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Peter, Alexander (1713-1772)

Peter, Alexander 

Edinburgh, Scotland; cabinet maker and wright (fl.1713-1772)

Alexander Peter was responsible for one of the finest surviving collections of documented Scottish furniture and it is largely this on which his reputation and significance rests. The furniture was supplied to the Earl of Dumfries to complement that made by Thomas Chippendale for Dumfries House, Ayrshire, as part of one of the most celebrated furniture commissions of the 18th century.

Alexander Peter’s father was James Peter of Chaple. Alexander was registered as apprentice to James Brownhill on 16 December 1713. Brownhill was Deacon of the Wrights from 1713 until 1715 and the builder of James Court in the Lawnmarket; he was undoubtedly essentially a wright rather than a cabinet maker although he did make furniture, notably for Sir John Clerk in 1722, and Peter himself may have been responsible for this. Peter had only completed his apprenticeship and become a burgess in 1728, and this lengthy fifteen-year apprenticeship suggests that he may have joined Brownhill at a very young age. On the 4th May of that year he was appointed to make as his essay piece ‘a Wainscot press pedestall forme lifting off in two parts having ffoure lidds or doors with raised muldings ... with Basse & sub basse and an whole intabulator on the head of the Corinthian order after Scamozie’. His essay masters were William Gifford and Andrew ffisher, and a month later on 8 June he was admitted as a burgess. Over the next year he booked three journeymen in his name with the Incorporation of Mary’s Chapel (as Edinburgh’s guild of wrights and masons was known).

In 1732 Peter married Isobel, the daughter of Andrew Dunbar of Leneholt, and the first known account in his own name is to the Earl of Islay, who later became the Duke of Argyll, in 1733. The finest item was a ‘walnuttree Desk and Bookcase’ which cost £6 10/ [NLS MS17629]. Islay continued to use Peter throughout his life. Among Peter’s other patrons who have been identified through accounts were the Duke of Gordon, the Earl and Countess of Hopetoun, the Earl and Countess of Cassillis [SRO GD25/9/7, 19], the Earl of Lauderdale, Lord Glenorchy (the son of the Earl of Breadalbane), Lord Carmichall [NLS MS16863/36], Sir John and Lady Hall [SRO GD206/3/2/5/31, 34], Sir John Clerk of Penicuik [SRO GD18/1729, 1730; 1837/4; 1839/1], Sir Archibald Grant of Monymusk [SRO GD345/732, 772], Robert Dundas of Arniston [SRO NRA(S)3246, vols 49, 50], the Innes family of Stow [SRO GD113/393], Francis Charteris of Amisfield (some of whose furniture joined the collection of his descendants the Earls of Wemyss at Gosford, East Lothian) as well as, of course, the Earl of Dumfries. Also, like his peer and competitor Francis Brodie, Peter is known to have worked for the architect William Adam, making a ‘mahogany frame for the [marble] table’ Adam supplied to Arthur Gordon of Carnoustie in 1736 for £2 10s. The marble top cost £5 5s. [SRO RH15/1/18/6].

Between the years 1731 and 1749 Peter registered thirty seven further journeymen with the Incorporation of Mary’s Chapel; he took as apprentices William Mathie, son of Captain Thomas Mathie, a merchant in Cockenzie, in 1733; Michael Malcolm, a son of Sir John Malcolm of Lochor in 1737; Daniel Laury, the son of a surgeon, in 1741; and Henry Stuart, son of Robert Stuart of Newmains in 1745; all clearly people of considerable rank. The relationship with Mathie is curious as he did not become a burgess, and therefore technically complete his apprenticeship, until 1760. However, Mathie did work in his own name before this date, notably alongside Peter at Dumfries House.  Peter never held any official posts within the Incorporation, and never did any work for it or for the Town Council. He rarely placed notices in the papers and never repeated a notice more than once; he also never used printed billheads. These are noteworthy points as this apparent reticence was very much in contrast to his competitors including, especially, Francis Brodie.

Peter lived above his shop in the Horse Wynd, off the Cowgate (about half way between the South Bridge and George IV Bridge in present day Edinburgh) from at least 1752, when he was listed in Gilhooley’s Directory of Edinburgh, until he sold his business in 1772. He also for a while maintained a ‘large warehouse within Advocate’s Close’ which he moved to a site in the Cowgate, opposite the Old Assembly Close, in 1758 [Caledonian Mercury, 6 June 1758]. This presumably was his workshop as well as being his ‘Cabinet Warehouse’, where he had fitted up ‘two large light warehouses... wherein his stock of ready made goods’ was shown. It was also conveniently near his house, being almost opposite the Horse Wynd. As well as this at various times he had a ware room ‘fronting the high street... within Writer’s Court’ [Caledonian Mercury 28 April 1759] and a wood yard at Alison’s Court, Potterow, from which timber could be bought; the Horse Wynd continued south as Potterow, and so this was again very convenient.

