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The importance of designer labels.

Almost nothing was known of colonial furniture maker John Tulles's life, but, searching through archives, Ross Fox has uncovered new details--and attributed three pieces in the ROM's collections to tulles.


Identifying the work of most early Canadian furniture makers is frustratingly difficult. Craftsmen who applied paper labels to their pieces were rare in colonial Canada, but one who did was John Tulles.

For a brief time, Tulles (1771-1827) worked in the Halifax partnership of Tulles, Pallister & McDonald, and two labelled pieces made by the partnership are known--a drum table and a tall clock. A single card table labelled by Tulles working independently is also known. By studying these pieces, antique dealers Henry and Barbara Dobson were able to decipher the signature features of Tulles's work, and subsequently to identify a larger body of his furniture.

Relying on the Dobsons' pioneering work, published in 2010 in the book Heritage Furnishings of Atlantic Canada, I've recently been able to attribute two otherwise unidentified pieces in the ROM's collection to Tulles, and to identify a third piece that may have been by him as well.

When I started looking into Tulles, almost nothing was known about the man himself. Unfortunately, archival records from Nova Scotia in the early 19th century are sparse, and surviving runs of local newspapers, which are often good secondary sources of information, are incomplete. It makes the study of furniture from Halifax challenging. But with careful intermittent digging over the past several years, I have been able to uncover a few additional documents and some newspaper references that provide new insights into the cabinetmaker's life and work.

On December 26, 1771, John Tulles was born in Ferryporton-Craig (known today as Tayport) in Fife, Scotland, three miles across the Firth of Tay from Dundee. His parents were John Tulles (also Tullas, Tullis) and Mary Weyms (Weems, Wemyss). There is no other known record of Tulles's life in Scotland. The considerable skill evident in his Canadian furniture suggests he was thoroughly trained as a cabinetmaker in his homeland before emigrating to Canada. But where he apprenticed remains uncertain. Ferryport-on-Craig is unlikely as it was a mere village with a population of only 875 in 1792. Cupar in Fife, Dundee, or even Edinburgh would seem more likely.

The next time Tulles's name is documented he is already in Canada. In 1806, he signed a contract in Montreal with Peter Grant to construct a building at L'Orignal on the Upper Canadian side of the Ottawa River. (1) Grant was a fur trader who had recently settled near Montreal after spending two decades in the service of the North West Company in the upper Great Lakes region, and the building at L'Orignal may have been a trading post. In Scotland, particularly in provincial centres, it was not uncommon for wrights (or joiners, as they were called in Canada) to train as both house carpenter and cabinetmaker. This must have been the case with Tulles, who worked in both woodworking sectors throughout his career.


Tulles turns up next in Halifax, Nova Scotia, named in the baptismal record of his daughter Jane at St. Matthew's Presbyterian Church on September 30, 1810. I could find no marriage record--Tulles must have married before emigrating. When Tulles arrived in Halifax he would have found a thriving port town of about 10,000 people. The sole base for the Royal Navy in British North America, Halifax served throughout the Napoleonic Wars as a vital commercial entrepot for trade with the United States, the West Indies, and Great Britain. Local merchants also profited greatly from privateering, or legalized piracy, especially during the War of 1812.

Following wartime prosperity, though, the city experienced a prolonged post-war economic stagnation. In this environment of boom and bust Tulles produced some of the finest furniture to be identified with a Canadian cabinetmaker in the early 19th century. But he was not without local competitors.


Halifax already supported a robust furniture trade. Amos Lovett, Thomas Carswell, James Frame, and James Scott were among the established cabinetmakers Tulles would have encountered on his arrival. Others active during the period of his residency included Thomas Adams, John Cummings, and William Gordon. Many of the names are Scots and presumably, like Tulles, these craftsmen were recent emigrants from Scotland.

