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Sheraton - Typical Pieces

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



As it has been shown, Thomas Sheraton was a designer rather than a craftsman, and he excelled in making working drawings and engravings, and in giving instructions about the accomplishment of his ideals, rather than in carrying out the work. The admirer of Sheraton's designs, and the collector who searches for the purest examples of his style, find typical examples in those pieces which most nearly come up to his standards, and in the construction of which the working cabinet-maker has caught his style.

There are many beautiful pieces in museums, art galleries, and in the shops of dealers of antique furniture, which are typical of Sheraton style ; or, more correctly, of one of his styles. He introduced so many varieties of ornament, and used different woods and inlays in the varied designs he prepared, that it is difficult to point to any one chair, cabinet, bookcase, or other object as being a complete exponent of his style. A writer on antique furniture asks the question : " What is meant by old Sheraton furniture ? " and answers it by saying that there are four meanings—(1) work actually produced by Thomas Sheraton ; (2) work not produced by Sheraton, but by craftsmen who studied with him, perhaps making the furniture from Sheraton's own designs ; (3) the term may refer to furniture generally of that period, bearing traces of influences which were commonly known by his name ; and (4) it may be used fraudulently. Sheraton had an eye for colour, and in his inlays and decorative paintings there is often a strong contrast to the darker foundation.. Even in his light wood furniture that is veneered with satinwood, its decorative treatment gives relief, and inlaid panels, medallions, and paintings show it up by contrast. The satinwood of the best period, like his choice mahogany, is veneered upon oak, and in use with the satinwood collectors note inlays of green-wood, hare-wood, or tulip-wood. Satinwood inlaid with rosewood is not usually typical of the best period, and when examining so-called antiques critically the connoisseur should satisfy himself that the carcass of the piece is really old, and that the veneer is satinwood of genuine quality. Some of the so-called antiques are in reality Queen Anne furniture restored with new satinwood of a bad colour, toned down to look like old. There are many such bureaus met with, there being two reasons—in that they sell freely, and also that there were at one time many old bureaus needing restoration before they were saleable.

The number of master cabinet-makers working in London and vicinity, according to Sheraton, was two hundred and fifty-two at the time he published his famous book, and a very large number of these would compete with one another in carrying out the designs Sheraton had made for them. They would all have " The Drawing Book " in their hands, and take their inspiration from Sheraton's work, although they might not all follow the directions he gave. Thus it is that when genuine antiques, undoubtedly copied from Sheraton's designs, are met with, it does not follow that they are identical in minute detail.

CHAIRS AND TABLES

It seems quite natural for collectors and admirers of old furniture to turn first of all to those examples they have about them, or have easy access to, when searching for typical examples and traces of characteristics of genuine pieces of any one style. The chair or seat has from quite early times been a necessary article of furniture. It is true that until the days of the Restoration a stool or bench served as a seat for the common folk ; but as soon as the " best parlour " was an institution in English homes the cabinet-maker endeavoured to render the chair all that was beautiful. It was especially so towards the close of the eighteenth century, when Sheraton was designing furniture, and he at once turned his attention towards the decoration of chair backs. He restricted the use of mahogany to dining-room, library, and bedroom chairs with carved backs. His drawing-room furniture of his earliest days was white and gold, rosewood, satinwood, or wood painted and japanned. Silk and satin with medallion designs or pretty stripes were used for the coverings of his seats.

Sheraton was in favour of a lower back than most of Chippendale's patterns, and an outstanding feature of his chairs was the bottom rail of the back, which ran horizon-tally between the uprights supporting the central splat. To these were added side-rails at right angles. It has always been admitted that the principle upon which these chairs were made was sound constructionally, the rail knitting the frame-work together and keeping the back rigid. Sheraton's chair legs were, of course, lighter than Chippendale's ; they varied in form, being sometimes square or round, tapering to a fine point, or at others they were hexagonal or octagonal. The two latter forms admitted of the use of choice inlays, and favoured the style Sheraton was cultivating. They also admitted some carving, which formed a pleasing variant in the decoration. Three well-known varieties are obtainable, the square pattern known in the trade as the " Marlborough," the " thimble-toe " or " spade," and another variety in which a band of ebony or dark wood encircled the finely-tapered extremities.

Early Sheraton chairs are met with having three or five perpendicular splats, the central splat being larger, and admitting of greater ornament. Sometimes, however, when five splats were used the three inner ones were woven together, and some very beautiful effects in decorative ornament, in festoons of flowers, and classic design were thus introduced. In Sheraton's easy chairs there were perpendicular arm supports, mostly replicas of the leg or frame, affording an opportunity for a more extended scheme of ornament. It may be remarked here that between 1795 to 1800 turned legs and arm supports displaced the square-shaped designs which had hitherto been favoured. Especially was this the case at the time when festoons of roses and strings of ornament were applied to tapered legs. The ladder-back chairs of Sheraton were a development of the fiddle-back. Later, however, about 1800, X-rails and diagonal latticing were in vogue. Among sundry varieties Sheraton introduced a Grecian squab or long chair.

