Sheraton's Early Career
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Thomas Sheraton was born at Stockton-on-Tees about the year 1750. It would appear that he received little education in his boyhood, and probably like many of that day was early apprenticed, and taught the art of wood-working. We read of him as a journeyman cabinet-maker, after he had mastered the craft. Apparently, however, he took what opportunities came his way to acquire some technical knowledge of draughtsmanship, and it would seem that the designing of furniture was more to his taste than the practical application of those designs. That he regretted the few opportunities he had had of acquiring knowledge in his early days is apparent from his writings, for he describes himself as a mechanic " who never received the advantages of a collegial or academic education." He became a writer, however, as well as a draughtsman and designer. He seems to have early shown some aptitude as a teacher, for while yet in his native town he made his appearance as a preacher, taking up such doctrinal subjects as " Spiritual Subjection " and " Baptism " and " Regeneration." He had been a member of the Church of England in his earlier days, but adopted the tenets of the Baptist denomination. He left Stockton in 1790, taking up his abode in London, where he hoped to have greater scope for his energies. He commenced issuing tracts shortly after his arrival, and soon became noted as a preacher in Baptist chapels. Although not altogether neglecting his career as a furniture designer, he appears to have been so imbued with religious sentiment that in some of his earlier commercial books he discanted upon religious topics and Bible history. Having once become established in London, the great work of his life, that for which he is best known to-day, was, however, commenced in real earnest.
HIS LIFE IN LONDON
Sheraton's life in London seems to have been threefold—that of preacher, teacher, and publisher. Financially, Sheraton was a failure, and he appears to have lacked the business qualities which would have enabled him to put to practical use the ideas he had conceived, for although he had many brilliant suggestions to give forth to the world he was content with designing and writing out specifications, leaving others to reap the commercial benefits which would probably have been his had he applied his technical knowledge and research in the same practical way Chippendale did some years before. Sheraton lived at a somewhat unfortunate period, commercially. In France the struggle was going on between King and people, and the National Convention was at that time disposing of the confiscated treasures of the nobility. The closing years of the century, too, were overclouded by the coming conflict between England and France. Sheraton was struggling on, but his publications were bringing him more fame than money. He became narrowed in his views, and, it is said, soured by adversities. As an author, a bookseller, a teacher of drawing, and a preacher, he laboured under considerable difficulties. Adam Black was one of the few men who seem to have understood Sheraton, and to have appreciated his qualities. The tribute he paid to the famous designer in his " Memoirs " was : " I believe his abilities and resources are his ruin, for by attempting to do everything he does nothing." Undoubtedly Sheraton was a visionary, and in his school of design, and in the books he published, while carefully preparing the educative work he was following, and in giving to cabinet-makers a style to follow, he gained many of his inspirations from designs that were actually being formulated and worked by other men ; but, curiously enough, there were some he ignored, among them the Brothers Adam, who were then exercising considerable influence in architectural decoration. Yet Sheraton was able to create a style, notwithstanding the borrowed sources of some of his suggested schemes, and he exercised no little influence in the promulgation of " The Cabinet-maker and Upholsterer's Drawing Book."
Thomas Sheraton was modest in his requirements, and was content with small things, for describing himself he said : " Employed in racking my invention to design fine and pleasing cabinet-work, I can be well content to sit on a wooden bottom chair myself, provided I can but have common food and raiment wherewith to pass through life in peace." Of his life in London, Adam Black, who never lost touch with Sheraton, wrote of him : " He lived in an obscure street, his house half shop, half dwelling-house, and looked himself like a worn-out Methodist minister, with threadbare black coat. I took tea with them one afternoon. There were 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 cabinet-maker, was now author and publisher, teacher of drawing, and, I believe, occasional preacher." After a week in Sheraton's house, Black continued : Not only were all the surroundings exceedingly humble, but also dirty and ill-kept."
Such, then, was the man who was at that time publishing the efforts of his research, and giving the benefit of his experience as a designer to the cabinet-making trade. He was careful in his publications to give detailed descriptions of how his work could best be carried out. Sometimes he seemed almost querulous, and had a grievance against everything and everybody. In the preface to " The Drawing Book " Sheraton tells of his aims and also of his ambitions. He says : " I find some have expected such designs as never were seen, heard of, nor conceived in the imagination of man ; whilst others have wanted them to suit a broker's shop, to save them the trouble of borrowing a basin-stand to show a customer. Some have expected it to furnish a country wareroom, to avoid the expense of making up a good bureau, and double chest of drawers with canted corners, etc., and though it is difficult to conceive how these different qualities could be united in a book of so small a compass, yet, according to some reports, the broker himself may find his account in it, and the country master will not be altogether disappointed ; whilst others say many of the designs are rather calculated to show what may be done, than to exhibit what is being, or has been, done in the trade. According to this, the designs turn out to be on a more general plan than what I intended them, and answer beyond my expectation the above various descriptions of subscribers."
Sheraton's ambition was to make a name for himself as a teacher and instructor of the cabinet-maker's trade, and in his book he often gave information which advanced cabinet-makers of the present day would consider to be superfluous. Modern practice is in favour of using thoroughly seasoned timber, and many manufacturers, both in the past and in the present, have placed great reliance upon seasoned materials, which, combined with skilled workmanship, make their products famous. Sheraton, however, either had to deal with men who were apt to use raw material, or he deemed it necessary to suggest some methods of meeting such a contingency should it arise. Thus in his book he points out that panels should stand to shrink as much as possible when tongued and fitted, adding, " They should stand for some time at a moderate distance from the fire, for if such methods are not pursued the panels will shrink, and their joints draw down."