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It is perhaps not too much to say that Sheraton has given us the most beautiful furniture of all the designers in early American colonial furniture, and his graceful outlines will always secure for him a grateful memory with lovers of art furniture. Thomas Sheraton was a Durham man, coming from Stockton-on-Tees, at which place he was born in 1761.
Of education as we understand it he had practically none, though, inasmuch as his parents intended that he should follow the profession of an architect, he naturally gave some attention to drawing. It is undoubtedly due to this cause that a large proportion of his decorative designs should have been carefully drawn to scale, like architectural plans. Circumstances, however, led to his turning from architecture to the designing of furniture, and the world has benefited thereby, for, though it is not possible to say how far Sheraton' would have succeeded in taking rank with the great names in building construction, it is not likely that he would have risen to the eminence that he has achieved in the industry he selected
It is probably one of those cases where the particular talent of the man will find its natural bent, proving, as it has been proved over and over again, that
There's a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough hew them as we may.
The life story of Sheraton is simple and pathetic. It is a real life tragedy of unrecognised, or at least unrewarded, genius. Like many another of the world's grew masters in science, literature and art, he presented creations almost priceless, and received in return the means of the barest existence. The picture of this honest eighteenth century craftsman toiling at his work with the determination and doggedness of one who knows the worth of what he is doing, and earning hardly sufficient to support himself and his family, is one of those sad pages which abound in history. His reward was in future. If Sheraton could live to-day he would that his anxious years of labour had been fully justified.
As a matter of fact, during his life Sheraton new received ample remuneration for any of his works, published altogether five books. The first is called Cabinetmaker and Upholsterer's Drawing Book,” in which he gave instructions on the art of making perspective drawings. In it he also gave “Five Orders” for cabinetmakers. His references to Chippendale sound strangely in our ears, who have learned to regard that designer as one of the great, and whose furniture has of late years fetched such extraordinary prices at auction sales. Sheraton speaks of Chippendale's productions as " now wholly antiquated and laid aside, though possessed of great merit, according to the times in which they were executed.". Seeing that but a quarter of a century divided the two designers, this brings into prominence as can be seen in early American colonial furniture truth that it is difficult to form a proportionate estimate where no long period of time has pronounced the more infallible judgment. In these matters time tells the truth, as the often unjust, though honest, opinion of the contemporaries of a genius reveals to the men of a later date.
Sheraton divided this book into four parts. The first provides the workman with that geometrical teaching which the author had learned in his early days to value. The second part deals with perspective ; the third provides furniture designs ; whilst the fourth deals with decorative design mouldings and ornaments. Not a little of the permanence and value of the work is due to the extreme care which the author took to make his explanations, especially those difficult in the very nature of the subject, perfectly clear.
In 1803 Sheraton published " The Cabinet Dictionary," and a few years later " The Cabinetmaker, 'Upholsterer and General Artist's Encyclopedia." These volumes, of which the first-named was illustrated with coloured plates, deal with designs of chairs and furniture generally and were used in design early American colonial furniture. The artist is evidenced by a brief quotation from the former book. Sheraton is speaking of the remarkable fact that there is often a difference in chairs of precisely the same pattern when executed by different chairmakers, and he explains this by the suggestion that it arises chiefly from the want of taste concerning the beauty of an outline, " of which we judge by the eye, more than the rigid rules of geometry."
It lends an additional note of pathos to the history of this great designer to learn that throughout his entire life a devoutly religious man. He was Baptist and wrote several treatises on religious subjects. His lack of monetary success was not attributable to any personal extravagance or want of industry, yet his works brought him but poor reward, and when he died in 1806, after having been in London for some sixteen years, he left his family quite unprovided for. Striking indeed is the contrast when we turn to the records of sale prices of Sheraton's productions. On the one hand the maker dies in neglected poverty, on the other his designs make rich those who come after. A toilet table of satinwood, bought for the South Kensington Museum, cost the authorities £200, whilst a miniature cabinet at £52, a satinwood cabinet at £200 and a semi-oval form table at £78. 15s., have also been added to the collection of our national woodwork. At auction a satinwood secretaire bookcase sold for £173, a satinwood cabinet for - £250, another for £141, six satinwood chairs for £105 and a suite for £400. Would not such sums have rejoiced the heart of their maker! But it is the law of, all life-one sows, another reaps.
The ruling ideas of Sheraton's designs are simplicity and usefulness can be seen in early American colonial furniture. He sought to combine what was best in the Louis XVI. style with a total-or almost so repression of ornamenting decoration. Until quite modern his masterpieces remained unappreciated, but are now admitted to the highest place among the best expressions of the cabinetmaker's art.
As a specimen of Sheraton's descriptive care, we q his remarks about one of his designs for ornamenting a painted panel. He says, "The whole springs from a spreading leaf at the bottom, from which a serpent attempts to come at the doves on the fruit. In the centre is a temple not dedicated to the interests of the cupids, for which reason they are burning it with their torches. The figure on the top of the column, in resenting it, means to pelt them with stones and the geniuses above are pouring down water to quench the flames. The owls are emblematic of Night, at which season these mischiefs are generally carried on." From such a description one could almost reproduce the panel.
Our illustrations need no comment and can be seen in early American colonial furniture. They are given as illustrative generally of the style of this great designer.
It is interesting that Sheraton's earliest productions were refined and spontaneous in spirit-maybe that ho was brightest then. His later works are more laboured though still beautiful, for, despite disappointment, and amid environments less lovely than his thoughts, his life was consistently pure, though his habits were undoubtedly eccentric. Toward the end of his career his individuality seems to have weakened-and whose would not under such neglect? Instead of quietly pursuing his own innate fancies, and endeavouring thereby to educate public taste toward refinement, his erstwhile so persistent originality now began to shrink, and gradually, in the absence of incentive from within, the labours of the great designers began to reflect the hard fashions that were, growing up around him. Sheraton's style is, with one exception the only truly national and nature-born style of art of which the furniture man can boast. Yet, at the time of its inception, so. In different were we to its charms that we allowed its creator to die in want, and even to desert his own invention ere he departed. The English style that he created, he himself forsook in his last few years---, for his latest productions were designed in listless, agreement with the prevailing fashions which servilely copied the pseudo-classic art of our hereditary enemies across the channel. You will remember that we were at war with France when Sheraton was approaching the end andof his career. Yet here was a creator of a patriotic style, driven, through sheer disgust at the neglect his people dealt out to him, to forsake 'his native style and pander to the Empire style that Caesarism, under Napoleon, was fast making de rigueur among our then bellicose rivals and its influence can be seen in early American colonial furniture.