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Shoolbred, James & Co. (1814-1934)

Shoolbred, James & Co.

Tottenham Court Road, London; furniture makers (fl. 1814-c.1934)

James Shoolbred was a linen draper of Scottish descent. In 1814 he formed a partnership, Shoolbred & Co., which moved to 153 Tottenham Court Road in 1817. The firm gradually expanded to include woollen drapery, silk mercery, haberdashery and carpet supplies. James died in 1862 and his sons continued to expand as James Shoolbred & Co Ltd. By 1880 they had become one of London’s largest furnishing retailers employing over 500 staff. Although some furniture had been sold prior to this, in 28 June 1873 the firm announced in the Furniture Gazette an important addition of a new department, managed by D Murray, devoted to furniture and decoration, to their already large premises on Tottenham Court Road. Much of the stock was made in the firm’s own workshops and professional designers such as Owen W. Cavis and H. W. Batley were engaged. The latter specialised in Japanese and Old English furniture styles and also designed pianos, one ‘Art Furniture’ example, with Gothic legs and Japanese ornament, for Shoolbred (illus. Aslin (1962), pl. D). By 1879 enlarged or new premises housed a cabinet factory and specialist workshops for upholstery, bedding, venetian and sun blinds, carpets, carpentry, decorating and ironmongery. As late as 1880 when the ‘Old English’ style was at the height of its popularity Shoolbreds claimed to have the superiority in upholstery over their rivals, since they employed French and German upholsterers. They also made some fine ebonised furniture with painted panels and furniture in the Louis Seize style, as illustrated in their 1874-89 catalogues. A rosewood drawing room suite and corner by Shoolbreds was selected for publicity in Cabinet Maker in August 1880 because it represented ‘the prevailing style of the day, a free treatment of Queen Anne’; it was certainly not derived from genuine furniture or architecture of that period, the term here merely implied the application of a few eighteenth century details. 

The firm exhibited at the 1853 New York Exhibition and then at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial exhibition they had the biggest stand in the British section, with six rooms complete with carpets and wall hangings; they presented the Jacobean, Queen Anne and Anglo-Indian styles and showed a mahogany dining room suite in the ‘Italian Renaissance’ style, designed by Owen William Davis (illus. Meyer (2006), p. 214). At the 1878 Paris Exhibition they furnished the snuggery of Doulton & Co.’s terracotta house, the furniture mostly in satinwood with silk panelling to designs by H. W. Batley, including a side table and a piano (illus. Meyer (2006), p. 239). They also showed work in the main Industrial court, where they took a large space of three separate divisions, to display walnut and rosewood library furniture, a dining room suite, an oak mantelpiece, a buffet and bedroom furniture in inlaid teak all by the same designer. Their furniture was deemed the best quality of the period. The firm is recorded in the Lord Chamberlain’s accounts in 1885 and was awarded a Royal Warrant.

Shoolbred’s marketed their furniture in a series of artistic catalogues produced annually with new designs. The furniture was always displayed and photographed alongside the textiles, carpets and other accessories that the company sold, creating sample interiors for customers to view. Plates of the furnished interiors of some rooms were repeated in the firm's catalogues for over 20 years and included ‘masterpieces of Adam, Chippendale, Sheraton and the English Renaissance [as well as] the practical solidity of early Victorian lines, now once again attaining  a certain vogue’ (1910). Designs from the 1876 & 1883 Shoolbred catalogues are reproduced in Joy (1977). The firm subcontracted some furniture production and it is known that a cabinet, the design of which was featured in the 1882 catalogue, was made by Robertson & Son, Alnwick (illus. Agius (1978), pl. 242). About 1894 the firm of Frederick Parker, already a supplier to Shoolbreds, moved to 280 Euston Road, a property owned by Shoolbreds. This building comprised two floors; one for the chairmakers, timber store and showroom and the floor above for upholsterers.  However, Shoolbreds decided to pull down the factory, and Parker left in 1895.  

Maple, Shoolbred and S J Waring & Sons were involved 1890-96 with the interior work of the new Hotel Cecil in the Strand but the only known surviving interiors (panelling and furniture) supplied by Shoolbreds are at Kinloch Castle, Isle of Rum, Scotland. The castle was built in 1897-1904 by Sir George Bullough, whose family made its fortune in textile manufactory in Lancashire and who owned the island. Sir George died in 1939 and after the death of his wife, Monica Lily in 1967, the castle passed to Scottish National Heritage. 

In 1928 Shoolbreds mounted an exhibition of ‘Modern Furniture’ butin 1931 the stock and goodwill of the firm was bought by Harrods. By the end of 1934 the shop was closed and the merchandise sold off.

Sources: Aslin, 19th Century English Furniture (1962); Joy, ‘The Royal Victorian Furniture-Makers, 1837-87’, The Burlington Magazine (November 1969); Joy, The Overseas Trade in Nineteenth Century, Furniture History (1970); Joy, Pictorial Dictionary of British 19th Century Furniture Design (1977); Barty-King, Maples. Fine Furnishers. A Household Name for 150 Years (1992); Donnelly, ‘British Furniture at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, 1876’, Furniture History (2001); Claxton Stevens, ‘A Recently Discovered Piece of Ephemera relating to James Shoolbred & Co. Ltd’, FHS Newsletter (November 2002); Meyer, Great Exhibitions. London, New York, Paris, Philadelphia. 1851-1900 (2006).