An advertisement placed in the Edinburgh Chronicle on 23 January 1760 illustrates the extensive range of goods which Peter made and stocked and makes it is clear that he was very much a cabinet maker rather than an upholsterer. Note that he also sold second hand furniture, as was common. Peter advertised that he had ‘a large assortment of household furniture ready made, in mahogony [sic], walnut tree, wainscot, elm and other woods. Among which are the following goods, viz. Desks and book-cases with mirrors or Chinese doors; Desks and drawers, of various woods and sizes; Oval and square dining-tables in pairs; Corner cupboards, bulged and flat; Tea, card, dressing and night tables, of various sorts and sizes; Tea boards and tea-treas, of which has great choice; Table china baskets; Writing and reading desks; Cloaths chests, charter-chests, and tea-chests; Choice of wooden candle-sticks and candle-sets; Candlesticks of French plate; Room-screens and fire-screens, with cloth, Indian paper, and check covers; Room papers, a large floor-cloth, and some upholstery goods; Indian pictures, some prints framed and glassed; CHAIR-WORK, viz. Settee chairs, and French elbow chairs, with or without leather covers; Square and compass winged easy chairs; A great choice of ready-made sets of chairs, the patterns quite new, with leather or horse-hair covers, &c.; Hall chairs with wooden bottoms; Bason stands of various sorts; Chimney-shelfs and brackets; Bedsteads four posted, carved and plain, with or without cornishes; Tent, chair, couch, and folding up beds; MIRROR GLASSES, Sconce glasses in pairs, with gilt frames; Ditto in walnut-tree frames; Dressing-glasses of different sizes; Also several second-hand mirror glasses, Some sets of second-had walnut-tree and beech chairs, Several pieces of old tapestry, A curious screw press for an office or factory. And to be sold at his wood-yard… Carolina pine plank from 3 ¼ inches thick and under, very proper for sash windows, steps or stairs, doors, &c.; Also Scottish ash and beech, and foreign log beech in plank’.

Accounts also demonstrate that he was prepared to rent furniture as he did for Lord Moray in 1749: ‘To ye Use of 6 Mohogany Chairs 12 Elm Chairs & 2 Elbow Ditto & 1 mohogany Table & one wainscot to ye Value of £16 3 0 from ye 20th of Feb Last past to this Date att 6id. pr pd Sterling pr week being 10 weeks  £4’ [NRA(S)217]. Like many wrights he carried out funerals such as those for the Earl of Hopetoun in 1742 and his widow the Dowager Countess in 1750. The coffins alone cost £12: ‘To a wainscot Cofin wth 3 roa of silk fringes, searcloathd within, & covered wth wax cloath over the same… wth japaned brase nails, black ropes, with new silk tasels &c included’[SRO NRA(S)888/147/354, 401].

Peter also made furniture for the Earls of Hopetoun between 1744 and 1764 including, for example, providing in 1757 ‘2 Mahogany presses, ye one fitted to stand above the other… £10’ and ‘2 large sized strong wainscot Desks for Lord Hope & brother £11 10/’ [SRO NRA(S)888/147/451]. This link with Lord Hopetoun is telling, as Peter was also a partner in the Edinburgh Upholstery Company, a co-operative of cabinet makers and upholsterers set up by James Cullen in the 1750s it seems largely to furnish Hopetoun House, West Lothian. The Company supplied almost four hundred pounds worth of furniture and upholstery to Hopetoun between 1755 and 1759, including all the dining room furniture and much bedroom furniture, and it seems likely that Peter was responsible for much of this including, in the Dining Room, ‘10 Mohy fine Carved Eagle Claw foot Chairs’ at thirty shillings and ‘4 Elbow ditto’, for an extra five shillings; all were to be ‘stufft in Canvas with slipping on seats’ and came with ‘Crimson all cotton Cheque cases’ [NRA(S)888/147/388].

Although no mention was made of Peter when the Edinburgh Upholstery Company was formed in 1754, by the time of its first dissolution by Cullen in April 1759 Peter was a shareholder; it was immediately reformed without him or Cullen in June. Most of the Company’s goods were sold, and Peter’s remaining ‘goods and cabinet work’ were moved to his own warehouse ‘he having no concern in the new company’ [Edinburgh Chronicle 26 April 1759]. If the company was a co-operative by this time, as it seems, Peter must simply have been investing in it and selling his own work through it.

