Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Sheraton, Thomas

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

SHERATON, THOMAS (1751–1806), furniture maker and designer, was born at Stockton-upon-Tees in 1751, and learnt the trade of cabinet-making. He received no regular education, but showed from the first natural artistic learning, and taught himself drawing and geometry. He was a zealous baptist, and first came before the public as author of a religious work, ‘A Scriptural Illustration of the Doctrine of Regeneration,’ which appeared at Stockton in 1782, 12mo. He was styled on the title-page ‘Thomas Sheraton, junior,’ and described himself as a mechanic. His interest in theology never diminished.

As a practical cabinet-maker he does not seem to have attained much success; but as a designer of furniture he developed a skill and originality which placed him in the first rank of technical artists. Removing to Soho, London, about 1790, he began the publication of a series of manuals of furniture design to which the taste of his countrymen still stands deeply indebted. His first publication was a collection of eighty-four large folio plates entitled ‘Designs for Furniture,’ n.d. In 1791 he produced ‘The Cabinet-maker and Upholsterer's Drawing-Book’ (with ‘Accompaniment’ and ‘Appendix’ within the two following years), 4to, with 111 plates; the second edition (1793–6) had 119 plates; the third edition (1802) was ‘revised and the whole embellished with 122 elegant copper-plates.’ This last edition is rare. A reprint, undated, was lately issued by Mr. B. T. Batsford. In 1803 he published ‘The Cabinet Dictionary, or Explanation of all Terms used in the Cabinet, Chair, and Upholstery Branches,’ 1 vol. in 15 parts. Next year he began the issue of ‘The Cabinet-maker and Artist's Encyclopædia’ (fol.), which was to be completed in 125 numbers, but he lived to publish only thirty.

In London Sheraton apparently wholly occupied himself with his literary and artistic publications. All were published by subscription, and he travelled as far as Ireland in search of subscribers, who included, besides persons of rank, the leading cabinet-makers of the country. None of his publishing ventures proved financially successful, and, though his designs were regarded in his own day with ‘superstitious admiration,’ he lived in poverty. He eked out an income by teaching drawing. To the last he occasionally preached in baptist chapels. In 1794 an essay by him, entitled ‘Spiritual Subjection to Civil Government,’ was appended to Adam Callander's ‘Thoughts on the Peaceable and Spiritual Nature of Christ's Kingdom;’ the essay was reprinted separately next year. In 1805 Sheraton published a ‘Discourse on the Character of God as Love.’ He died in Broad Street, Soho, on 22 Oct. 1806, leaving a family in distressed circumstances.

Sheraton was the apostle of the severer taste in English cabinet-making which followed upon the rococo leanings of his great predecessor, Thomas Chippendale [q. v.], who, under the influence of the brothers John and Robert Adam, had refined and simplified the methods of his predecessors. In the cabinets, chairs, writing-tables, and occasional pieces made from Sheraton's designs, the square tapering legs, severe lines, and quiet ornament take the place of the cabriole leg or carved ornament which characterised earlier English cabinet-work. Sheraton trusted almost entirely for decoration to marqueterie. A characteristic feature of his cabinets was the swan-necked pediment surmounting the cornice, being a revival of an ornament fashionable during Queen Anne's reign (Litchfield, Illustrated History of Furniture, pp. 195–7). The South Kensington Museum possesses two mahogany chairs carved by Sheraton (Pollen, Ancient and Modern Furniture, clvi. 90).

The central doctrines of all his work and writing are that ornamentation must subserve utility, that the lines of construction, if sound, connote beauty, and that a successful simplicity is harder and more worthy of attainment than the highest development of Louis-Quinze superfluity. That his principles were not the outcome of a mere vague intuition is evidenced by the admirable treatises on geometry, architecture, and perspective with which he introduces his monumental ‘Cabinet-maker and Upholsterer's Drawing-book.’ Unfortunately in his later years, under the influence of the ‘Empire’ style, which came into vogue after the French revolution, he was untrue to his own convictions, and, in response to popular demand, designed some articles of furniture of blatant and vulgar symbolism.

[Gent. Mag. 1806, ii. 1082; Heaton's Furniture and Decoration in England during the Eighteenth Century (with facsimile reproductions of Sheraton's designs), 1892, fol. I. i. 20–1; Memoirs of Adam Black; Magazine of Art, 1883, p. 190; Prefaces to Sheraton's Drawing-book; Quaritch's Gen. Cat. of Books; information kindly supplied by Mr. B. T. Batsford.]

G. S. L.