Birthplace: Stockton-on-Tees, Durham, England
Location of death: London, England
Cause of death: unspecified
Remains: Buried, St. James Church, Piccadilly, London, England
Race or Ethnicity: White
Executive summary: Neoclassic English furniture designer
Thomas Sheraton, next to Chippendale the most famous English furniture-designer and cabinet-maker, was born in humble circumstances at Stockton-on-Tees. His education was rudimentary, but he picked up drawing and geometry. He appears to have been apprenticed to a cabinetmaker, but he was ever a strange blend of mechanic, inventor, artist, mystic and religious controversialist. Indeed, it is as a writer on theological subjects that we first hear of him. Although his parents were church people he was a Baptist, and in 1782 he published at Stockton A Scriptural Illustration of the Doctrine of Regeneration, to which was added A Letter on the Subject of Baptism, describing himself on the title page as a "mechanic, one who never had the advantage of a collegiate or academical education." Of his career as a maker and designer of furniture nothing is known until he is first heard of in London in 1790, when he was nearly forty. The date of his migration is uncertain, but it probably took place while he was still a young man. In London he did work which, although it has made him illustrious to posterity, never raised him above an almost sordid poverty. Biographical particulars are exceedingly scanty, and we do not know to what extent, if at all, he worked with his own hands, or whether he confined himself to evolving new designs, or modifying and adapting, and occasionally partly copying, those of others. Such evidence as there is points to artistic, rather than mechanical work, after he began to write, and we know that some part of his scanty income was derived from giving drawing lessons. Even the remarkable series of volumes of designs for furniture which he published during the last sixteen years of his life, and upon which his fame depends, were not a commercial success. He was a great artistic genius who lived in chronic poverty. The only trustworthy information we possess regarding his circumstances is found in the Memoirs of Adam Black, who when he first arrived in London lodged a week in his house, only two years before Sheraton's death. "Sheraton", he says, "lived in a poor street in London, his house half shop, half dwelling-house, and himself looked like a worn-out Methodist minister, with threadbare black coat. I took tea with them one afternoon. There was a cup and saucer for the host, and another for his wife, and a little porringer for their daughter. The wife's cup and saucer were given to me, and she had to put up with another little porringer. My host seemed a good man, with some talent. He had been a cabinetmaker, and was now author, publisher, and teacher of drawing, and, I believe, occasional preacher." Black shrewdly put his finger upon the causes of Sheraton's failure. "This many-sided worn-out encyclopaedist and preacher is an interesting character... He is a man of talent and, I believe, of genuine piety. He understands the cabinet business -- I believe was bred to it. He is a scholar, writes well, and, in my opinion, draws masterly -- is an author, bookseller, stationer and teacher... I believe his abilities and resources are his ruin in this respect -- by attempting to do everything he does nothing." There is, however, little indication that Sheraton chafed under the tyranny of "those twin jailors of the daring heart, low birth and iron fortune." "I can assure the reader", he writes in one of his books, "though I am thus employed in racking my invention to design fine and pleasing cabinet-work, I can be well content to sit upon a wooden-bottom chair, provided I can but have common food and raiment wherewith to pass through life in peace."