As well as his cabinet making business, like many wrights Peter was also involved in property development and ownership and advertised two villas to let outside Edinburgh in 1764. He offered to make ‘any reasonable alteration... [for] a good tenant that would keep them neat and genteel’.  In 1772, a full fifty years after he may have made chairs as an apprentice for Sir John Clerk, he gave notice that he was finally ‘intending to give up business’ and was ‘ready to treat with any person whom it may suit to take his Shop and Yard and to purchase what quantity of his stock of seasoned wood etc he may have occasion for’. He ended by saying, surely with justification, that ‘as this Shop has been long in repute for Cabinet Work, any person who employs the same hands, and uses proper materials, may expect to meet with proper encouragement’ [Edinburgh Evening Courant 6 May 1772]. The last word came on 20 July 1772 when he announced that he was selling off his last remaining goods ‘at least Ten per cent below the usual prices’ while claiming, with some pride no doubt, that, ‘they are of equal value with any that ever were made by Mr Peter’ [Edinburgh Evening Courant].

The surviving accounts and corresponding furniture made for the Earl of Dumfries at Dumfries House is the overwhelming monument to Peter’s skill and success and are an exceptional survival in Scotland [NRA(S)631/A720]. His first account to Lord Dumfries which relates to Dumfries House was at the beginning of 1759, when he ‘furnt a pair brass Dask hinges with 14 screws for a Dask door sent to the Country’ and the bulk of the furniture followed in that year. However, Peter had been working for the Earl in Edinburgh since December 1756, mostly joinery work but also, for instance, ‘packing up pictures in a packing box & nailing down the lidd with 20 nails & work’ or ‘taking down the hangings of 3 beds & taking down all the window hangings’. The final account for Dumfries House was settled in full on 24 April 1764: ‘Received payment of the above Account by the hands of Mr Andrew Hunter & the same with all preceedings is discharged’.  In the intervening years Peter had supplied furniture and carried out work to the value of over £400, nearly all relating to Dumfries House. 

His furniture stands cheek by jowl with that supplied by Thomas Chippendale, most notably in the Dining Room where he made the chairs (‘24 Mahogy dining room chairs wt carving on ye front & feet buff’d over osenburgh covers 30/pp £36’), tables (‘a pair large sqr Mahogony dining tables… ye tops of 1 1/4in: choice wood… with a fret cut including 4 set strong leather casters  £20  5/’) and the celebrated sideboard (‘a Mahogy side board table for ye dining room…  high cut wt fret work on ye feet & rails £7)’, whose design is taken from the 1st edition of Chippendale’s Director (1754), plate XXXVI, with the subtle addition of a saltire motif in the blind fretwork. Another smaller sideboard was made for the Parlour. Peter’s hall chairs (‘8 Mahogy chairs for the Hall 30/pp  £12’) of classic Georgian sgabello form greeted the visitor on arriving at the house and his furniture largely furnished all the secondary rooms, including all the bedrooms with the exception of the best one. Items included eight beds, such as the ‘4 posted bed stead of wainscot ye foot posts being Mahogy fluted & carved…  £5 10/’ with corresponding ‘set of bed cornishes & 2 window cornishes to each wt rods & pully &ca including carving £5 each’; many sets of chairs in elm ‘4 large sized ffrench elbow chairs of elm staind 28/’ or ’12 Elm chairs stain’d  12/pp  £7  4/’, and mahogany ‘12 Mahogony ffrench elbow chairs largest size… ovald in ye seats & tops  33/pp  £19 16/’, ’12 Mahoy chairs buffd over back & bottom wt matress buffings 19/pp  £11  8/’, ‘22 Mahogy large sized foot stools buff’d over seats osenburgh covers  10/ 6d  £11  11/’. The ‘4 sqr Mahogy tables 1 leaf & lock’d drawers each £1 11/ 6d £6 6/’ are identifiable as bedroom tables, with their distinctive Scottish form having the single leaf hanging down at the rear. He also supplied ‘4 Mahogy night tables 2 doors each & cut legings on ye top including casters £2 2/each £8  8/’; ‘12 Mahogy large sized pillard basson stands  15/pp £9’; ‘2 Mahogany fire screens with a carved Pillar, a leaf on the knee & lyons claw & fitting on your own covers with ogie moulding &ca 27/ £2  14/’ and another with ‘Eagles clawd feet £1 10/’. The bulk of this remains at the house together with numerous other smaller items. As well as providing other now unidentified furniture Peter also carried out extensive quantities of minor joinery, upholstery, decorating and secondary work such as providing on several occasions ‘straw for bedding the ffurniture on 5 Cairts with the use of oyl cloaths & ropes for covering the same & straw furnt on the road for covering the ffurniture from rain 10/’.

In 1761 the Earl returned over £25 of goods including the ‘15 Mahogy chairs diamond back & roses buff’d over seats osenburgh covers 21/… £15 15/’ and a bedstead, and insisted on a full refund. Peter attempted to dispute this, writing a persuasive letter with much detail about the perils of the cabinet making business:

‘The above was deliverd in May 1759, which is two years 2 months ago, Therefor it cannot faill of being a considerable loss to have said ffurniture returned otherway’s than at My Lords risk of sales for the ffollowing reasons Vizt. The easy chairs is so much larger than our common demand.

