Skip to main content

Brodie, Francis (1708-1782)

Brodie, Francis

Lawnmarket and Cowgate, Edinburgh, Scotland; cabinet maker, wright, and glass grinder (b.1708-d.1782)

Francis Brodie was undoubtedly the pre-eminent 18th century Scottish cabinet maker. His confidence and ambition distinguished him from his peers in Edinburgh and his use of the architect Palladio as a leitmotif for his business was unique in Britain. He is also unusual for the amount of information we know about his life, helped in part by the records of the notorious life and death of his infamous son, William ‘Deacon’ Brodie, as well as by his own entries in the family’s bible. The bible is now in the collections of the City of Edinburgh Museums and Galleries (a full transcription of the entries can be found in William Roughead The Trial of Deacon Brodie, 1906).

Brodie was born on 24 June 1708, the eldest son of Ludovick Brodie of Whytfield, a Writer to the Signet (the Scottish equivalent of a barrister), and Hellen Grant. In the words of a contemporary, Franciswas a gentleman who was much respected; he was from a branch of a good family in the North of Scotland. He carried on the business of a Wright, Cabinet Maker and Upholsterer, to a very considerable extent, and was employed by some of the best families in this part of the kingdom’ [A. Robertson, Anecdotes and Other Curious Information Concerning William Brodie, Edinburgh (1788)]. The ‘good family’ was the Brodies of Brodie Castle; Ludovick was the great grandson of the 13th Laird and brother of Alexander Brodie of Milntown. This is not as distant a connection as it sounds, as Ludovick lent Alexander Brodie of Brodie £531 in 1741, for which Francis sued the family in 1773, by which time the debt had accumulated to £1153 [Scottish Record Office, CS177/197]. Francis’s wife Cicel and mother Hellen (who were cousins) were the nieces of Sir Francis Grant, Lord Cullen (also a famous lawyer), as well as being related by marriage to Robert Dundas of Arniston, Lord President of the Scottish legal system. Given this legal background it is noteworthy that Brodie, as the eldest son, chose the profession of a cabinet maker, but there was clearly an artistic strain in the family; his brother Joseph was an accomplished painter who left portraits of several members of the family, including Francis.

Portrait of Francis Brodie
Portrait of Francis Brodie, attributed to Joseph Brodie. Private collection.

The current whereabouts of this is unknown but it is illustrated in Pryke, Regional Furniture (1990), fig. 14. It has been suggested that Joseph may have travelled to Italy and Francis clearly intended to be no ordinary cabinet maker, putting his education and background to the best possible advantage.

On the 30 June 1725 Brodie was registered as an apprentice with John Antonius (whose father Henry had been Deacon of the Wrights in Edinburgh). He served a relatively long apprenticeship of ten years and on the 1 November 1735 was instructed to make as his apprentice piecea machogany [sic] Desk with drawers below the same, and to draw the draught of a press of the Corinthian order after Palladio’. He was admitted as a burgess on the 27 December that year and within a year he had four journeymen working for him. His first known account made out to Sir John Clerk of Penicuik and dated March 1737 is for a ‘large Mahogany Standard for a jappaned table’ [SRO, GD18/1839/1/134]. A measure of his ambition is that over the next four years he employed a further nineteen journeymen and between 1737 and 1769 he took six apprentices in total, generally having two at any one time - William Ross, Charles Hay, Robert Mclean, Alexander Lawson, Thomas Muir and Thomas Vass.

In 1739 Brodie had established a workshop ‘overagainst the Guard’ on the north side of Edinburgh’s High Street, near St Giles’ Cathedral. In the following year he married, and before his first child William was born in October 1741, he had moved his workshop, wareroom and presumably home to the ‘Second Close above the Old Bank, Lawnmarket’. This was also known as Cullen’s Close, after Lord Cullen (Cicel Brodie’s uncle), and this connection presumably facilitated or inspired the move. Brodie and his business remained there for the rest of his life, the close in due course becoming known as Brodie’s Close (as it is has remained).

A measure of Brodie’s ambition is the remarkable engraving at the head of most of his bills. Its first known use was in 1738, before his move to Cullen’s Close and only a couple of years after he completed his apprenticeship. He was still using it in 1758, with minor changes to the text, and seems to have only replaced in 1767 when he took his son William into full partnership. The new design consisted simply of playful rococo foliage surrounding nine diminishing lines of text; this was undoubtedly more fashionable, but also less interesting, which may be an appropriate reflection of William’s influence.