His first book on furniture was published in 1791 with the title of The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer's Drawing Book. It was issued in parts by F. Bensley, of Bolt Court, Fleet Street; there was a second edition in 1793 and a third in 1802, each with improvements. In the first edition it was stated that copies could be obtained from the author at 41 Davies Street, Grosvenor Square; in the second, that he was living at 106 Wardour Street; the last address we have is 8 Broad Street, Golden Square. There was also an "Accompaniment" and an "Appendix." In this book, which contained 111 copperplate engravings, Sheraton gives abundant evidence of the arrogance and conceit which marred all his publications. He dismisses Chippendale's designs in a patronizing way as "now wholly antiquated and laid aside, though possessed of great merit according to the times in which they were executed." His lack of practical common sense is suggested by the fact that more than half the book is taken up with a treatise on perspective, needless then and unreadable now. He falls foul of every volume on furniture which had been published before his time, and is abundantly satisfied of the merit of his own work. The designs in the book are exceedingly varied and unequal, ranging from pieces of perfect proportion and the most pleasing simplicity to efforts ruined by too abundant ornament. Some of the chair-backs are delightful in their grace and delicacy, but in them, as in other of his drawings, it is easy to trace the influence of Hepplewhite and Adam -- it has even been suggested that he collaborated with the Adams. Sheraton, indeed, like his predecessors, made extensive use not so much perhaps of the works of other men as of the artistic ideas underlying them which were more or less common to the taste of the time. He was sometimes original, sometimes adaptive -- what Alexandre Dumas père called a "conqueror" -- sometimes a copyist. His conquest of Hepplewhite was especially unmerciful, for he abused as well as pillaged him. But his slender forms and sweeping curves were his own inspiration, and his extensive use of satinwood differentiated his furniture from most of that which had preceded it.
It must be remembered that Sheraton's books, like those of the other great cabinet-makers of the second half of the 18th century, were intended not for the general reader but for the practical use of the trade, which, no doubt, copied their designs extensively, although it is reasonable to suppose that he himself obtained orders by the publication of his books and employed other cabinet-makers to manufacture the work. It seems certain, however, that he himself never possessed anything more than a small shop. Of his own actual manufacture only one piece is known with certainty -- a glass-fronted bookcase, of somewhat frigid charm, stamped "T.S." on the inside of one of the drawers. It lacks the agreeable swan-necked pediment so closely associated with his style. The Drawing Book, of which a German translation appeared at Leipzig in 1794, was followed in 1802 and 1803 by The Cabinet Dictionary, containing an Explanation of all the Terms used in the Cabinet, Chair and Upholstery branches, containing a display of useful articles of furniture, illustrated with eighty-eight copperplate engravings. The text is in alphabetical form, and, in addition to a supplement with articles on drawing and painting, the book contained a list of "most of the master-cabinet-makers, upholsterers, and chair makers", 252 in number, then living in and around London. Sheraton told his readers that he had hitherto derived no profit from his publications on account of the cost of producing them. Some of the designs in this volume show the earlier stages of the tendency to the tortured and the bizarre which disfigured so much of Sheraton's later work. This debased taste reached its culmination in The Cabinet Maker, Upholsterer and General Artists' Encyclopedia, the publication of which began in 1804. It was to consist of 125 numbers, but when the author died two years later only a few had been issued. The plates are in color. The scope of this work was much wider than the title suggests. It dealt not only with furniture and decoration, but with history, geography, biography, astronomy, botany and other sciences. This fragmentary undertaking makes it clear that Sheraton ruined his style, once so graceful and so delicate, by an over-anxious following of the pseudo-classical taste which in France marked the period of the Consulate and the Empire. The harmonious marquetry, the dainty painting of flowers in wreaths and festoons, the lightness and finish were replaced by pieces of furniture which at the best were clumsy and at the worst were hideous. Some of the chairs especially which he designed in this last period are amazingly grotesque, their backs formed of fabulous animals, their knees and legs of the heads and claws of crowned beasts. Many charming little worktables bear Sheraton's attribution, but even these graceful trifles in his later forms lose their delicacy and become squat and heavy. He designed many beautiful sideboards and bookcases, but he finished by drawing pieces that were ruined by insistence upon the characteristics, and often the worst characteristics, of the Empire manner. Sheraton's inventive ingenuity had led him to devise many of the ingenious pieces of combination or "harlequin" furniture which the later 18th century loved. Thus a library table would conceal a step-ladder for reaching the top shelves of bookcases, a dressing table would be also a washstand and an escritoire -- but this he admitted that he did not introduce -- looking-glasses would enclose dressing-cases, writing tables or worktables. But his most astonishing fancy was an ottoman with "heating urns" beneath, "that the seat may be kept in a proper temperature in cold weather." How far he was responsible for the introduction of the hideous hall chair, made of mahogany, with the owner's crest painted on the back, which was common for three-quarters of a century after he died, is not clear; but he describes and illustrates it.
