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Decorative Periods:
Decorative Stles And Periods In The Home
General Antiquity
Pompeian Decorative Styles And Periods
Gothic Decorative Styles And Periods
The Renaissance
Decorative Styles And Periods In Italy
Decorative Styles And Periods In France
The Style Of Louis Quatorze
The Style Of Louis Quinze
The Style Of Lous Seize
Empire Decorative Styles And Periods
Elizabethan Or Tudor Styles Sixteenth Century
Jacobean Period
Queen Anne
Chippendale Middle Of Eighteenth Century
The Adams Brother
Hepplewhite Book Issued 1789
Shearton - End Of The Eighteenth Century
English And American Empire
Art Nouveau

The Decorative Style Of Shearton

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

A man's works were all the public cared for in the days when Sheraton was living sadly and working indefatigably. We are different now, more humane than the people of that extravagant voluptuous time in England, when with George III on the throne the court was stolidly moral and the aristocracy, laughing in its silken sleeve at such stupid virtue, continued the extravagance and debauchery it had learned under George II.

Moreover, at that time the world was made for the fine lady and the fine gentleman, and of all others they seemed to be saying, " Ces gens-la, ils n'existent pas." It was a time when humility played its part to excess, when men great in achievement bent the knee to aristocracy, laughed at its jokes, wept at its praise, and altogether proved themselves of no value except to serve the exalted beings born in the charmed con gregation of the nobility. These fine people accepted, however, with noble condescension all the results of talent that contributed to the embellishment of their ornamental lives, although the individual himself counted for nothing.

Of this class was Thomas Sheraton. He had company enough in those days when all the world strove to please a sated few, but his case always brings a sympathetic tug at the heart strings, for his poverty and the sensitive nature which was possibly its cause. Of Chippendale we think without sentiment, talented, industrious, but commercially wise. Sheraton had a talent as fine, an industry as unflagging, but with it a gentle conscientious nature which sought retirement rather than conspicuousness and which contributed not at all to financial success.

In place of a fashionable shop made an open club by all the gay folk in town, Sheraton was hid in a quiet neighbourhood where he studied exhaustively, and worked with conscience. His style was not exclusively his own, for if the history of furniture shows anything it shows that the times clamour for expression and all artists of the moment express the nation's momentary thought. The evidence of true talent is found in using the common expression, and engrafting thereon the inspired originality that is the precious jewel of the gifted. Sheraton's work is sufficiently similar to that of the Adam brothers and of Hepplewhite to be recognised as belonging to the second half of the eighteenth century, yet it has its distinguishing marks.

It is not to be supposed from a neglect to mention them, that this time was not rich in other skilled designers and craftsmen. Chief among these was Shearer, who published a book in 1788; Matthias Darley, and George Richardson. But Sheraton surpasses them as Chippendale surpassed his imitators.

It is not difficult to see the character of Sheraton in his work, which speaks ever of honesty and refinement, as well as a scholarly acquaintance with art and mathematics. He was himself a man of great cultivation, with strong doctrinal inclinations, an ascetic in living. His coats were threadbare, his table scant, and his home in smoky Soho. What meagre accounts exist of this famous man fill us with pity for him that his greatness was so little recognised by himself, and so little rewarded financially. He was by nature a draughtsman and mathematician, and united the two in his exhaustive details for furniture making. His tastes made of him a student and he wrote with elegant facility.

It is plain that he was no ordinary mechanic, and had he not lived in a time when only the fine gentleman received notice, he would have ranked high. His posthumous fame is as great now as that of any maker of great style; he is dear to the hearts of American home-makers, but his rewards in life were meagre. His attempts to build up a profitable business in London met with such scant success that he abandoned it for the drawing of designs for others to copy. The pathos of unchanging poverty clings to him and conveys a futile wish that we, who so strongly appreciate his worth, might in some way alleviate the trials long past.

" To unite with usefulness the taste of the times," was the desire set forth in his book. The taste of the times was the Louis Seize style, and Sheraton, therefore, made an adaptation of the fashion of the court of Marie Antoinette. It is by knowing the characteristics of this chastest period of French decorative art that one can the more easily identify the work of Sheraton, allowing of course for the greater restraint of the English temperament.

A feature by which his furniture is generally known is the round leg, fluted or reeded or otherwise embellished, just the leg seen on the furniture of Louis Seize. But this leg he by no means confined himself to, and thus many are led into error. I have had owners of Sheraton sideboards pronounce them Hepplewhite on account of the fallacy that Sheraton legs are always round. The same mistake is made with the tables which appear in such infinite variety at this time, and on which Sheraton used both the rounded legs and the tapered square.

It was mainly in chairs that Sheraton used the rounded leg always without under-framing, and also in his after-work bordering on the Empire which will be considered later. In armchairs the effect of this rounded leg, from which the arm rises in beautiful completeness of design, is a charming decorative feature, one that never loses sight of utility nor of proper construction. These chairs when found in our country are often accredited to French origin and looked on as dainty aliens which have thrust their pretty selves into soberer society.