At first, Tulles worked in partnership with Thomas Pallister and an unidentified McDonald as Tulles, Pallister & McDonald, cabinetmakers and upholsterers. But the enterprise was not long-lived. According to the February 28, 1812, edition of the Boston newspaper the New-England Palladium, the workshop was destroyed by fire on January 23 of that year. This must have led to the immediate dissolution of the partnership because by February 5 an advertisement in the Nova-Scotia Royal Gazette shows that Pallister was working alone, as almost certainly was Tulles.

While Tulles lived in Halifax, the phenomenon of the furniture wareroom became established in the city, about a decade after it had reached Boston and Montreal. Until then, furniture was produced and retailed in small independent shops, where the pieces were usually bespoke (made to order). As retail warerooms or showrooms caught on, furniture was largely sold ready-made (2)-- imported from England, produced by journeymen cabinetmakers on the premises, or made by local outworker cabinetmakers. Auction ads for furniture regularly underscored the word "English," but reference to the place of manufacture was omitted for most locally made items, implying a perceived higher standard of quality for imports, whether merited or not.

Competition must have been intense. We know that Tulles operated his own wareroom, as indicated on his label. So did William Gordon; Hamilton, Stewart & Co.; and W. & A. Lovett. These three advertised in newspapers whereas, apparently, Tulles did not, except in his partnership with Pallister and McDonald. This might explain why, unlike his competitors, Tulles used paper labels. It may have been a matter of different marketing strategies.

From references not related to his business we can glean something of Tulles's social status in Halifax. In 1816, he served as an administrator of the estate of Alfred Gordon Adams, along with Miles W. White and Jared Ingersoll Chipman. (3) Adams was an architect and builder, White a merchant, and Chipman a barrister. That same year Tulles was a witness to a marriage bond for Alexander Gowrie, a carpenter, and in 1817, for Thomas Mackie, a grocer. (4) As well, Tulles was a member of the North British Society, a highly influential charitable organization dedicated to the support of the local Scots community, (5) and this membership would have facilitated his social and business advancement.

The final records I found were death notices. Tulles's wife, Jane, died in 1825 and Tulles himself on January 28, 1827. (6) His estate papers consist of his will, probate papers, and an account of his furniture that was sold at auction. (7) The forms mentioned reflect the kind of furniture he was known to have made (detailed in the only ad for Tulles's goods that I could find, which ran May 23, 1818, in the Acadian Recorder announcing that a block of furniture by Tulles was to be sold on the 29th). The most significant pieces included a hair sofa, a secretary (or so-called butler's desk), two easy chairs, three chests of drawers, a Pembroke table, a set of dining tables, a corner cupboard, a liquor stand, and an eight-day (tall) clock. The estate was to be divided equally among his three children: Mary Weyms, Jane, and John Jr. But perhaps most poignant was the will's first directive: "That my body be interred in a plain but decent manner near to the remains of my beloved wife."

To this day, no specific pieces of furniture have been identified with any of the other cabinetmakers mentioned in this article. What the most successful marketing strategy was at the time Tulles was making furniture has yet to be properly assessed. But Tulles's use of labels--like Thomas Nisbet of Saint John, New Brunswick, who labelled a large number of his pieces--served ultimately to guarantee him especially high recognition in the history of Halifax and its early furniture.


The author has recently identified these three pieces in the ROM's collection as Tulles works.


The benchmark piece used to identify Tulles furniture is a card table in a private collection that bears Tulles's label (see label on page 17). Comparison of a ROM card table with the benchmark table and other known Tulles pieces shows that Tulles must have made the ROM piece.

The front and sides of the apron have line inlay ending in double curves enclosing an arrowhead motif, which resembles that on another card table in the Tulles group. (8) Here, ebonized (blackened) inlay is juxtaposed against lighter-coloured but relatively dark mahogany. Light maple on dark mahogany was used in the benchmark piece.

The ROM table has a D-form top which, when opened, is square with rounded corners, compared with the canted corners on the benchmark table, which opens into an octagonal top. The D-form was popular in both England and Scotland, (9) a preference that extended to Canada. The octagonal form, though English in origin, was more prevalent in Scotland and New York City, and, except for Tulles, apparently was little used in Canada. The essential designs of both card tables are characteristic of the early Regency period.




