Thomas Sheraton Furniture
In style, Sheraton was a purist with leanings toward the Classic. In his best work he never countenanced ornament for its own sake. Simplicity of line he combined with delicacy and restraint. His forms were severely balanced, his decoration finely finished, his design varied - all giving an unsurpassed impression of lightness and grace. Hepplewhite's work was in vogue when Sheraton first came to London, and his earlier designs were in the style of the popular school. But he soon felt the drift of taste toward the Louis XVI, the most serious period of French decorative art, with which by nature he was in sympathy. His work, like that of the French designers, was a reaction against the rococo and represents the culmination of the Classic spirit introduced by Robert Adam.
Sheraton unquestionably owed much to his predecessors. Like Hepplewhite, he was quick to perceive the possibilities of the Adam style, and he appreciated them more fully. It is easy to trace the Adam influence in his work, but he was at least original in his way of working out the Adam theories, in the graceful sweep of such curves as he used, in the use of the straight line where it was best adapted, in his slender forms, and in his method of using satinwood. As he developed his style, he became more and more attached to straight lines, square corners, and rectangles, depending for beauty on perfection of proportion and delicacy of interior detail, until he was caught in the tide of decadence.
Forms of Decoration
Sheraton made use of fine carving in low relief, but inlay was his specialty. His later work was often painted, gilded, and otherwise decorated. It included carved satinwood picked out with gilt, and cameo panels with gorgeously coloured wreaths, cornucopias, musical instruments, etc., were much used. He also inserted Wedgwood medallions.
Late 18th Century Sheraton Drawing Room.
In his carving, Sheraton employed Classic details - the urn, vase, lyre, swags of drapery, vases filled with flowers, and the husk of wheat or bell-flower. He was somewhat less devoted to the draped urn than was Hepplewhite. These same details he employed to some extent in his inlay, with carving added only as an accessory. But in his best work, simple inlay predominated the husk and the fine line of light wood. He also used the fan, oval, and sunburst forms.
Sheraton introduced in much of his furniture the reeded supports of Louis XVI, which had been employed also by Adam. The reeded column in sideboards, tables, and desks he used with fine appreciation of its value. A feature of his cabinets was a swan-necked pediment surmounting a cornice the revival of a Queen Anne ornament.
He continued the use of mahogany wood, but employed satinwood quite as extensively. He also used sycamore, tulip-wood, apple wood, rosewood, kingwood, harewood (sycamore stained pale brown), white-wood dyed apple green, and other materials, especially on his smaller pieces. He used them as a painter uses pigments; never were woods combined with such consummate skill.
Types of Sheraton Furniture
Roughly, Sheraton's furniture may be divided into three classes - carved, inlaid, and painted. Many pieces, to be sure, were ornamented with both inlay and moderate carving. His most notable carved pieces were sideboards, bookcases, desks, and writing tables, which are less commonly seen in America than in England. Noteworthy among his inlaid pieces were graceful drop-leaf tables ornamented with narrow lines of inlay, sideboards, pretty tea trays, dressing glasses, knife cases, and writing boxes. The best of the painted furniture was designed by Sheraton and decorated by such artists as Pergolesi, Cipriani, Angelica Kauffmann, and others. Some of this was executed for R. and J. Adam, and was of exquisite workmanship. Satinwood formed the foundation for most of it.
Sheraton's fame in America, like Hepplewhite's, rests largely on his chairs, tables, and sideboards. And of these, perhaps, his chairs stand out preeminent. In general they were light, elegant, and rather more severe in style than either Hepplewhite's or Chippendale's. His drawing-room chairs are without comparison for elegance and beauty.
Among Sheraton's earlier chair backs were some that resembled Hepplewhite's. Others, like those of the Adam brothers, often consisted of two uprights connected by two slightly curving cross-pieces, from two to five inches wide, plain, carved, or pierced. Later, however, he largely abandoned these forms for those based on straight lines and square corners, employed with great skill and refinement of composition. He has come to be known as the exponent of the square back, as Hepplewhite was of the oval and shield-shape, though his designs were not confined entirely to this form.