​ ​ Billhead of Francis Brodie. Private collection. ​ ​

The original billhead, however, is unique in a Scottish, or even British, context compared to the known billheads of other cabinet makers and upholsterers; these were generally of the standard pattern of a decorative design surrounding a specific piece of furniture or other motif, which normally also served as the address and shop sign. Brodie’s occupies the entire width of the paper within a rectangular frame and at the top are several pieces of furniture flanking a bust of Palladio in an oval device; below is a body of text explaining that ‘At Brodie’s Looking Glass and Cabinet Warehouse… is ready made and to be sold, Variety of Furniture in the neatest and most fashionable Manner, with Picture and Glass Frames carved and Gilded as also House, Carpenter and Joiner work done by the best workmen; and Funerals furnished at the lowest Rates, Coach & Chair Glasses to be sold, and Sconces for Funerals’. A later version adds: ‘N.B. The Looking Glasses &c. being Manufactured by my Self will be sold with a reasonable discount for Ready Money’. The billhead used by Robert and John Hodson of London between 1730 and 1786 is of striking similarity to Brodie’s and must have been the inspiration for it. The Hodsons had extensive Scottish connections and could number the Dukes of Atholl, Gordon and Montrose among their patrons between 1724 and 1745. Brodie also worked for Gordon and Montrose. The similarities speak for themselves, but the correspondence between the text of Brodie’s first example and the Hodson text is particularly striking, even down to the initial character of the lettering, which he later changed to a more elegant copperplate. The quality of the engraving on Brodie’s billhead is a substantial improvement on Hodson’s and he updated the furniture, including adding an eagle pier table, a type strongly associated with neo-Palladian interiors and with Brodie himself. The major difference, however, especially in the context of its use by a cabinet maker, is the presence of a bust at the centre inscribed above Palladio and below Fras. Brodie. For illustrations and further discussion of this see Pryke, ‘The Extraordinary Billhead of Francis Brodie’, Regional Furniture (1990).

Brodie’s shop was commonly referred to as being at ‘Palladio’s Head’ and it was an unprecedented move at that time for a Scottish cabinet maker to associate himself so strongly with the arts of architecture. The source for the portrait was Sebastiano Ricci’s design for the frontispiece of Leoni’s 1715 edition of The Four Books of Palladio, the standard Palladian source book in BritainThat Brodie chose Palladio as his muse is a good indicator of his knowledge not only of design and fashion but also of the tastes and pretensions of his potential patrons (Thomas Chippendale was content with a chair on his trade card). Brodie not only hung Palladio’s head outside his shop but also used it when he placed notices in the newspapers, as his book plate, and, significantly, as his seal on letters. William Adam, the most celebrated architect in Scotland at the time (and father of Robert), used an intaglio of Inigo Jones’s head as his seal from about 1740, as did the Scottish arbiter of taste Sir John Clerk (whose son James also used Palladio’s head but not until the 1750s). Brodie was moving in rarefied circles with these associations. He had extensive professional links with William Adam and it is possible that Adam may have fostered Brodie’s career in several ways. As Adam wrote to the Duke of Hamilton in 1740: ‘I sent this day to Mr. Broddie and talked with him about chairs he’s the best man in town and I doubt if anybody else would please. I have sent from him a pattern of some chairs he has ready. The bottoms are to be wood with stuff but the backs are Walnut tree. He has some for the Dutchess of Gordon which are to be covered back and bottom, but he cannot manage to dispose of them. They are made of elm no part is seen but the feet which are of the form of the scitch also sent. He says to make new ones you’d not be done sooner than the middle of Jan’ [National Register of Archives (Survey) 2177/C3/1794/1]. The chairs were described in the final account as ‘Six Mahogany Chairs with Eagles feet 25 sh/ each’, so perhaps were covered ‘back and bottom’ like the Duchess of Gordon’s, or were one of those rare examples of solid splat back chairs made of mahogany. At any rate they must have been ‘new ones’ as they were not invoiced until the 14th of January. [SRO, CS238/B/1/79] Adam clearly thought highly of Brodie, was a regular customer, and they had many mutual clients, not least the Dundas’s of Arniston.