The fashion of the other 15 chairs altering every year, besides that of the covers being suddled & the wood darken’d by being so long made, must occasion selling with discount.

And as to the Bedstead, both in height & breadth being so much larger than our ordinary demand, might make it ly for years on hand before a Merchant cast up. Add to this the risk of breaking in the carriage as well as the expence, which perhaps might be got saved by selling them to some Gentleman in that Country to greater advantage, considering the outly of money from the delivery to such time as a Merchant appears, And at last the Number of chairs is more than probable what could be sold to one hand or got matched with the colour of the wood of others to be made at such a distance of time.’ Ultimately, however, he had to cede to his client, and he acknowledged settlement of his account in full, allowing for the refund at cost, ‘for value delivered by me to your Lordship’.

A letter of 1762, in response to an enquiry on behalf of Lord Lauderdale, is similarly illuminating. In it Peter declared that he ‘has square topt Mahogy standards… sd tops folding to prevent ye dust loging on ye top, ye price 15s each, the two small Mahogy claw tables wanted wt fixed tops if made of ye above size will cost 14s each, the tops square more liked of than ye round ones, should be glad to know which is most agreeable and if turned round, whether a leging like a tea board be required, at same time ye flat sqr answers ye use of setting either a bason or candle on, or writing a letter better than ye leg’d ones. Such sorts of plain tree both staind & natural colour are sold from 6 to 9s - shall wait your further order before I make those wanted’ [SRO NRA(S)832/1/11]. 

Other surviving furniture which can be attributed to Peter is scarce. There is seat furniture at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh, from a wider group of ‘French’ armchairs which Lucy Wood has attributed, at least in part, to Alexander Peter, and at Gosford House, East Lothian, which can be tentatively related to him either stylistically or by accounts. The furniture at Gosford was made for Francis Charteris of Amisfield to whom Peter supplied over £250 of items between 1745 and 1763 [NRA(S)208/40]. Also, closely related to the dining chairs at Dumfries House and sharing the same pattern of blind fret on the legs are four chairs at the Georgian House in Edinburgh (National Trust for Scotland) and a suite comprising a sofa and two armchairs, with two corresponding finely carved dining chairs (private Scottish collections), which all clearly come from Peter’s workshop.

Nevertheless, there are extensive surviving accounts to his other patrons. Notable examples including the ‘6 large walnuttree Chairs wt ovall seats and ovall Backs the feet done wt the form of An Eagles Claw and Ball also a Clam shell carved in the knee at £1 5/ p. Chair  £7 10/’ and ‘two large footstools suteable at 14/p.’ made for the Duke of Gordon in 1738 [SRO GD44/51/465/1/9]. Furniture and services provided to Lord Doune between 1734 and 1737 included ‘a large Eating table of Mahogany  £3 5/’, ‘12 large sized dineing Room chairs of beech wt Neats leather covers at 7/6p chair  £4 10/’, ‘8 Drawing Room Chairs of elm at 11/ p. C  £4 8/’,‘2 Dressing Chairs made of Virginia walnuttree wt stuffd backs and bottoms at 21/ p.  £2 2/’ and ‘a Card Table wt a Cover of fine green Cloath sunk in the Solid Mahoganie £2 5/’ [SRO NRA(S) 217/IV/9]. Lord Glenorchy who was refurbishing his apartments at Holyrood as well as the Breadalbane family seat at Taymouth Castle employed Peter between 1745 and 1754 despite having declared in exasperation in 1743 ‘that all the Tradesmen are alike in this Countrey, and I’m sure all that I ever had made at Edinr is abominable’ [RH15/10/41/5]. Items he bought included a dining table and ‘8 Mahogany Chairs @ 18/’ [SRO GD112/21/78, 79 & 281]. 

Sebastian Pryke

Sources: Bamford, ‘Dictionary of Edinburgh Wrights’, Furniture History (1993); Bamford ‘Two Scottish Wrights at Dumfries House’, Furniture History (1973); Pryke, ‘A Study of the Edinburgh Furnishing Trade Taken from Contemporary Press Notices, 1708-1790’, Regional Furniture (1989); Pryke, ‘Furnishing the House 1754-1760’, in Dumfries House; An Architectural History, RCAHMS (2014); Christie’s, Dumfries House, sale catalogue (2007); Gilbert, ‘Thomas Chippendale at Dumfries House’, Burlington Magazine (November 1969); Wood, ‘Catalogue of Chairs at the Lady Lever Museum (2008), vol. II; Pryke, ‘The 18th century furniture trade in Edinburgh’, unpublished PhD thesis, St Andrews University (1995), https://research-repository.st-andrews.ac.uk/handle/10023/11339