A second ROM piece, a sofa table, shares design features with several other sofa tables from Halifax that are tentatively attributed to John Tulles. (10)

Developed in England during the 1790s, sofa tables--which were then placed in front of a sofa and not behind as in later practice--gained widespread acceptance over the succeeding decade. An example is described and illustrated in Thomas Sheraton's The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer's Drawing-Book of 1803. In Halifax, an early reference to the form occurs in an 1811 auction of household furniture belonging to Captain John Cochet R.N. (11) Military and naval officers and colonial administrators posted to the colonies often brought their furniture with them, but auctioned it off before returning home. It is probably safe to speculate that Captain Cochet's sofa table was English. Such imports helped colonial cabinetmakers keep up to date with English design trends.

Like all sofa tables, this one consists of an elongated upper frame with two drawers on one of the long sides, two false-drawer fronts on the opposite side, and drop leaves on the short ends.

Supports can vary greatly, but the ROM's sofa table, like related sofa tables from Halifax, is characterized by trestle end supports with down-swept legs and a high, turned horizontal stretcher (though in some cases, the stretcher is flat). It belongs to a basic type that won widespread acceptance in England during the early Regency period.

Aside from the overall form of the table, indicators of a probable connection with Tulles rest with motifs such as the inlaid diamond shape of the outside drawer posts and the triple line inlay of the legs.


This low, open (or dwarf) bookcase can be confidently attributed to Tulles.

Made of bird's-eye maple veneer on a pine carcase, the bookcase has ebonized line inlay on the front stiles that ends in a fleur-de-lis motif above. On the flat top, similar line inlay scrolls at the front corners where it flanks a double lily motif.

The contrast of dark inlay against light wood imparts a sense of clarity and elegance to the overall design, especially when the inlay is as finely rendered as Tulles's. Ebonized inlay against satinwood was well suited to the neoclassic aesthetic of early Regency England, a look recommended in A Collection of Designs for Household Furniture and Interior Decoration, in the Most Approved and Elegant Taste (London, 1808) by the persuasive design arbiter George Smith: "With satin and light-coloured woods the decorations may be of ebony or rose-wood."

Here, Tulles used a less expensive local wood rather than a tropical one to achieve a comparable effect. Different and often colourful combinations of mahogany and maple are another hallmark of his furniture.



(1.) Bibliotheque et archives nationales du Quebec, Centre d'archives de Montreal. Greffe Jonathan A. Gray, 26 February 1806.

(2.) Nancy Goyne Evans, Windsor-Chair Making in America: From Craft Shop to Consumer (Hanover and London: University Press of New England, 2006), 108.

(3.) Nova-Scotia Royal Gazette (Halifax), 1 February 1816.

(4.) Nova Scotia Archives, Marriage Bonds, 19 January 1816 and 4 December 1817.

(5.) James S. MacDonald, Annals of the North British Society of Halifax, Nova Scotia (Halifax: John Bowes, 1894), 71. The North British Society, which still exists, is the oldest Scots Heritage Society outside Great Britain.

(6.) Acadian Recorder (Halifax), 1 October 1825; 3 February 1827.

(7.) Nova Scotia Archives, Estate Papers, Halifax County, Vol. 1 (1750-1841), T72.

(8.) Henry Dobson and Barbara Dobson, Heritage Furnishings of Atlantic Canada (Kingston, ON: Quarry Heritage Books, 2010), 254-58.

(9.) Mary Ann Apicella, Scottish Cabinetmakers in Federal New York (Hanover and New London: University Press of New England, 2007), 121-22.

(10.) Dobson and Dobson, 271-72, 286-87.

(11.) Nova-Scotia Royal Gazette, 12 April 1811.
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Author:Fox, Ross
Publication:ROM Magazine
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Mar 22, 2012
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