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The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer's Drawing Book
By Thomas Sheraton
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 1972 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Thomas Sheraton could never in his dreary life have imagined that his name would become the appellation of a furniture style that climaxes the Georgian while it forecasts the Regency and the Victorian of the English sphere of influence. It was certainly not his intention in 1791, when he announced his projected Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer's Drawing-Book, to offer anything beyond a manual of instruction in drafting, geometric representation, the Orders of Architecture and perspective, with suitable comments and examples. As a journeyman cabinetmaker, he would inevitably choose articles of furniture for illustrative examples; as a preacher and pedant, he could not resist adding moralities and mythology within the best eighteenth-century construction of philosophy. Thus the work became, in its final form, a monument of unplanned exposition, a landmark in the history of furniture design and a record of reluctant concessions to the fluctuating vicissitudes of a time of turmoil and swift change—and to the pressures of importunate subscribers. The time, the place and the man were all wrong for each other, and for the molding of a memorable representative style. Yet this is what Thomas Sheraton achieved by inadvertence.
Thomas Sheraton was born in 1751 in Stockton-on-Tees, County Durham, and early fell into his father's trade of cabinetmaking. He seems to have reached London about 1790, but his progress from his birthplace may have been long and indirect. It is possible that as a journeyman cabinetmaker he may have paused to earn his living at various towns along the route, for his first subscription list includes many cabinetmakers whom he may have met in such places. The projected Drawing-Book germinated during his first year in London, when he may have issued the prospectus, the title page of which, dated 1791, is here reproduced as Figure A. This was apparently accompanied by ten pages of text (ending page "14") and a remarkable allegorical frontispiece, with the "Frontispiece Explained." The text states the objectives of the work entirely in the future tense. This title page carries a revealing outline of the three parts proposed, with the description of the second part alone containing the rather grudging admission: "N. B. The Examples in Perspective are intended to exhibit the newest Taste of various Pieces of Furniture, and likewise to shew the necessary Lines for designing them."
Part III of the 1793 edition, reproduced here in its entirety, departs substantially from the original program of 1791, and illustrates only furniture. Many of the plates dated 1791 and 1792 adhere to the idea of showing construction lines and some perspective development, but the majority are simple illustrations, mostly in one-point perspective, often without scales, and totally uninformative as to back-leg profiles, depth of seats, etc. For all Sheraton's harangues on perspective, his own drawings leave something to be desired in visual correctness and explicitness of dimension.
The 1793 edition also contains an "Appendix" with plates all dating from 1793. In later editions (1794 and 1802), not only does the tense of the author's foreword change from the future to a mildly complaining past, but an "Accompaniment" of fourteen plates dated 1793 and 1794, and a group of eight "Additional Plates" all dated 1794, are added. Sheraton's designs through these years are remarkably personal and consistent. It is on the group of plates mentioned in this paragraph, and on this group alone, that the fame of Sheraton the designer rests.
The 1791 title page has Sheraton living at "No. 4, Hart-street, Grosvenorsquare," while the 1793 edition lists him at "No. 41, Davies-street, Grosvenorsquare." The Appendix of same year finds him at "No. 106, Wardour-street, Soho," which agrees with his trade card of somewhat later date (Figure B), while "8, Broad-street" is the location on the title page of his 1803 Cabinet Dictionary. It was at this address, apparently, that he "left his family, it is feared, in distressed circumstances," according to the "Obituary, with Anecdotes, of Remarkable Persons" in the Gentleman's Magazine for November 1806.
Comparison of dates and places gives eloquent if circumstantial evidence of the exigencies of Sheraton's sixteen years in London. There is nothing to suggest that his hand ever participated in the production of a piece of furniture, nor that he enjoyed at any time the company or patronage of the affluent or the influential, or indeed experienced anything but abject poverty and loneliness. Our sole biographical memoir is the observation by Adam Black, later a distinguished publisher, who worked with Sheraton "for about a week ... writing a few articles, trying to put his house in order, for which I was remunerated with half a guinea. Miserable as the pay was, I was half ashamed to take it from the poor man." Sheraton died only two years later, in October 1806. Probably Black's "few articles" were entries in the Cabinet-Maker, Upholsterer and General Artists' Encyclopaedia, a frenetically ambitious project of which only the A-C folio was completed before the author's death.