What is commonly known as the typical Sheraton chair back is a simple, rectangular frame, the top of which is seldom curved, but often broken by raising the central portion slightly above the rest; it is almost never a perfectly straight line. In spite of their rectangularity, Sheraton's chair backs are never harsh or unlovely. Always there is some slight variation of angle or breaking of line to give the touch of grace, and always there is just enough shaping of parts and carving of details to relieve the austerity without losing the simplicity.
Sheraton never used the broad, pierced splat of Chippendale, and when he used a splat at all, it was not joined directly to the seat, as with Chippendale, but to a low cross-piece. When he borrowed Hepplewhite's shield, he straightened out the top and lightened the proportions. This type is seldom seen in America. He frequently used a carved and pierced piece in the middle of the back that suggests Hepplewhite in its details of urn and drapery, but his carving was more restrained and severe than Hepplewhite's.
Within the frame of the rectangular backs are often found from three to five (usually three) slender uprights, a pierced urn form, and occasionally diagonal pieces, but never a broad, flat splat. The outer uprights or stiles are continuous with the rear legs of the chair. In some of his later work he used a lyre-shaped back, sometimes with brass strings - a style adopted by the American cabinetmaker, Duncan Phyfe. He also originated, or adapted from Adam and the French, a parlour, chair with a square back and a round, upholstered seat.
In his earlier armchairs, Sheraton started his arms high up on the back, as did Hepplewhite, allowing them to sweep downward with an easy curve toward the front supports, which were usually straight and continuous with the front legs. These high arms helped to support the back and made for strength. Later he lowered the arms somewhat, varied their shape, and curved the supports.
Sheraton's chair legs are slender and tapering, sometimes square and sometimes round. The reeded round legs of his tables and sideboards, however, are seldom found on his chairs. The square legs are most commonly found with square seats and backs, the round ones with curves. He used no underframing on his chairs. The ornamentation of his turned legs is always restrained. The square legs are sometimes carved in low relief patterns, sometimes reeded or fluted, sometimes plain. Often they terminate in the spade foot which Hepplewhite introduced. Sheraton never used the Dutch leg or the Chippendale cabriole, and never the ball-and-claw foot.
Sheraton's chairs were mostly of mahogany or satinwood, though some of his later designs were produced in beech wood, painted white and gold. His parlour chairs were upholstered in the seats in a manner similar to Hepplewhite's, in silk or satin, striped, figured, or painted or printed with formal designs. The seats of his later painted chairs were sometimes of rush. He also revived, to a small extent, the use of cane which had been popular in the time of Charles II, in baroque chairs.
Sheraton's sofas were, as a rule, long, simple, and of elegant proportions, fashioned chiefly on straight lines. Most of the details of design were similar to those of his chairs.
Sheraton's tables exhibit a great variety of pattern. They were for the most part dainty, with slender, tapering legs, and were usually not carved, but decorated with a delicate inlay of lines or husks. There were many shapes of tops, mostly showing curves, and with various forms of leaves. The Sheraton table tops were often inlaid, sometimes elaborately; some of them were painted. There were card tables, with square or turned legs, and with a top of wood rather than of baize. The Pembroke table is a pattern of the Sheraton period, with hinged leaves supported on brackets instead of on movable legs as in former styles. The pouch table was Sheraton's invention - a work table with a silk bag suspended from a frame. He also made dining tables in two parts to form a circle.
