimed to have been ‘discovered’ by two miners, John Kirk and Joseph Hall. One of the earliest examples of local use can be found in the fireplace surround at Kedleston Hall, in a wonderful design by architect Robert Adam which features a centre piece of Miller’s Vein Blue John.
Providing a wonderful legacy for the popularity of Blue John, the name most associated with its early production and craftmanship is Matthew Boulton (1728 – 1809). The famous Birmingham manufacturer is credited with the pioneering use of ormolu fittings to decorate lathe-turned solid body shapes made of Blue John stone. Although failing in an attempt to lease all the Blue John mines in 1768 he did manage to acquire 14 tonnes in 1769, which would explain the hundreds of candelabra, urns, vases and perfume burners pieces we see accredited to him today throughout sale rooms and stately homes.
It is also believed that Boulton was the person who introduced the use of pine resin to strengthen the mineral during shaping. Although methods for mining and working the Blue John stone will be covered later, it was this innovative process which first allowed shapes to be hollowed out and the stone be sawn or cut much thinner.
By 1777 tourist visits to the area were in operation and it is believed there were sixteen mines working on the one hill and supplying stone to around thirty firms in the local area which worked the Blue John. By the late 18th/early 19th century with a growing railway and road network, the late Georgians and Victorians were able to travel extensively and for a flourishing Derbyshire tourist trade the Blue John stone was crafted into smaller items and souvenirs, including small bowls, cutlery handles, paperweights and jewellery of all kinds.
Such was its popularity Blue John was exported to France to have ormolu and clockwork movements fitted. In referring to its distinctive Blue and Yellow banding the French craftsmen would often describe the mineral as ‘bleu et jaune’ after its blue and yellow colour banding. The French name stuck and on its return to England was referred to as Blue John, the name by which it is commonly known today.