London was already the great centre for the furniture world when in 1790 Thomas Sheraton, whose styles and designs were to be dominant for many decades, moved there from the North of England. Even at that time many of London’s shops were putting up plate glass windows, and a number of them displayed furniture made by the highly skilled English craftsmen.
The famous Thomas Chippendale had died about nine years before Sheraton’s arrival. George Hepplewhite. too, had been dead two years. Furniture styles were changing, as they always do with the passing of time. As each phase emerged it was developed and brought into line with existing taste.
Chippendale improved upon early Georgian styles and, as we know, evolved a lastingly beautiful style of his own. Hepplewhite brought in new forms based on some of Chippendale’s work, and established his own individuality. Robert Adam, primarily an architect, furnished the houses he built in the grand manner with classic dignity. Then from the 1790’s it appears to have been Thomas Sheraton’s turn. There were, of course, other furniture designers at work. Thomas Shearer is one of these and of some importance and much of his furniture resembles Sheraton’s.
Sheraton must have been a man full of energy and bursting with ideas. He settled in Soho and to keep the wolf from the door while he put the finishing touches to his first book of designs he gave drawing lessons. The following year, 1791, he published The Cabinet Maker and Upholsterer’s Drawing Book, which he compiled to help the working cabinetmaker by providing designs and instructions on drawing and explanations of geometry problems and perspective.
Although his designs were on the whole original, naturally his work came under the various influences of his predecessors. Straight legs to chairs, tables and so on were by no means unknown. Robert Adam in copying the forms of Ancient Greece and Rome, like the French at the end of Louis the Fifteenth’s reign, adopted severe styles with straight lines and angles instead of curves.
Nor was Sheraton the first to introduce furniture that was lighter in weight. Hepplewhite’s pieces were lighter and less cumbersome than Chippendale’s with its lavish carving and cabriole legs. Hepplewhite’s carvings were less exuberant, his whole style more restrained, his lines graceful and he mounted his sideboards on tall straight legs, as did Sheraton. Going further, Sheraton swept away the curves in chairs and tables and practically all his designs, except the splayedout square cut legs to various tables.
An outstanding feature of Sheraton’s furniture was, however, his great economy in the use of timber. He thinned down legs, chair arms and uprights, thus adding immensely to their grace, yet he made them strong and steady. His furniture is extremely elegant and delicate. He used mainly mahogany and a considerable amount of satinwood.
Another outstanding characteristic is the very little decoration he employed. His delicately executed borders of crossbanded inlays are easily recognisable. They give just enough contrast to the mahogany by the use of satinwood, rosewood, ebony, tulip wood and am boyna.
His brass handles are extremely simple. Sideboards and chests of drawers generally have round or oval brass handles with a modest moulded pattern, frequently a formal flower or an arrangement of convex dots. Handles are occasionally octagonal with curved corners. On tallboys he put the plainest rounded brass handles squared at corners or rounded with small brass backplates to fix them on. Sometimes a simple brass ring in the handle or a brass lion’s head with the ring in its mouth. Sheraton pieces are seldom enhanced with carving, and panels on drawers were almost invariably outlined with the delicate crossbanding inlays. If the piece was of lighter coloured wood, there was usually a thin border or stringing of ebony where the cross banding would have been.
In discussing Sheraton’s designs it is important to realise that when we say Sheraton, we are in fact alluding to the period in which his designs were copied by craftsmen rather than to Sheraton personally. His entire work was the production of books with advice and drawings. They were, unfortunately for him, not really appreciated until after his death. And he made no money from them. The Cabinet Maker and Upholsterer’s Drawing Book came out in many editions between 1791 and 1793. His next book was The Cabinet Maker’s Dictionary containing an explanation of all the terms used in the cabinet, chair and upholsterers’ branches and containing a display of useful articles of furniture. A long title was quite usual in those days! That Sheraton’s books were again published nearly a century later proves how his styles appealed.
He and Hepplewhite have a great deal in common in their styles and it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between them. As well as using straight legs, Hepplewhite favoured flat round brass handles to his sideboards which were similar to Sheraton’s.