Brodie generally called himself a Wright, although he always appended the trade of Glass Grinder as well, but he was also involved in the usual diverse range of activities associated with the work of a wright and cabinet maker as well as undertaking, as his billhead explained. He carried out numerous funerals including those of the Earl of Aberdeen in 1745 for £26 13s. with a ‘Wainscoat Coffin, the inside run with Wax, laced with jappanned Tacks & Silk ffringes, and mourning Cords with Silk Tassels £20’ (a sum reduced to £15 on payment) [SRO, GD112/35/24/17], and Ms Henrieta Duff, sister of Lord Braco, in 1748 for £14 5s. 6d.  He advertised in local papers frequently between 1751 and 1769, offering the expected range of furniture made of ‘well seasoned woods’ and ‘manufactured in [his] own shop, by the best workmen’ and also offered upholstery services and goods, frequently charging for ‘workmanship’ with relation to upholstery, although he was certainly primarily a cabinet maker. He also carried out building work, as evidenced by a notice in the Edinburgh Evening Courant in 1757 which announced that ‘Mr Brodie… gives plans and designs for buildings’, and he erected several buildings for himself; he frequently advertised lodgings for rent and correspondence confirms this. For instance, he let rooms to the surgeon John Balfour in the 1760s [SRO, RH9/18/44/216]. A typical account to Thomas Dundas of Querrel in 1753 details joiner work, making and hanging sash windows, ‘altering partitions, doors, & shelves etc. of two men @ 12 days’, painting rooms and ‘a press bed Mahogany Coulor in oil’ etc to a total of £19 4/ 9d.[SRO, CS229/B/2/68].  His accounts and advertisements also give testament to the huge variety of goods in which he dealt at different times including ‘chimney tiles’, ‘japanned work’, ‘brass work’, snuff-boxes, ‘paintings on glass’, tiles, and wrights’ tools, etc. As well as his ongoing glass grinding business, in the early 1760s he established a ‘factory’ for dressing flax ‘at the foot of his yard in Cowgate’, although this clearly less than successful endeavour was wound up in 1769.

Brodie was active for much of his working life within Edinburgh’s guild of wrights and masons, known as the Incorporation of Mary’s Chapel after its meeting place. His first practical involvement with Mary’s Chapel came in 1749 when he was appointed Boxmaster (effectively the treasurer) for the following two years. During this time, he did almost thirty pounds’ worth of work for the Incorporation. He was appointed a Guild Brother (in right of his wife Cicel) in 1763 and in 1775 he was elected Deacon (the master), a post which he held for the next six years. In 1775 he had also been elected as one of the six Deacons from among the fourteen trade Incorporations who had a seat on the Town Council; in the following year he was elected Deacon Convener of all the trades during which tenure he argued forcefully for more representation for the trades on the Council. The incumbent Deacon had the benefit of first refusal on wright work being commissioned by the city and Brodie took full advantage of this, charging for over three hundred and twenty five pounds’ worth of work during his time in office alone including ‘hanging the Bells in High and Tron Church Steeples’, ‘making water spouts for conveying water from the New [South] Bridge’ and building a shed for the ‘fire engine’. 

Brodie’s family legal background seems never to have entirely left him and he was rarely reluctant to sue for payment (there are numerous cases in the Court of Session records). Correspondence survives between Brodie and Robert Ewing of Craigtoun, for instance, concerning a dispute over the quality and condition of furniture supplied in 1753; the dispute was settled in Brodie’s favour ten years later and he was paid in full, plus interest on the amount owing [SRO, CS229/B/2/68]. As he himself wrote: ‘& as for dirty words thrown out upon my work they are below my notice, Sir’.

At the time of his death Brodie was reputed to have an income of some nine hundred pounds a year, a sum which speaks for itself, and his status during this period cannot be overestimated. When he died from ‘palsy’ on 1 June 1782, three weeks before his seventy- fourth birthday and mercifully before William’s demise, he had been a widower for five years and was survived by only four of his eleven children. His death was reported in the Edinburgh Advertiser and the Caledonian Mercury, and duly noted in the Brodie Family Bible by his daughter Jean. She included her own epitaph, describing him as ‘…an honest man, an affectionate husband, an indulgent parent, a faithful friend and a generous master’.