The Drawing-Book, the Cabinet Dictionary and the Cabinet Encyclopaedia, together forming the "style of Sheraton," make a picture of the desperate struggle of a troubled, bitter personality to compose a wide range of knowledge and emotion into designs saleable to a convulsively fluctuating, nervously revolutionary society. The stable social base of the early reign of George III had deteriorated into economic insurgency at home, social and political turmoil on the Continent, philosophical and artistic dissension everywhere, as the weak-kneed Regency accommodated itself to all shifting tides. Cross-currents of revolutionary fervor and luxurious excesses materialized in the trappings of ancient imperialism. The instructive Drawing-Book that Sheraton projected was distinctly not an answer to the demand for exciting new designs in furniture. Pedant-preacher-teacher that he was, he must have become disturbingly aware after the publication of the first two parts of the Drawing-Book that his intent may have been somewhat different from the expectations of his subscribers. Complaining in the Introduction to Part III that everybody wanted something new, different and exciting, and that it was impossible to satisfy everybody, Sheraton proceeded to embellish familiar late-Adam basic shapes with the divergent ornamental novelties of a restless period. In one direction, he compounded mechanical trickery, long a delight of Germanic designers like Riesener, Röntgen, Jacob; in another, he discovered the gaudier ornamental vocabulary of the expiring court of Louis XVI. He further stressed the upholsterer's art as it had not been known in England since the Restoration. Finally he came to the classical animal symbolism which, in the hands of more practically realistic designers like Percier and Fontaine and their apostle Thomas Hope, led successively into the French Empire, the English Empire, the Regency and ultimately the Early Victorian styles. To quote Macquoid (in The Dictionary of English Furniture), "Up to the opening of the war with France in 1793, the influence of Robert Adam was barely contested but soon after this date a revolution in taste, a closer and more intense classical revival, was taking place both in England and the Continent." Napoleon's expeditions to Egypt and Syria, 1798—1801, included archeologists and artists, whose notes produced the Empire mélange of Egyptian and Greco-Roman which, reaching England, swamped the Adam tradition.
A considerable quantity of furniture survives, safely attributable to this period, which more or less, in this or that particular, resembles designs shown in the Drawing-Book. Whether these survivors were the inspiration for Sheraton's exemplars, or whether they were inspired by the publication, will forever remain a subject for speculation. Even more speculative is the possibility that some of this furniture may actually have been designed by Sheraton. His text is full of hints of his familiarity with the London cabinet trade and industry, and their practices and specialties. By this time the Factory System had completed the divorce of the designer from the craft-production process. Presumably Sheraton served the industry as a free-lance designer, circulating among the cabinet shops of the city, earning his meager living by sporadically selling his services as designer or delineator.
There is little in Sheraton's published drawings that would today be construed as definitive instruction to a craftsman. For that matter, no existing drawing of the period would now be considered adequately informative for a working drawing. The perfection of line and proportion of most known late Georgian furniture tells of a uniform understanding of these idiomatic details, a quality of vernacular craft-training that made conventions of such details. Assuming that the specialization of operations by this time was so explicit, it probably fell to the lot of one artisan—a foreman or pattern-maker—to detail to a hair the exact dimensions, the thickness of a leg or a molding, the precise sweep of a curve, the depth of carving. Sheraton speaks of the use of the compass to develop dimensions from the drawings, but this procedure would be only a source of clumsy error unless such detailing were guided by exquisite taste and technique. This bolsters the supposition that Sheraton drew what he saw, that he employed familiar details and composed them capriciously into original arrangements. His drawings were thus meant to be schematic or conceptual, with the skill of the working designer to supply the missing minutiae of dimension and shape.
