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Sheraton - The Cabinet Maker And Upholsterer's Drawing Book

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



The whole story of Thomas Sheraton, and the influence he brought to bear upon the cabinet-making trade of this country towards the close of the eighteenth century, terminates in " The Cabinet-maker and Upholsterer's Drawing Book," which he published as an instructive work, intending to gain fame and a lasting name as a designer of furniture and as a teacher. This book differed from works that had already been published, and also from the catalogues of contemporary makers, in that Sheraton had apparently no thought of entering to any great extent into competition with those who purchased his book. He was an exponent of the new style rather than a man destined to leave his mark upon the world as a clever craftsman. The first quarto parts of " The Drawing Book " were published within a year or so of Sheraton's settlement in London. He must have worked wonderfully hard as a writer, an engraver, printer, and publisher, for not only did he produce the book, but he secured seven hundred and seventeen advance subscribers. How those subscriptions were obtained is not quite clear. Those were not the days of extensive circularisation, and postal communication was costly. Many of the subscribers, especially those in London and the neighbourhood, were doubtless secured by personal canvas. In some instances Sheraton credited specialists with being the originators and best-known makers of certain goods, such, for instance, as his mention of J. Lane as a maker of knife-cases. How the subscribers were induced to purchase a book, the con-tents of which did not appear altogether from the title, we do not know. The main point seems to be that it was explained that the book was a book of new designs, and, fortunately for the publisher, it came at a time when new designs were needed.

There were six sections in " The Drawing Book " filled almost entirely with general information and a treatise on geometry. Then came fifty-six more pages dealing with the five orders of architecture ; following these introductory matters there was another portion, consisting of one hundred and seventy-three pages, purporting to explain perspective and to give some lessons in reference to it. It was not until the latter portion of the book was published that the practical cabinet - making, which would interest most of his readers, was touched upon. All throughout Sheraton's work there was a certain amount of spleen, back-handed compliments, and innuendoes which could serve no useful purpose. It was scarcely the way in which to win fame as judged from present-day views. Speaking of the work of his contemporaries, and more especially of those who had published books before his day, he says : " As I have alluded to some books of designs it may be proper here just to say something of them. I have seen one which seems to have been published before Chippendale's. I infer this from the antique appearance of the furniture, for there is no date to it ; but the title informs us that it was composed by a Society of Cabinet-makers in London. It gives no instructions for drawing in any form, but we may venture to say that those who drew the designs wanted a good share of teaching themselves." Speaking of Chippendale's book the author of " The Drawing Book " says : " As for the designs, they are now wholly antiquated and laid aside, though possessed of great merit, according to the times in which they were executed." According to such a statement, it is evident Sheraton possessed great confidence in the continuance of the styles from which he was drawing his inspiration, and still more so in the permanence of the new style he was endeavouring to create.

The third part of Sheraton's book was devoted to furniture design, accompanied, it is thought, by unnecessary descriptions of how to make the furniture, for " The Drawing Book " was intended to be used by practical cabinetmakers..

THE RECEPTION OF THE BOOK

As " The Drawing Book " was brought out in parts, it is probable that a considerable-number of those who originally subscribed did not complete the purchase of the work. We can only gauge the reception of the book by examining its contents, and ascertaining how far the designs Sheraton prepared became general. There is no manner of doubt that Sheraton's designs were acceptable at that time. They met a universal need-they were designs in accord with a popular fancy, and were clever adaptations of the evident leaning of cabinet-makers and those who bought furniture, in that they were sound, useful, and practical. That Sheraton's scheme of ornament was workable and adaptable is undeniable from the number of pieces of antique furniture modelled upon those lines, and if further evidence were necessary, from the popularity of the style as reproduced by modern cabinet-makers. His methods of decoration by painting furniture have not proved altogether lasting, for among antiques, although friction and wear and tear have given an added beauty to some of the carved pieces, they have often spoiled the skin-deep beauty of painted furniture. Of the decorative character of such ornament most connoisseurs are aware, and the high prices genuine antiques in good preservation command testify to the admiration in which they are held. Festoons and roses, tulips, and other flowers were applied to chair and settee backs and table tops, often in conjunction with medallions. These characteristics were pleasing to the eye, and were accepted at once by makers and dealers as being likely to meet with general favour.

Sheraton's styles gave an impression of lightness which accorded with the popular fancy, influenced by the beauty of ornament of French designs. There were many novel-ties which would also cause his book to be welcomed, for they were in accord with the tastes and habits of the times, such, for instance, as the " conversation " chairs and sofas, suitable for gentlemen who chose to sit astride, with the backs of their chairs facing the seat of honour.

Sheraton's furniture was exquisite in form, shape, colour, and decoration, and it is said that there were many contrivances carefully planned for the comfort and convenience of the users without spoiling the effect of the design.. There were novelties which caught the popular fancy, such, for instance, as his noted drawing- or writing-table, although that was not his invention, for the club-footed oak table made years before his time was planned much on the same lines. The screen table and folding library steps was a novel suggestion of Sheraton, as well as his toilet-table, with mirror swung on pivots, held in position by springs attached to the doors upon which they were hung. Such innovations would be welcomed by cabinet-makers of his day, and go a long way towards making them look favourably upon " The Cabinet-maker and Upholsterer's Drawing Book," which, it should be noted, passed through three editions.



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