The English furniture designer Thomas Sheraton (1751-1806) brought about the transition from the late-18th-century Adam and Hepplewhite style to that of the Regency period.
Born at Stockton-on-Tees, County Durham, Thomas Sheraton had little education and worked at first as a journeyman cabinetmaker. He went to London about 1790 and is said to have "supported himself, a wife, and two children by his exertions as an author." From then on he probably lived chiefly from the sale of his furniture designs, but it is extremely unlikely that he made any furniture after his early years.
In 1799 Sheraton left London to become a Baptist minister at Stockton and Darlington, Yorkshire, and continued in this work until 1802. He passed his last years in London, where he died on Oct. 22, 1806. The Edinburgh publisher Adam Black wrote of Sheraton's abject poverty and spoke of his gifts as a scholar, designer, and teacher.
Sheraton's first and most important publication, The Cabinet-maker and Upholsterer's Drawing Book, was issued in 49 separate parts between 1791 and 1794. His designs were intended "to exhibit the present taste of furniture" and "at the same time to give the workman some assistance." They represent an advance upon the neoclassic designs of Robert Adam and George Hepplewhite in the direction of even greater elegance and refinement and in the preference for chair backs and mirror frames of square shape instead of the oval forms favored by these two predecessors. Sheraton's early designs, usually intended to be carried out in satinwood, are often highly ornamental and strongly express the influence of Louis XVI furniture, especially in the shaping of tabletops with serpentine or bowed breakfronts and quadrant ends, in the delicate scrolling of flower and leaf patterns, inlaid or painted, with ribbon decoration, and especially in his use of slender turned colonnettes and feet of "spinning-top" design. Some elements of his designs, such as "reeding" and splayed "claw legs" for tables, persisted as late as 1820.
Of greater significance for the Regency period, however, was Sheraton's The Cabinet Dictionary (1803), in which he emphasized the new severer and more archeologically correct aspect of the classical spirit, which he had derived from French Directoire designs and from the work of Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Henry Holland, Charles Heathcote Tatham, and Thomas Hope. Sheraton now included animal motifs such as lion masks and lion monopodia, or lion-shaped supports for chairs and tables. He also showed the curved-saber, or scimitar, leg of the typical Regency chair and made use of dolphins and other marine motifs such as anchors, masts, cordage, oars, and sails in furniture designs associated with Nelson's nautical victories.
Thirty of the projected 150 parts of Sheraton's third work, The Cabinet-maker, Upholsterer and General Artists' Encyclopaedia, were issued from 1804 to 1806. Increasingly in his later years his designs showed signs of eccentricity, but a selection of the best designs from his three works, published as Designs for Household Furniture (1812), did much to establish his influence in early 19th-century furniture design and production.
Further Reading on Thomas Sheraton
Ralph Fastnedge, Sheraton Furniture (1962), is an admirable comprehensive and well-illustrated account of the designer's life and work. A selection of his work is in Sheraton's Furniture Designs, with a preface by Ralph Edwards (1949). Recommended for general background are Ralph Fastnedge, English Furniture Styles from 1500 to 1830 (1955); Peter Ward-Jackson, English Furniture Designs of the Eighteenth Century (1958); and Clifford Musgrave, Regency Furniture, 1800-1830 (1971) and Adam and Hepplewhite and Other Neo-classical Furniture (1966).
Additional Biography Sources
Fastnedge, Ralph, Sheraton furniture, Woodbridge, Suffolk, England: Antique Collectors' Club, 1983.