The chair-back is full of individuality. It resembles Chippendale in nothing except the open carving, and exceeds Hepplewhite in delicacy. It shows so strong a tendency to the upright that the most marked examples are formed of three straight ornamented bars surrounded with the frame. For purposes of identification this is a safe rule to follow, although poet's license must be given to allow for the impulses of the artist. The tendency to use the urn shape as a motive is less marked in Sheraton than in his contemporary Hepplewhite. Chairs were made of mahogany and of satinwood.

Sofas of Sheraton's are long and simple in shape, with very little curving, but with a most pleasing elegance. The legs are like those of chairs, almost invariably round, and four are placed across the front. An unbroken frame of wood extends from the top of the front leg to form the arms and to outline the back which is rectangular. Sofas of this kind are not uncommon in our country, but usually their owners know them not. Perhaps they may read this book and learn the value of the piece they now speak of with a non-committal, " I don't know what that is -just an old thing I picked up cheap."

A study of Sheraton's book shows that very few of his more elaborate pieces have come to us on this side of the water, but that our people imported the simpler furniture which reflected his style. Sheraton himself aimed at meeting the demand for simple things, although furnishing at the same time designs suitable for the extravagance of England. Most familiar to us are the little tables of infinite variety with which he and Hepplewhite and their imitators flooded the New World. They are inimitably dainty, these tables, with their smooth, uncarved surfaces and delicate decoration of line inlay or husks. Their characteristic taper legs have been criticised as thin and weak in effect. Perhaps they are, but to us who love them they speak of gentle grace and chaste refinement. It is true that tables of this sort do not " furnish " as much as the heavier sort, but they are sufficiently rare to be cherished as bibelots.

The tops of tables vary greatly in shape and manner. Various contrivances are arranged for increasing the size by means of leaves, which either drop down, or are the counterpart of the semicircular or oblong top on which they are reversed. The favourite straight line is rarely ever seen on these table-tops which are most graceful and piquant in outline.

Sheraton regarded the table-top as a field for decoration, as many another artist in furniture has done to the perplexity of womankind which is torn by two minds, the wish to expose the decoration and the desire to lay things down. Sheraton used inlay of a delicately classic sort, fans, too, for simple work, but for his finest pieces employed Angelica Kauffmann to paint thereon one of her rich fancies. One can easily imagine her friend, Sir Joshua, bending over the smooth, glossy surface of such a table, praising and criticising in the elegantly formal language of the day.

The tables designed especially for card playing, with recesses for coin, suggest the amusements of that profligate time when the aristocracy, bored with the court of " Farmer George," found in the prince and his racy amusements the excuse for laxity. It makes good reading now, the accounts of fair ladies who grew avaricious over the game, of gallant gentlemen who drank and gambled away their estates all for " the honour of a gentleman." The interpretation of gentleman in the days when elbows were leaned on Sheraton's tables had little to do with either gentleness or manliness. Honour, too, had its perverted meaning, being vain and sensitive, sustaining pride more than virtue. However that may be, the people of that day seem to glow with undying vitality, and add to it a dash and charm that is never found in modernity.

But if belles and beldames, fops and sycophants gathered around these tables, so also did lovely blackhaired Sarah Lennox, eloquent Burke, Beau Brummel, and Horace Walpole, who himself was such a lover of old furniture that the fame of his Strawberry Hill collection will never end. Besides these we have Burgoyne, " tripping off from St. James' street to conquer the Americans, and slinking back into the club somewhat crestfallen after his beating." And around these Sheraton tables with their spindly supports gathered also in the New World the men who made our history, who fought and thought and drew up constitutions -Washington, Lafayette, Franklin, and all the noble followers.

Perhaps the most loved legacy of Sheraton in this country is the sideboard. Its beauty is unquestioned, and fortunate indeed are the owners of one of these graceful conveniences. That so many are found in our country shows the quick growth of wealth among the newly independent States, and the increase in luxury, an increase that has accelerated with the years until the conservative see in it a future menace.

Sideboards were only side-tables previous to the time of Hepplewhite and Sheraton, but the time had come when quick and elegant serving was a necessity in a gentleman's household. The convex corner of Hepplewhite was avoided by Sheraton, who was of the two the better artist, the greater student, and who had a talent for inventing conveniences. His corner was always convex, thus giving more space to the cupboard or drawers at the end. And, as said before, this is the distinguishing mark between the two. All unite in having four taper legs dividing up the front space.

Silver and such small conveniences were put within drawers, but as plate was increasing in amount, Sheraton often affixed a decorative frame of brass at the back as a support.

The dining-table made of two parts to form a round, with tapering legs, and the dainty sideboard call to mind the elegant hospitality which prevailed on both sides of the water, in England and in her lost colonies. Chippendale wares speak of colonial times, but these delicate fancies of Sheraton were the taste of the high-minded ladies and gentlemen of both North and South when national independence was new and uncertain, social conditions a trifle disordered and the wisdom of Washington questioned by political opponents.

