Edinburgh, Scotland and 56 Greek St, Soho, London; upholder, cbinet maker, upholsterer, interior decorator, house furnisher (fl.1736-79)
Cullen, Alexander Schaw and Smith advertised in The Caledonian Mercury 31 August 1752 as ‘Upholsterers and Cabinet Makers from London, at the Golden Plough in the Luckenbooths, Edinburgh, to make and sell all sorts of HOUSEHOLD FURNITURE, at the most reasonable rates’ and the same advertisement explained that ‘The above J. Cullen having been for the these last sixteen Years with Mr Bradshaw Upholsterer and Cabinet Maker in Soho, London; and for several Years past has been the principle Manager of his whole trade...’. In 1754 together with ‘several of the principal wrights in Edinburgh’ he advertised the formation of the Edinburgh Upholstery, Joiner and Mirror Glass Co., which, from a warehouse in Carruberr’s Close, Edinburgh, offered upholstery, cabinet joinery, mirror glass work and all the necessaries for funerals, plus many textiles, quilts, blankets, carpets, wallpapers, leather and mattresses.
This company survived under various slightly different names until 1759, when the partnership was dissolved and Cullen returned to London, taking on the warehouse and workshops in Greek Street formerly belonging to William Bradshaw. Final documentary evidence about Cullen is in 1765 when William Launie, at the French Bed and Sofa, declared that he ‘has for several years acted as foreman to Mr Cullen of London, who abilities are well known in this place’.
See William Launie: https://bifmo.history.ac.uk/node/59343/edit
Cullen is listed in London directories between 1765 and 1779. A few pieces of furniture inscribed with Cullen’s name have been recorded, but it is likely that he retailed the work of other tradesmen as a middleman rather than maintaining a major workshop. He appears in fact to have operated as a high level entrepreneurial interior decorator and house furnisher who supplied textiles, designs, furnishings and advice on a consultancy basis.
Presumably his reputation and livelihood was made on the services he provided for clients which included Earl Waldegrave, the Duke of Abercorn and Mr Launderdale (besides those listed below). He was energetic in travelling to solicit custom, commissioned drawings from leading designers such as Matthias Lock, placed orders with elite craftsmen such as Samuel Norman and obtained competitive estimates. Cullen praised Lock as ‘reputed the best draftsman in that way that had ever been in England’. For the convenience of Lord Hopetoun in 1758 he supplied a pattern chair with different enrichments on the seat rails for local tradesmen to copy His Lordship's choice of fashionable patterns.
Hopetoun was not Cullen’s only commission of a model or fashion chair to be copied. In 1760 he sent Lady Milton ‘a rich carved mahogany dining roome chair, seat stuffed in Canvas’, which it is thought to have been copied for either her Edinburgh house or the family’s country seat in East Lothian. Cost was 34 shillings so was presumably a fashionable chair. Like other cm of the time, Cullen accepted law-breaking as a legitimate risk. In 1772 he was involved in selling textiles and furniture illegally imported by foreign diplomats.
Cullen was declared bankrupt in 1777, not through his furnishing business, but as a result of having assumed management of The Ladies’ Club, or Coterie, in Arlington St, London. HOPETOUN HOUSE, West Lothian (Earl of Hopetoun). James Cullen's accounts for furniture supplied to Hopetoun have virtually all disappeared, but numerous letters, memoranda and lists of items required exist showing that he provided drawings, estimates and advice to his patron between 1753 and 1773. It is believed that Cullen set up shop in Edinburgh to supervise the entire furnishing of Hopetoun over almost these two decades. Cullen appears to have co-ordinated the furnishing schemes, obtaining designs and co-ordinating the commission rather than actually making the furniture which was probably sub-contracted; Matthias Lock and Samuel Norman were certainly involved in the project.
The following selective abstract of the documentation indicates his role. 1 February 1755: Note of dimensions of marble tables for the dining room and drawing room. 3 December 1755: Calculation of damask required for the North Apartments estimated to cost £348. 13 October 1758: Memo of furniture needed for the great apartments. February 1763: Payment of £198 for furniture. 4 & 18 February 1766: Letters from Cullen re-damask. 22 May 1766: Letter and estimate about enclosing a new design for Drawing Room glasses (finally despatched 26 June 1768). 13 February 1767: Letter concerning papier-maché borders for damask hangings. January/February 1768: Letters concerning the state Bed and a looking-glass, state enclosed drawings are ‘designed by Mr Matt Lock, lately deceased’ and refer to ‘Mr Norman’. They also allude to designs for commodes and a toilet table. 1773: Bill for a travelling bottle case £2 4s a crib bedstead £1 3s and a mahogany tea box £1 4s. The documentation permits a fair number of pieces surviving at Hopetoun House to be associated with Cullen including the state bed, a pair and a set of four looking-glasses, three commodes, a pair of pier tables and several suites of seat furniture .FLAP TABLE, mahogany with frieze drawer and fluted legs. The back rail is inset with a boxwood plaque inscribed: ‘Jas Cullen Londini, Soho, fecit 1769’. Now at Temple Newsam House, Leeds (Fig. 6). BLAIR CASTLE, Perthshire (3rd Duke of Atholl). An account dated 20 December 1770 totalling £116 16s includes entries for the following: ‘Men putting 2 large plates of glass in the piers in the Drawing Room; 2 elegant pier glass frames carved and gilt with 3 light branches; cabinet in 3 parts, the middle part shaped, with drawers and writing conveniences; polishing … a temple cabinet; 4 carved settees with Chinese backs; 2 elbow chairs to match the above; 6 cushions’. None of these pieces appears to have survived. CARLISLE HOUSE, Soho Sq., London. ‘James Cullen, upholsterer’ was named as one of the principal creditors of the estate of Madame Cornelys proprietor of a fashionable assembly room in Soho Sq. in bankruptcy proceedings, 1773. NORTHUMBERLAND HOUSE, London (1st Duke of Northumberland). In the mid- 1770s Cullen supplied a suite of gilt seat furniture comprising armchairs and settees in the newly fashionable French Style for the Glass Drawing Room at Northumberland House. The set is now at Syon House; one chair is signed inside the rear rail in a copper plate hand ‘J. Cullen’.
Known commissions undertaken in Cullen’s own name in Scotland are: Lord Hopetoun 1753-71 [NRA(SlS88/147/525, 621-2] Lady Milton 1760 [NLS MS16885] David Gavin 1762 [GD2821131122]
Sources: DEFM; Kirkham, ‘The London Furniture Trade, 1700-1870’, Furniture History (1988) p.148; Pryke, ‘A Study of the Edinburgh Furnishing Trade Taken from Contemporary Press Notices, 1708-1790’, Regional Furniture (1989); Pryke, ‘Furniture Designs from Hopetoun House’, Furniture History (1992); Pryke, ‘Pattern Furniture and Estate Wrights in Eighteenth-Century Scotland’, Furniture History (1994); Pryke, ‘The Eighteenth-Century Furniture Trade in Edinburgh’, PhD thesis, St Andrews (1995), pp. 113, 195-8 and passim; Houliston, ‘Frame Making in Edinburgh, 1790-1830’, Regional Furniture (1999).