Thomas Sheraton is considered one of the big three English furniture designers in the 1700s. His contemporaries, the legendary Thomas Chippendale, and the lesser known but still influential George Hepplewhite, complete the trio of top English designers of the day.
The success of Chippendale's publication The Director, which was the first of its kind directory of English furniture, allowed Thomas Sheraton to be successful with a similar, but later publication called The Cabinet-Makers and Upholsterer's Drawing Book. This book was first published in 1791 in four volumes. With over 600 subscribers it became an instant influence over a large part of England.
The Cabinet Makers and Upholsterer's Drawing Book came to be known over time as simply The Drawing Book, and is Sheraton's most important work.
One of the unique things about this series of volumes is that part one and two are not about furniture design at all, at least not in a traditional sense. Instead they are long dissertations on geometry and perspective. The book Sheraton Furniture by Ralph Fastnedge states that these parts of The Drawing Book “are unlikely to have been of much practical use to his readers” and “they throw light on Sheraton's ambitious, uneasy mentality.”
Volume three, however, is very practical and informative. In this section Sheraton states that he wishes “to exhibit the present taste of furniture, and at the same time to give the workman some assistance.” He meets his goal here with a great deal of success.
One of the things that really stands out about this part of The Drawing Book is the technical expertise. At this time there were a great many improvements unfolding in London workshops and Sheraton addressed them with a firsthand knowledge in this volume. Also, the details presented in this book about how to actually build the furniture designs were far more advanced than either Chippendale's The Director or Hepplewhite's Guide.
Volume four of The Drawing Book was an appendix and a compliment to volume three. The volume introduces entirely new styles of various parts of cabinet making, such as chair legs, bed pillars, window cornices, and chair splads. This appendix gave style direction to cabinet makers, while allowing them to retain some autonomy over their designs.
Although Sheraton was an accomplished artist and had a good grasp of cabinet making and design, he probably did not produce all of the illustrations in The Drawing Book himself. In Sheraton Furniture, Fastnedge notes that “The extent to which [Sheraton] was directly responsible for their invention is uncertain. There are indications that he had a large acquaintance among masters and workmen in the London shops, and perhaps in the provinces.”
Nonetheless, it is generally believed that although he may have been influenced by the cabinet makers that he knew, at least the majority of the work in his books was indeed his own. There is certainly a fair amount of evidence to support the idea that he had both the skill and desire necessary.
There is no evidence that Sheraton ever had a workshop of his own, but rather he was a teacher of cabinet design. He also, according to his own advertisements taught, “Perspective, Architecture, and Ornaments.” He did serve an apprenticeship to a cabinet maker and achieved the status of journeyman before transitioning to design and teaching. It is also believed that he had a large group of professional contacts within the cabinet making community. Regardless, there are no surviving furniture pieces that can be attributed to Sheraton himself.
Therefore, when a style is referred to as “by Sheraton” it means that it is one of his designs, and not made by him directly. This is also true of George Hepplewhite, and to a lesser extent Thomas Chippendale who did craft some of his own designs but also lent his name to the production of his designs by others.
Sheraton brought a new and remarkably consistent style to English furniture design in the late 1700's. It is correct to think of his designs as a progression of the designs of both Hepplewhite and Shearer.
Sheraton uses the tapered leg found in Hepplewhite's furniture, but you see more instances of a turned leg, rather than a square one. Also, the back legs on his pieces are usually straight and not splayed.
One of the hallmarks of the Sheraton style is the use of veneers in the furniture. You will see many instances of geometrical patterns in oval or lozenge shapes. His surfaces that are inlaid are usually large and flat or very gently sloping. This design style can still be found in many high end pieces today.
Another noteworthy design signature of Sheraton is his use of brass. Brass was a new feature in English furniture making of the time period and was influenced by French design. The metal is found in the rods of sideboards, as well as more decorative uses in Sheraton's pieces.
Sheraton made much use of straight lines in furniture. It is fair to say that this was his design aesthetic. He stayed away from shields, ovals, and circular shapes for his furniture with only a few exceptions.
Finally, Sheraton is well known for using draperies and elaborate upholstery. As an example Plate 70 in The Drawing Book features a cabinet with silk and festoons of drapery in the center door.
Sheraton's designs were influenced by many of his peers at the time and also by the designs coming out of France.
You can see echoes of George Hepplewhite in Sheraton, particularly in the legs of his pieces. Sheraton's drawings were not copies of his predecessor, but rather a natural progression of style.
He was also influenced by Henry Holland, who was the architect to the Prince of Wales. In fact, Sheraton was so impressed by the work of Holland that he included drawings of two of his rooms in The Drawing Book. These were the “Chinese Drawing Room” and the “Dining Room” and were featured on plates 27 and 96a.
It is also thought that Sheraton had access to French pieces that were being imported into England at the time, and that he studied them while he was developing the Drawing Book. The influences of the French, especially in the brass fittings, are evident in his work.
Overall, the designs of Thomas Sheraton have stood the test of time. Original Sheraton Style pieces from the late 1700s are sought actively by collectors. A quick browse through pictures of Sheraton Style furniture will show many styles that are still in use today. The classic clean lines and lovely inlay of his pieces work well with any traditional décor.
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