Sheraton gave particular attention to the development of sideboards. They have practically no decoration as a rule except his borders of crossbanding. He sometimes painted chairs all over, an idea no other eighteenth century designer had suggested before. He also decorated with painted panels on the lines of those done by Angelica Kauffman. His chairs have lower backs and the top rail is a separate piece tenoned between the uprights. The legs are square cut and tapered or turned and tapered.
Sheraton armchairs have arms that sweep back, they are fixed in the uprights and, as in all his chairs, the back rail is fixed on separately, giving a square appearance. Another feature to look for is the swanneck pediment surmounting the cornice on cabinets.
He used mahogany, which was the last of the best from the shores of San Domingo; those forests of the largest and straightest trees which had taken years to grow to their height and magnificence, and which provided the eighteenth century cabinet makers with immense smooth planks of timber. Sheraton’s designs were always in good proportions, stylish, graceful and elegant. He stood for refinement. This is typically indicated by his lovely cylinder writing tables and dressing tables.
About the time when Thomas Sheraton settled in London a type of cheaper utility furniture was being factorymade. Machines which were worked by hand were being used and steam power was on its way in. But it was not until four years after Sheratons’ death that steam driven lathes were installed and mass production of “popular” furniture in the near future was visualised. In his designs Sheraton included a light type of chair, suitable for bedrooms or for hiring out in large numbers.
In the last decades of the eighteenth century trends in furniture making had been for simplification and the speeding up of production. Sheraton wrote at the beginning of this period of transition as the leader of a severer taste in cabinet making. He was the last of the great eighteenth century designers although he was not, as his predecessors were, in direct contact with those who bought the furniture he had designed. He was well aware of the high standards of the period and the prevailing taste.
Every conceivable piece of furniture received his attention. They can be studied in his books. In designing fourposter beds he included ideas for their draperies as well as for window hangings. His large wardrobe designs he embellished by arranging the beautiful mahogany graining in oval, round or rectangular panels to great advantage.
He designed tallboys, the drawer handles plain brass, bow and serpentine fronted chests of drawers, toilet mirrors, not neglecting those on swivels, dressing tables, many of them dual purpose writing desks, washstands, bed tables and all the bedroom pieces considered necessary at that time.
For the dining room, Sheraton sideboards are particularly elegant and attractive, whether breakfront, bowfronted, or serpentineshaped, they have a specially stylish simplicity. They were generally designed with drawers in the middle and cupboards each side.
Sheraton made the sideboard lighter and more graceful than Hepplewhite’s, although there is a considerable similarity between these earlier styles. Sheraton sometimes filled the middle space between the sideboard drawers with a cupboard with a tambour sliding door.
The sideboard of course was an improvement on the side table, to which there were no drawers or cupboards. Sheraton studied convenience and comfort to a degree. He designed large dining room tables, their gleaming, polished mahogany tops supported by a column under each end which rested on gracefully splayed out feet.
The splayed out legs he used with great effect on his beautiful sofa tables, so much sought after nowadays. These are long and narrow with hinged drop ends, made in mahogany and often satinwood.
He designed innumerable chairs for every occasion as well as settees, not to speak of smaller pieces such as dumb waiters, with their two or three tiers of round tables (like wooden plates) in diminishing sizes which rotate on a turned column. The whole is mounted on tripod legs fitted with leather castors to enable the piece to be moved about the room quietly and easily.
He designed charming little tables on three splay legs, known. as Tea Poys, and an endless selection of tea tables and games tables, some in the form of sofa tables. Other designs were pole firescreens, which slide up and down a pole, supported generally on tripod legs, knife, fork and spoon boxes in satinwood or mahogany and hanging cupboards.
Thomas Sheraton must have been dedicated to his drawing and writing. It is a pity he did not live long enough to complete the programme he had made out for his work and enjoy his extraordinary posthumous success. In 1804 he began issuing, in parts, yet another book, The Cabinet Maker’s, Upholsterer’s and General Artist’s Encyclopaedia. He died in 1806 and only 35 plates of Designs for Household Furniture, instead of the 185 he had planned to produce, were published in 1812.