SHERATON, THOMAS (c. 1751-1806), next to Chippendale the most famous English furniture-designer and cabinet-maker, was born in humble circumstances at Stockton-on-Tees. His education was rudimentary, but he picked up drawing and geometry. He appears to have been apprenticed to a cabinetmaker, but he was ever a strange blend of mechanic, inventor, artist, mystic and religious controversialist. Indeed, it is as a writer on theological subjects that we first hear of him. Although his parents were church people he was a Baptist, and in 1782 he published at Stockton A Scriptural Illustration of the Doctrine of Regeneration, to which was added A Letter on the Subject of Baptism, describing himself on the title page as a mechanic, one who never had the advantage of a collegiate or academical education. Of his career as a maker and designer of furniture nothing is known until he is first heard of in London in 1790, when he was nearly forty. The date of his migration is uncertain, but it probably took place while he was still a young man. In London he did work which, although it has made him illustrious to posterity, never raised him above an almost sordid poverty. Biographical particulars are exceedingly scanty, and we do not know to what extent, if at all, he worked with his own hands, or whether he confined himself to evolving new designs, or modifying and adapting, and occasionally partly copying, those of others. Such evidence as there is points to artistic, rather than mechanical work, after he began to write, and we know that some part of his scanty income was derived from giving drawing lessons. Even the remarkable series of volumes of designs for ftirniture which he published during the last sixteen years of his life, and upon which his fame depends, were not a commercial success. He was a great artistic genius who lived in chronic poverty. The only trustworthy information we possess regarding his circumstances is found in the Memoirs of Adam Black, who when he first arrived in London lodged a week in his house, only two years before Sheratons death. Sheraton, he says, lived in a poor street in London, his house half shop, half dwelling-house, and himself looked like a worn-out Methodist minister, with threadbare black coat. I took tea with them one afternoon. There was a cup and saucer for the host, and another for his wife, and a little porringer for their daughter. The wifes cup and saucer were given to me, and she had to put up with another little porringer. My host seemed a good man, with some talent. He had been a cabinetmaker, and was now author, publisher, and teacher of drawing, and, I believe, occasional preacher. Black shrewdly put his finger upon the causes of Sheratons failure. This many-sided worn-out encyclopaedist and preacher is an interesting character.
He is a man of talent and, I believe, of genuine piety. He understands the cabinet businessI believe was bred to it. He is a scholar, writes well, and, in my opinion, draws masterly is an author, bookseller, stationer and teacher. . . I believe his abilities and resources are his ruin in this respectby attempting to do everything he does nothing. There is, however, little indication that Sheraton chafed under the tyranny of those twin jailors of the dairing heart, low birth and iron fortune. I can assure the reader, he writes in one of his books, though I am thus employed in racking my invention to design fine and pleasing cabinet-work, I can be well content to sit upon a wooden-bottom chair, provided I can but have common food and raiment wherewith to pass through life in peace.
His first book on furniture was published lfl 1791 with the title of The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterers Drawing Book. It was issued in parts by F. Bensley, of Bolt Court, Fleet Street; there was a second edition in 1793 and a third in 1802, each with improvements. In the first edition it was stated that copies could be obtained from the author at 41 Davies Street, Grosvenor Square; in the second, that he was living at 106 Wardour Street; the last address we have is 8 Broad Street, Golden Square. There was also an Accompaniment and an Appendix. In this book, which contained III copper-plate engravings, Sheraton gives abundant evidence of the arrogance and conceit which marred all his publications. He dismisses Chippendales designs in a patronizing way as now wholly antiquated and laid aside, though possessed of great merit according to the times in which they were executed. His lack of practical common sense is suggested by the fact that more than half the book is taken up with a treatise on perspective, needless then and unreadable now. He falls foul of every volume on furniture which had been published before his time, and is abundantly satisfied of the merit of his own work, The designs in the book are exceedingly varied and unequal, ranging from pieces of perfect proportion and the most pleasing simplicity to efforts ruined by too abundant ornament. Some of the chair-backs are delightful in their grace and delicacy, but in them, as in other of his drawings, it is easy to trace the influence of Hepplewhite and Adam it has even been suggested that he collaborated with the Adams. Sheraton, indeed, like his predecessors, made extensive use not so much perhaps of the works of other men as of the artistic ideas underlying them which were more or less common to the taste of the time. He was sometimes original, sometimes adaptivewhat Alexandre Dumas pere called a conqueror sometimes a copyist. His conquest of Hepplewhite was especially unmerciful, for he abused as well as pillaged him. But his slender forms and sweeping curves were his own inspiration, and his extensive use of satinwood differentiated his furniture from most of that which had preceded it.