Sheraton's sideboards were, and still are, very popular in this country, with their gracefully curved surfaces and fine inlay. In the main the shape followed that of the Hepplewhite and Shearer side boards, except that Sheraton's end curves were convex while Hepplewhite's were concave. They usually had four tapering legs in front and often a brass rail or rails on top at the back. Frequently they were furnished with cleverly fashioned drawers and cupboards, and in some instances with a sliding desk for the butler's accounts. Sheraton was, indeed, without a rival in the invention of ingenious mechanisms. There were tables which opened out to form writing desks, dressing tables with concealed mirrors and other accessories, desks with secret drawers, etc. In some cases these mechanical additions were almost too complicated to be practical, but they had their vogue at the time.
Sheraton Mahogany and Satinwood Sideboard.
Desks, Bookcases, Cabinets
Sheraton designed many sorts of desks, bookcases, and cabinets. There were bureau-bookcase desks, with many drawers and pigeonholes, and slight boudoir desks for ladies, with concealed drawers, etc. He was fond of placing gathered green silk behind the glass doors of bookcases and cabinets.
There were numerous useful and often cleverly constructed articles for use in the library and bedroom. There was a library table, for example, with disappearing steps, book rests, secret drawers, etc. Satinwood was largely used for the commodes, bureaus, small writing-desks, toilet tables, and other articles for the boudoir. Some of the painted ones, decorated by Kauffmann and Pergolesi, were extremely dainty and elegantas fine as anything in the Louis XVI style. Indeed, they may be said to mark the culmination of style in English furniture before degeneracy set in.
Sheraton's beds depended for their effect largely on drapery and upholstery. He was a master in the handling of draped lines, but he rather overdid it. His beds included elegant four-posters with wonderfully arranged curtains, alcove beds, sofa beds, summer beds (including one divided in the centre to give greater circulation of air), French beds, state beds, beds with domes and canopies, etc. They were usually built high from the floor and required steps to mount them.
Sheraton offered designs for inlaid, painted, and japanned tall clocks, and later, as these went out of fashion soon after 1800, shelf and bracket clocks. They were not always suited to the works and dials then in use, and often lacked something of grace, but his use of inlay undoubtedly influenced other makers of clock cases. It is quite possible that no clocks were ever made to most of the Chippendale or Sheraton designs, as the clockmakers were conservative and did not welcome novelty or variety.
Neither Chippendale nor Hepplewhite was Sheraton's equal in the designing of small bijou pieces for ladies. In some respects they represent the high-water mark of Sheraton's work, being beautifully inlaid and of elegant execution. His tea caddies, urns, and knife boxes were more varied than Hepplewhite's and daintier. He designed toilet glasses, fire screens, liqueur cases, small cabinets, etc.
In addition to his furniture designing, Sheraton did a moderate amount of interior decoration, including a Chinese room, after the Chambers-Chippendale manner, for the Prince of Wales.
In the Empire Style
The less said about Sheraton's later work, the better for his reputation. The craze for the style of the French Empire, at its best a somewhat unnatural and debased style, forced Sheraton into line. He was perhaps too versatile and adaptable to stand against it in his later years; possibly poverty forced him to stray from those lofty artistic ideals that characterized his earlier work. He himself attributed all this to the decline in popular taste, but a stronger personality might have stemmed the flood yet a little while longer. He succumbed to the reaction from the chaste and delicately fashioned Classic toward the heavy, over-elaborate, fantastic, and stiffly formal. The designs in his last books show a great decline in lightness, grace, charm, and meaning. They were better than some of those produced by his contemporaries, but they did not represent Sheraton.
The most extreme of these designs rioted in sphinxes, fabulous beasts, dull and cumbrous forms, and various ornamental extravagances, worse than anything produced in France or America. Chair legs were ungracefully curved, with the concave facing outward, less attractive than either the cabriole or the straight forms, and executed with far less skill than those of Duncan Phyfe. Chair backs were full of curves, restless and inappropriate. His so-called Herculaneum chair, based on Roman lines, was a noteworthy example. The beds show a distinct decadence of style. Some of his cabinets, etc., were not so bad, and he did at least refine the brass mounts that had become popular, but for the most part these latest designs fell well below his former level.
See also our Thomas Sheraton biography.