Houses were heated by open fires then, and screens a necessity. Sheraton's fancy led him to make many of the little pole-screens that protected the fair bright cheeks of Sir Joshua Reynolds' beauties, but which prevented no gazing into the glowing coals. Horsehair screens were equally popular, but less graceful. This was a time when all persons of social prominence affected, if they did not feel, an interest in literary matters, when man wrote rhymes to the charms of his innarmorata, and woman replied in piquant verse. Notes flew about in Vanity Fair like flocks of Venus' doves, and everyone aimed at ease in writing.

It was but natural then that the desk should be an article of furniture much in demand.

Sheraton devoted himself to two kinds of desks, the bureau-bookcase and the trifling affair of the boudoir. The former gets its name from the French, where bureau has the wide significance of important affairs. Its noble intent was to provide in one piece all the necessities of the man of literary tastes or the gentleman of estates. A combination of desk and bookcase was then considered a piece of furniture which added distinction to a home, and at once placed its owner above challenge intellectually or socially.

The desk half was commodious, with large drawers for the storing of papers, accounts and stationary, with a wide drop leaf for the accommodation of elbows. Above this was an ever varied arrangement of pigeon-holes, infinitesimal drawers, and above all of secret drawers. Indeed, no desk of the time was considered complete without the latter. When letters and poems of a sentimental nature were being written and received, a place must be provided against the prying eye. It was in ingenious contrivances for this and other purposes that Sheraton revelled, working them all out with mathematical precision and executing them with that genius that has its foundation in a limitless capacity for taking pains.

The top of the bureau-bookcase was what its name implies, an arrangement of shelves for books. Surely no arrangement could be better than this, that one may, while writing, lift the hand to the book wanted for reference, an address, or for correct orthography. The front was protected by glass doors, made beautiful by tracery of wood in a style closely resembling designs of Hepplewhite, but differing from them in dealing more freely with curves. Sometimes the bookcase was no more than a top to the desk; in other instances it was a large affair to cover half the side of a room, with the desk in the centre.

Hepplewhite is called deficient in the designing of the pediment which so often crowned these large pieces of furniture, but Sheraton revived for their completion the broken pediment in use in Queen Anne's time, and is also known for the swan-neck pediment which differs only in the turn of the curve.

In contrast to the serious appearance of the bureau-bookcase is the trifling elegance of the lady's desk. On this pretty thing Sheraton let his fancy play, and by means of springs and panels, drawers and leaves made an affair as complicated as possible, lacking nothing but commodiousness. The word writing-table might better describe some of these slight affairs.

Sheraton is responsible for the style of desk known as kidney shape, and of many knee-hole designs with flat tops.

A reminder of his painstaking is found in the small wares of the day, in the little things we delight in finding in the shop of the dealer in antiques on this side of the Atlantic. In this class are the little toilette glasses perched on a drawer intended to complete the dressing-bureaus of the day. Both Hepplewhite and Sheraton made these and decorated them with the tiny line of inlay that was their specialty in simple ornamentation.

The liqueur case was another compact convenience, filled with bottles and glasses, thin and richly gilded on the top. Little secretaries which shut close and formed a non-committal box for the guarding of correspondence showed another phase of ingenuity. Knife-boxes, urns and tea-caddies we have already noticed, but too much cannot be said about the beauty of their execution, their exquisite defeat of all the purposes of wood through curving veneer into rounded outlines.

In a final summing up it may be said that the styles of Sheraton are honest styles, speaking of high morality, and cultivation on the part of their designer. The construction is honest, usually square, and without tricks of light and shadow made by projecting ornament. Its beauty is its chasteness and the perfection of craftsmanship lavished upon it. To reproduce it today, without omitting its atmosphere of poetry which the touch of the human hand alone can give, is so nearly impossible under modern methods that we value immeasurably the old examples left us.

What were the rooms like in which the chaste furniture of Hepplewhite and Sheraton was displayed? These two men were not as general in the application of their talents as were the brothers Adam, confining themselves exclusively to furniture. But their designs were in absolute harmony with the dainty and attenuated drawing of interior decoration.

The note struck was that of the refined classic, and this note was sounded into thinness. Rooms left to the decorators were cold, almost meagre in flat, scant wood-work and an elimination of architectural effect. Italian artists acquired great popularity in England at this time, but while bringing with them their exuberant pencils they left behind their warmth of temperament, and so we find the decorations of Pergolesi fine but elaborately thin, adding little of that sense of hospitality that should be the sine qua non of every drawing-room.

With the dado shrunken, the cornice minimised and the pilaster replaced by a tracery, rooms looked cold and formal, but the saving grace of these salons were the paintings inserted in panels. Angelica Kauffmann was painting for ceilings and side walls, and Cipriani was also at work. Large scenes in warm rich colours, of designs suggesting all sorts of mythological memories, enriched these rooms which were set with the furniture of Hepplewhite and Sheraton.

Windows were draped with silks in bright colours and small formal designs, and with furniture similarly covered a look artistic and chaste was imparted. As England set the styles for America, so we followed to the best of our growing ability.

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