At the commencement of the time when Sheraton influence was exerting itself the pillar of the dining table was a special feature. The table top was hinged upon a central leg or pillar with usually four supporting claws. Ornamental tables, however, are those chiefly sought after by connoisseurs. Those with small and often curiously shaped tops afforded ample opportunities to the designer of ornamental inlays. In such inlays Sheraton showed great skill, and produced designs from wonderful scrolls and arabesques, floral wreaths and painted panels. His pier - tables had inlaid tops of hare-wood or satinwood, and many of his charming kidney tops have been reproduced during recent years. Like Chippendale and other cabinet-makers of his day, Sheraton made card-tables, and some beautiful little tables for a lady's boudoir, among these were work - tables with silken bags or pouches, some being fitted with sliding trays and drawers.

BUREAUS AND BOOKCASES

When Sheraton's book was published the bureau which had been so popular in earlier times was not much in demand. Sheraton designed, however, some elaborate writing-tables and cabinets, which to some extent were more ornamental, and yet served the same purpose. The bureau-bookcase began to be a feature, and in many instances an adaptation of the bureau was surmounted with a bookcase with glass doors. Although technically called bookcases, many of them served as receptacles for the best china, and as cabinets were inlaid and ornamented in typical Sheraton style. It is said that the larger bookcases were not among his happiest efforts, for Sheraton had had but little experience in what may be termed architectural furniture, and his methods of decoration were not always successful when applied to the larger furniture. In smaller bookcases he used the swan-neck ornament, and his glazed doors were split up into many panels by narrow mouldings, the earlier lattice forms being extended and beautified in the lighter and elegant tracery of his designs.

SIDEBOARDS AND CABINETS

Sheraton's sideboards were a distinct advance upon the earlier sideboard tables. They incorporated in their construction useful drawers, cellarets, and some of the receptacles which had been absent in the dining-room. The table top was enriched with a brass rail, and many of the mahogany sideboards, dating from 1795 to 1800, were further decorated by the use of lion's head and ring handles. Indeed, at that time the brassfounder's art was made to serve the purposes of the designer's scheme of decoration. For instance, in some of the painted furniture a beautiful ribbon and wreath ornament would terminate in appropriate ring handles. The legs of the sideboard were either square or fluted. It is said that one purpose of the brass rail was to prevent the knife and spoon boxes then used in conjunction with the sideboard from injuring the walls when they were opened. The form of the front varied, sometimes being straight or concave ; at others convex or serpentine.

In Fig. 64 is shown a well made Sheraton sideboard (without rail) with sunk brass circular ring handles, shaped front, and typical ornament.

Sheraton, in describing his drawing-room cabinets, says : " The use of this piece is to accommodate a lady with conveniences for writing, reading, and holding her trinkets, and other articles of that kind. The style of finishing them is elegant, being often richly japanned, and veneered with the finest satinwood. The manufacturing part is not very difficult, but will admit of the following remarks. The middle drawer over the knee-hole has a slider to write on, and those on each side are plain. The doors under them are hung with pin hinges, and in the inside there is one shelf in each. The cupboard within the knee-hole is fitted up in small drawers, and sometimes only a shelf. The pilasters, or half-columns, are put on after the carcass is made. The corner ones are planed square first, and then rabbeted out to receive the angle of the carcass, and afterwards deal is glued in a slight manner into the rabbet, that it may be easily taken out after the column is turned. The centre door of the upper part is square at the top, opening under the astragal, which finishes the cover part. The pilasters are on the door frame, and the drapery is formed and sewed to the silk, and both tacked into a rabbet together. Behind the silk door are sliding shelves for small books. The wings are fitted up as shown in the design on the top, or with more small drawers, having only two or three letter-holes at the top."

The knick-knacks and sundry furniture of the " parlour " were in keeping with the style Sheraton adopted for his larger pieces. The library then becoming an important feature even in the homes of the middle classes, contained writing-tables such as Sheraton delighted to design. He also made some reference in his book to library steps, giving friendly reference to a speciality which had been made by Mr Robert Campbell, of Marylebone Street, upholsterer to the Prince of Wales, saying of these steps " They are highly approved by the King, as in every way answering the intended purpose."

BEDSTEADS AND BEDROOM FURNITURE

Sheraton style has been applied so much to modern bedroom furniture that connoisseurs feel a little disappointment in the genuine antiques which rarely come up to their preconceived ideas of Sheraton bedroom furniture. The most notable pieces are the mahogany wardrobes, or those richly inlaid with satinwood, chiefly made about 1790. Constructionally, they may be described as cupboards with double doors surmounting a chest of drawers. The winged wardrobes are a modern innovation. Many of these chests of drawers are fitted with slides, baize covered, originally used as writing slides. The dressing-tables were small, and many of them comparatively insignificant—in many instances the small corner washstands sufficing.

It is the bedstead that was such a conspicuous object in bedrooms in the eighteenth century, some beautiful examples being preserved in old houses. The one shown with hangings complete, in Fig. 2, is a four-post bedstead of Sheraton style, with carved and inlaid cornice and fluted posts. This choice example, complete with appropriate hangings, is in the possession of Messrs Waring and Gillow, Ltd.

Fig. 65 represents a fine old Sheraton mahogany wardrobe-chest with four drawers (two long and two short), over which is a cupboard or wardrobe with two doors with oval panels, surmounted by inlaid pediment. The height of this piece is 72 in., width 4 ft. 2 in., and depth 1 ft. 11 in. The fancy rosettes to the handles are rather unusual.



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