That Sheraton can have been personally popular is incredible. His books make it evident that his character was tart, angular and self-assertive, and that he was little disposed to be generous towards the work of predecessors or rivals. Such an attitude towards the world would suffice to explain his lack of substantial success. He appears to have preached occasionally to the end, and even in his furniture books he sometimes falls into improving remarks of a religious character. As we have seen, his first publication was a religious work, and when in 1794 his friend Adam Callender, the landscape painter, wrote a pamphlet entitled Thoughts on the Peaceable and Spiritual Nature of Christ's Kingdom, Sheraton contributed to it an exhortation upon Spiritual Subjection to Civil Government, which was reprinted separately with additions a year later. In 1805 he issued A Discourse on the Character of God as Love. He died on October 22nd, 1806, at No. 8 Broad Street, Golden Square, aged about 55, from, it is said, over-work. An obituary notice of him appeared in the Gentleman's Magazine of the following month, which stated that he had been for many years "a journeyman cabinet-maker, but since 1793 supported a wife and two children by authorship." He was described as "a well-disposed man, of an acute and enterprising disposition." The writer added that he had "left his family, it is feared, in distressed circumstances", and that he had travelled to Ireland to obtain subscribers for the Encyclopedia, of which at the time of his death nearly 1000 copies had been sold. In 1812 there appeared a folio volume, Designs for Household Furniture exhibiting a Variety of Elegant and Useful Patterns in the Cabinet, Chair and Upholstery Branches on eighty-four Plates. By the late T. Sheraton, Cabinet-maker. This was in the main, if not entirely, a collection of plates from the Cabinet Dictionary and the Encyclopedia.
Thomas Sheraton is unquestionably the most remarkable man in the history of English furniture. His genius was less sane and less balanced than that of Chippendale, but despite his excursions into the Chinese and Louis Quinze manners, Chippendale always produced an impression of English work. Sheraton's greater adaptability, his readiness to receive foreign impressions, his adaptations of Louis Seize ideas, the lightness of his forms and the grace of his conceptions had about them a touch of the exotic which was heightened by his lavish employment of satin-wood and other beautifully grained woods susceptible of a high polish. There are no more charming things outside French furniture than some of the creations of Sheraton in his great period. The severe and balanced forms, the delicate inlay, the occasional slight carving in low relief, the painted enrichments, the variety of the backs and legs of his chairs produce an impression of lightness and grace that has never been surpassed; whether he designed a little knife-case or the body of a long clock, harmony, proportion and a delicate fancy were ever present. It is true that he adapted and even copied extensively, but so did every one else, and it is impossible to be sure that a given conception is rightly attributed to the particular man whose name has become associated with it. Indeed "Sheraton", like "Chippendale", has come to indicate a style rather than a personal attribution. But the volume and the beauty of the designs in his books is such that, when every allowance has been made for adaptation, there remains a mass of beautiful work which cannot be denied to him. In later life his very adaptability was his undoing. The public, always ready to take its mobiliary fashions from France, demanded Empire furniture, and Sheraton may have been, or have believed himself to be, compelled to give them what they wanted. His extravagant creations in that sphere -- far worse than anything that was designed in France -- had much to do with the development of a fashion of English Empire which finally ruined British furniture design. He rioted in sphinxes and lions and fabulous beasts, he evolved forms that were dull and cumbrous, and added to their heaviness by brass mounts at once massive and uninspired. After his death the eccentricity may have been less, but the heaviness and dullness were greater, and with the disappearance of Sheraton the brief but splendid summer of English furniture ended in gloom. It had lasted little more than half a century, but it was a half-century which only France ever could, or did, rival. It is one of the strangest ironies in the history of art that the last and almost the greatest exponent of the English genius in the sphere of furniture was in the end mainly responsible for a decay from which there has as yet been no renaissance.
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