There are extant accounts from Brodie for almost fifty clients, exclusively in Scotland, amongst them the Dukes of Hamilton, Gordon, Montrose and Argyll, the Earls of Dumfries, Traquair and Stair, Lords Glenorchy, Milton, Arniston and Braco, the Baronets John and James Clerk, Archibald Grant, John Kennedy and Charles Gilmour as well as numerous other landed and metropolitan patrons including Francis Charteris of Amisfield, who paid Brodie over £160 for furniture between 1752 and 1761, including a ‘Cheese Boat & a pair sugar Breakers 10/’, and ‘6 small Mahogony Tables  £2   11/’ [NRA(S), 208/40] and of course the Edinburgh town council.  Examples of furniture he manufactured include giltwood eagle tables for the Dukes of Hamilton and Gordon (‘A marble table supported by an Eagle guilt in Burnisht gold £16’) and the Earl of Dumfries [SRO, CS238/B/79, GD44/51/465/1/34, NRA(S)631/A666]; a ‘French wallnuttree Clock:Case £2 15/’ for Robert Ewing of Craigtoun in 1740 [SRO, CS229/B/2/68]; a ‘Chest of Drawers made of Pear Tree and Stained black £2 2/’ for the Earl of Traquair in 1748 [Traquair MSS]; a ‘A solid mahog charter chest wt carved feet and a drawer £5 10/’ in 1741 for the Duke of Gordon; countless chairs including, for instance, as well as those mentioned above, eleven ‘solid Elm Chairs with large Leather Seats 11/ each’ and six ‘Mahogany Chairs stuft back and seat 15/ each’ for the Duchess of Montrose in 1742 [SRO, GD220/6/900/35]. Finally, a letter dated 2 April 1753 to Lady Braco gives a good insight into Brodie’s working methods and character: ‘Inclosed is my Acctt of ffurniture which I hope you’ll find reasonably stated; Ms Duff’s Drawers being made in haste are not so good work as I could wish, but against Your Ladyships return to Town shall have a better in their place; I have Cutt out the two setts of Chairs, the Dining & Card tables and as they are all fine wood hope they will give ffull satisfaction; I believe your Ladyships drawers would look better (as the pillar betwixt the Windows is wide) of a pair of brass handles on the Ends, I have sent and shall lett you have them att my Cost which is 5/. I am with the greatest regard your Ladyship’s most humbl & obliged Servt, Francis Brodie’ [Aberdeen University MSS 3175/1690].

Unfortunately, only a few pieces of furniture made by Brodie can be confidently identified. However, there are several items now at Dumfries House, Ayrshire, made for the Earl of Dumfries in 1753, including: an eagle table similar to that on his billhead - ‘To a Marble Slabe suported by an Eagle guilt in Burnisht gold’ (illus. Pryke, Regional Furniture (1990), fig. 12); a padouk ‘Lady’s Closet’ (illus. Pryke, Regional Furniture (1990), figs 8 & 9); a ‘Sconce glass the frame Carved & guilt in burnisht Gold £6 12/’, a ‘Chimney Mirror & frame £6 6/’ with ‘a pair of carved brass Arms 10/’ and a corner cupboard with brass stringing, a recurring feature in his work. These are all illustrated in Christie’s 2007 Dumfries House catalogue. Several pieces including gilt mirrors, tables and linen presses made for Francis Charteris between 1752 and 1761 for Amisfield House, East Lothian are now at Gosford House, East Lothian. A remarkable clock case is at Arniston House, Midlothian, one of William Adam’s most magnificent interiors, for which Brodie charged Robert Dundas 7 guineas in 1739  - a ‘Mahogany Clock Case carved and guilt for the Hall att Arniston’ [NRA(S)3246/107]. A further giltwood eagle table is now at Holyroodhouse which was listed in an inventory of the apartment there of Lord Adam Gordon in 1796 and may be the one made for the Duke of Gordon (see above). This is illus. in Swain, ‘Furniture for the French Princes at Holyroodhouse, 1796’ Connoisseur (January 1978) and in Bamford, Furniture History (1993). Other pieces can be attributed to him, notably an extraordinary chair surmounted by a gilt eagle in the collections of Leeds City Art Galleries at Temple Newsam (illus. in Gilbert’s 1978 catalogue, no. 58). An associated chair sold by Malletts in 2015 was previously in the Scottish trade. In the National Museum of Scotland is a bureau bookcase, veneered in padouk and with brass stringing, which can reasonably be attributed to Brodie on the grounds of stylistic and technical similarities with the Dumfries House ‘Lady’s Closet’. It was reputed to have come from the sale of William Brodie’s effects in 1788. Note also the linen press on view in the NMS attributed to William Brodie which has strong affinities with the linen presses at Gosford House.

Sebastian Pryke

Sources: Bamford, ‘Dictionary of Edinburgh Wrights’, Furniture History (1993); Pryke, ‘A Study of the Edinburgh Furnishing Trade Taken from Contemporary Press Notices, 1708-1790’, Regional Furniture (1989); Pryke, ‘The Extraordinary Billhead of Francis Brodie’, Regional Furniture (1990); Pryke, ‘Furnishing the House 1754-1760’, in Dumfries House; An Architectural History, RCAHMS (2014); Christie’s, Dumfries House, sale catalogue (2007); Pryke ‘The 18th century furniture trade in Edinburgh’ unpublished PhD thesis St Andrews University (1995),