The Sartorial Garden

Why We Love English Lead in the Garden

Noble Leadwork Endures

If you haven’t fallen in love with lead garden ornaments – planters, fountains, statues, vases, urns, cisterns, bird baths, wall fountains, masks and plaques – then maybe it’s time we reviewed all of its virtues!  Lead – chemists know it as Pb – is a metal that’s denser than most common materials. It’s no surprise, then, that the L in lead could be for longevity.  These garden ornaments survive from centuries ago, among the earliest ever made. English lead is soft, dense, and very durable, and perhaps best of all, the color of a cloud-covered sky (think “leaden skies.”)

When used for architectural materials and garden ornaments, English lead is an elegant and permanent addition to sophisticated gardens. One of our favorites is this charming English lead statue of an Lamb.

 Our History of Lead Ornamentation blog traces the enduring legacy of this noble material that can be found in many churches and chapels in England, as well as forming the decorative cladding for spires and domes from the Middle Ages to today.

Antique lead statues have a lovely silvery grey patina – but this element’s natural color is a dark matte grey. So how does lead’s distinctive hue develop? It’s a process called oxidation. You might have learned about it in science class, but perhaps you were shooting erasers across the room, so here’s a quick review.

The cycle of aging oxidation is a natural process that affects many materials, including lead, when exposed to the weather. Rain, snow or other elements determine the degree of oxidation and the time frame over which it occurs. Oxidation is far more likely to take place during winter, with the weather changing the dark grey and shiny surface of lead ornamentation.

Questions always arise about oxidation, the most common being “How long will it take my lead to oxidize and look like the antique ornaments?” The answer varies. Only weather conditions can determine this. During the oxidation process, it’s not uncommon for different colors of bronze, brown or even burgundy to become visible. Once this color variation has appeared, it’s a sign that the lead ornament is forming its own protective barrier.

The patina is made up of a layer of insoluble lead salts that give the appearance of the traditional light grey lead. This happens as lead comes into contact with moisture and forms basic lead carbonate.  Be aware that the appearance will continue to evolve and any attempt to remove the patina will result in the process starting over again.  By adding a light layer of linseed oil – available at any home improvement store – to the ornament, you can slow down the oxidation process and minimize any inconsistencies that develop in the patina.

The effects of oxidation will be different depending on where you live, but eventually it will form the traditional beautiful silvery grey patina over time, as shown by this enchanting detailed boy, part of a ornate double bowl lead fountain.

Perhaps lead ornamentation, with its gentle grey soul, will be the next en vogue accessory, in step with the hottest hair color of the moment: grey.  Here at New England Garden, we cherish lead ornamentation as a heavyweight element that adds cultural weight to your garden.

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