Exported to colonies and neighboring countries, the designs of the late Georgian school were freely adapted to local conventions and skills. There is no way of knowing to what comparative extent the message was carried by exports of books, or of actual furniture models, or by memory, hearsay or rough sketches. Only two foreign subscribers are listed—"Dillon, Cabinet-maker, Russia" and "Stewart, Cabinet-maker, Bengal"—but the Drawing-Book themes are found after 1790 in Italy as in Spain, in Germanic lands as in Scandinavia, most pertinently in America. In these ex-colonies an expanding economy drew refugees from revolution and disordered economic systems. Taste and skill and familiarity with changing ideas came with immigrants like Duncan Phyfe and Honoré Lannuier. Phyfe, who probably learned his trade in Albany, opened shop in New York just about the time Sheraton's Drawing-Book may have reached there. His early style developed at once along late-Adam-Georgian lines, with a bias toward Sheraton's own details such as reeding on edges and turnings. Later Phyfe leaned to the French influence, with rather more restrained grace than Sheraton himself. Lannuier, on the other hand, used animal forms extravagantly, as in Sheraton's work after 1800. Closest to Sheraton of all American work is a chair by Samuel McIntyre, woodcarver of Salem, virtually a true rendition of Plate 33, with logical corrections. Square-framed back-shapes are recalled in chairs by Henry Connelly of Philadelphia, John Seymour of Boston and numerous unknowns. More remotely inspired is the family of "fancy chairs" which proliferated in the United States after 1810. Tables for games and work, dining and library use, sideboards and desks, drew so heavily on Sheraton detail after 1800 that the Federal style may be said to be the American counterpart of the Sheraton manner.
Back in England, the acceleration of style change dizzied Sheraton. His 1803 Cabinet Dictionary gropes for novelty at the expense of design logic. It appears, however, that his Drawing-Book was so widely distributed, especially in the provinces that were unaffected by the war hysteria, that it motivated continuously sober, less frantically stylish furniture for many years. Cescinsky (in The Gentle Art of Faking Furniture) lists makers of "Sheraton" furniture through 1880: Gillow of Lancaster, the Seddons, Edwards & Roberts, Wright & Mansfield, Jackson & Graham, Johnson & Jeans and Cooper & Holt of Bunhill Row. Such work, ascribed to the Sheraton manner, undoubtedly partook equally of Hepplewhite and Shearer (the Cabinet-Makers' London Book of Prices was still in current use well after mid-nineteenth century). George Smith seems to have followed Sheraton's later style quite assiduously, notably in his 1808 Collection of Designs for Household Furniture. Smith in 1826 shamelessly appropriated Hepplewhite's title for his Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer's Guide, revealing how sadly Hepplewhite had been forgotten while the whole pre-Regency was attributed to Sheraton.
Future researchers may enjoy tracing the ebb and flow of popularity of the Sheraton manner, by seeking out references to the name during the later nineteenth century. The 1895 Batsford reprint of the Drawing Book brought the whole work together in orderly form, not a feature of the original. After this date there were many excellent critiques. The 1946 Towse reprint offered all the furniture drawings, including parts of the Cabinet Dictionary and the Cabinet Encyclopaedia, and deleting the bulk of the text and the drawing instruction. The present edition limits itself to the part of Sheraton's work that has lived on as a summary, an exemplar and a memorial of the climactic English eighteenth-century epoch in furniture.
Excerpted from The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer's Drawing Book by Thomas Sheraton. Copyright © 1972 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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Table of Contents
ContentsDOVER BOOKS ON ANTIQUES AND COLLECTING,
Introduction to the Dover Edition,
THE CABINET-MAKER AND UPHOLSTERER'S DRAWING-BOOK. IN THREE PARTS.,
CONTENTS OF THE THREE PARTS.,
DIRECTIONS for finding and binding in the PLATES, with an Account of their CONTENTS.,
TO CABINET-MAKERS AND UPHOLSTERERS IN GENERAL.,
Excerpts from Part II,
THE CABINET-MAKER AND UPHOLSTERER'S DRAWING-BOOK.,
AN ACCOMPANIMENT TO THE CABINET-MAKER AND UPHOLSTERER'S DRAWING-BOOK.,
A DESCRIPTIVE INDEX TO THE SEVERAL PIECES OF CABINET FURNITURE,
A DESCRIPTIVE INDEX TO THE ACCOMPANIMENT TO THE CABINET-MAKER AND UPHOLSTERER's DRAWING-BOOK.,