Boulton, Matthew (1728 – 1809)
The city of Birmingham is justly proud of Matthew Boulton who was a most gifted individual both in his ability in the field of art and his mechanical aptitude. Shortly after the discovery of the Sheffield Plate industry, Boulton went to the city of Sheffield to better acquaint himself with this new technique. In 1762, he successfully introduced its manufacture in a district called Soho. It was basically a factory but designed to look like a county mansion as it was set in a landscaped park. From here, he designed, manufactured, and sold a huge array of Old Sheffield plated and silver items. As the business in the Soho factory increased, Boulton became the largest single manufacturer of Sheffield Plate of the period. However, I do want to stress, at no time were the goods made in such a way as to lessen their quality because of the competition that existed at this time. As a matter of fact, the pieces that came from the Boulton factory were actually the finest the world has ever seen. Unfortunately, Matthew Boulton never registered his famous mask of a sunburst until 1805, and therefore many pieces that were surely the result of his handiwork were not credited to him.
While we are primarily interested in Boulton’s association with the Sheffield Plate trade, his greatest contribution to the world (in my opinion) was the development of the steam engine. Most people do not know this fact and although James Watt went down in history, as deservedly, the inventor of the steam engine, James Watt did admit that his production would have been a failure without the help of Boulton. As a result of Matthew Boulton, Birmingham became the epicenter of all of Europe for the manufacture of heavy machinery.
Many collectors of Old Sheffield feel that the work of Matthew Boulton was outstanding and refer to him as the Rembrandt of his trade.