Decorative Style - Sheraton
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Thomas Sheraton was born in 1750, and was a journeyman cabinet-maker when he went to London. His great genius for furniture design was combined with a love of writing tracts and sermons. Unfortunately for his success in life, he had a most disagreeable personality, being conceited, jealous, and perfectly willing to pour scorn on his brother cabinet-makers. This impression he quite frankly gives about himself in his books. The name of Robert Adam is not mentioned, and this seems particularly unpleasant when one thinks of the latter's undoubted influence on Sheraton's work. Sheraton's unfortunate disposition probably helped to make his life a failure.
It is very sad to see such possibilities as his not reaping their true reward, for poverty dogged his steps all through life, and he was always struggling for a bare livelihood. His books were not financially successful, and at last he gave up his workshop and ceased to make the furniture he designed, He was an expert draughtsman and his designs were carried out by the skillful cabinet-makers of the day. Adam Black gives a very pitiful account of the poverty in which Sheraton lived, and says: " That by attempting to do everything he does nothing." His " nothing," however, has proved a very big something in the years which have followed, for Sheraton is responsible for one of the most beautiful types of furniture the world has known, and although his life was hard and bit-ter, his fame is great.
Sheraton took the style of Louis XVI as his standard, and some of his best work is quite equal to that of the French workmen. He felt the lack of the exquisite brass and ormolu work done in France, and said if it were only possible to get as fine in England, the superior cabinet-making of the English would put them far ahead in the ranks. To many of us this loss is not so great, for the beauty of the wood counts for more, and is not detracted from by an oversupply of metal ornament, as sometimes happened in France. " Enough is as good as a feast." Sheraton, at his best, had beauty, grace, and refinement of line without weakness, lightness and yet perfect construction, combined with balance, and the ornament just sufficient to enhance the beauty of the article without overpowering it. It is this fine work which the world remembers and which gave him his fame, and so it is far better to forget his later period when nearly all trace of his former greatness was lost.
Sheraton profited by the work of Chippendale, Adam, and Hepplewhite, for these great men blazed the trail for him, so to speak, in raising the art of cabinet-making to so high a plane that England was full of skilled workmen. The influence of Adam, Shearer, and Hepplewhite, was very greaton his work, and it is often difficult to tell whether he or Hepplewhite or Shearer made some pieces. He evidently did not have business ability and his bitter nature hampered him at every turn. The Sheraton school lasted from about 1790 to 1806. He died in 1806, fairly worn out with his struggle for existence. Poor Sheraton, it certainly is a pitiful story.
Sheraton's chair backs are rectangular in type, with urn splats, and splats divided into seven radiates, and also many other designs. The chairs were made of mahogany and satin-wood, some carved, some inlaid, and some painted. The splat never ran into the seat, but was supported on a cross rail running from side to side a few inches above the seat. The material used for upholstery was nailed over the frame with brass-headed tacks.
Bookcases were of mahogany and satinwood veneer, and the large ones were often in three sections, the center section standing farther out than the two sides. The glass was covered with a graceful design in moldings, and the pediments were of various shapes, the swan-neck being a favorite.
Sideboards were built on very much the lines of those made by Shearer and Hepplewhite. There were drawers and cup-boards for various uses. The knife-boxes to put on the top came in sets of two, and sometimes there was a third box. The legs were light and tapering with inlay of satinwood, and sometimes they were reeded. There was inlay also on the doors and drawers. There were also sideboards without inlay. The legs for his furniture were at first plain, and then tapering and reeded. He used some carving, and a great deal of satinwood and tulip-wood were inlaid in the mahogany ; he also used rosewood. The bellflower, urn, festoons, and acanthus were all favorites of his for deco-ration.
He made some elaborate and startling designs for beds, but the best known ones are charming with slender turned posts or reeded posts, and often the plain ones were made of painted satinwood.
The satinwood from the East Indies was fine and of a beautiful yellow color, while that from the West Indies was coarser in grain and darker in color. It is a slow growing tree, and that used nowadays cannot compare with the old, in spite of the gallant efforts of the hard working fakirs to copy its beautiful golden tone.
All the cabinet-makers of the eighteenth century made ingenious contrivances in the way of furniture, washstands concealed in what appear to be corner cupboards, a table that looks as simple as a table possibly can, but has a small step-ladder and book rest hidden away in its useful inside, and many others. Sheraton was especially clever in making these conveniences, as these two examples show, and his books have many others pictured in them. Sheraton's list of articles of furniture is long, for he made almost every-thing from knife-boxes to " chamber-horses," which were contrivances of a saddle and springs for people to take exercise upon at home.
Sheraton's " Drawing Book " was the best of those he published. It was sold chiefly to other cabinet-makers and did not bring in many orders, as Chippendale's and Hepplewhite's did. His other books showed his decline, and his " Encyclopedia," on which he was working at the time of his death, had many subjects in it beside furniture and cabinet-making. His sideboards, card-tables, sewing-tables, tables of every kind, chairs — in fact, everything he made during his best period have a sureness and beauty of line that makes it doubly sad that through the stress of circumstances he should have deserted it for the style of the Empire that was then the fashion in France. One or two of his Empire designs have beauty, but most of them are too dreadful, but it was the beginning of the end, and the eighteenth century saw the beautiful principles of the eighteenth century lost in a bog of ugliness.
There were many other cabinet-makers of merit that space does not allow me to mention, but the great four who stood head and shoulders above them all were Chippendale, Adam, Hepplewhite and Sheraton. They, being human, did much work that is best forgotten, but the heights to which they all rose have set a standard for English furniture in beauty and construction that it would be well to keep in mind.
The nineteenth century passed away without any especial genius, and in fact, with a very black mark against its name in the hideous early Victorian era. The twentieth century is moving along without anything we can really call a beautiful and worthy style being born. There are many working their way towards it, but there is apt to be too much of the bizarre in the attempts to make them satisfactory, and so we turn to the past for our models and are thankful for the legacy of beauty it has left to the world.