The Tragedy of Starved Genius

Thomas Sheraton (British, Stockton-on-Tees 1751–1806 London), Thomas Bensley (London), 1793–94, London, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NK2229 .S54 1793

Editor’s note: This article, by Charles Hayward, appeared in the June 1951 issue of The Woodworker magazine, and will be included in “Honest Labour,” which will be available this year. This essay is a bit different from Hayward’s Chips from the Chisel columns, but Thomas Sheraton’s story is fascinating (and a bit tragic, as Hayward notes in the title of his piece). This article also highlights Hayward’s vast knowledge of the history of furniture making and its makers, as well as his dedication to research.

1951 is the bicentenary of the birth of Sheraton, and it is interesting to recall what little we know of the man whose name has become so associated with one of our great furniture styles

It is a strange coincidence, with regard to the three greatest English cabinet makers of the eighteenth century, that no portrait of any of them, not even a rough pencil sketch, is known to exist. Thus, any enterprising film producer contemplating a presentation of one of these matters must rely solely upon his imagination –– no difficulty where Hollywood is concerned.

No name in the furniture world occurs more frequently than that of Thomas Sheraton. What manner of man was this gifted individual? Indisputably an artist, we should say, perhaps even a poet. Who else could have conceived those “elegant appurtances” of a lady’s boudoir, those dainty little cabinets and dressing tables, with their slender tapering legs, their festoons and painted medallions, their rich satinwood veneers mellowing with time to old gold like beech leaves in autumn?

Sheraton furniture forms the ideal setting for fluttering fans, brocaded hoops, powdered ringlets, diamond shoe-buckles. Its designer is the Chopin of the cabinet-making craft, with, maybe, something about him of the Chopin of the keyboard — pale, fragile, dreamy, romantic.

Alas! Such a picture is far from the truth. Woefully far! Sheraton was born at Stockton-on-Tees, of poor parents, in 1751. So that this year is the bicentenary of his coming into the world. How amazed so obscure an individual would have been at the mention of a bicentenary!

Early days. — He was apprenticed to a cabinet maker, and contrived somehow or other to pick up a knowledge of drawing and geometry and a small store of classical learning. Since he himself tells us that he never at any time received a collegiate or academic training he must have taught himself these things.

Somewhere in his thirties Sheraton arrived in London and attempted to establish himself in Soho. His trade card, issued from Wardour Street, is still preserved. It informs the public that Thomas Sheraton “teaches perspective, architecture and ornaments, makes designs for cabinet makers, and sells all kinds of drawing books.”

The only way for a designer of furniture to become known in those days was to publish a manual of design. So that shortly after the northerner’s arrival in London there appeared “The Cabinet Maker and Upholsterer’s Drawing Book,” by Thomas Sheraton. The publication attracted some attention by reason of its novelty of treatment and expert draughtsmanship, but competition was heavy.

The 18th century books. — If our Georgian forefarthers failed to equip their homes in “the most elegant and approved fashion” it was not for lack of instruction. Never was such a spate of manuals and guides let loose on a suffering public. From Chippendale and Shearer down to plain George Smith’s “Household Furniture” they came tumbling one over another, one relentless everlasting flood.

All these publications had certain features in common; they began with long-winded, stilted prefaces which make amusing reading to-day. The authors did not scruple to condemn as utterly old-fashioned the designs of their rivals even though such designs might be no more than a year old.

As there was no copyright law, no man hesitated to “lift” the design of another and incorporate it in his own publication. So that Mr. So-and-So’s “New Guide” might be new in so far as it consisted of one-fifth of his own inventions and four-fifths of other people’s.

These manuals were circulated among provincial and country cabinet makers who could not afford the time or expense to make a journey to town to replenish their stocks. It was here that poor Sheraton started at a disadvantage with men such as Chippendale and Hepplewhite, who were the heads of established firms, able to receive and execute orders.

There was no firm of Sheraton. He may conceivably have received orders which were put out for others to complete, but in all likelihood he received none, and more astute and business-like rivals profited by his designs.

A curious mixture. — There was another reason which tended to his impoverishment. His work did not stand first with him. This may sound strange in the case of one who is now universally admitted to be a genius. Nevertheless, Sheraton’s real bent was towards religion. He was a Baptist minister, and a rabid minister at that.

Instead of making contacts which would have enabled him to build up a business he spent countless hours on the composition of verbose inflated religious treatises which nobody read, or in delivering sermons to which only a few listened.

Sheraton’s religious tolerance, however, did not extend to his business rivals. Like most frustrated characters he was prone to condemn all and sundry. The designs of his predecessor, Chippendale, he dismissed as “wholly antiquated and laid aside.” Those of Hepplewhite were “erroneous in perspective, already in decline, and likely to die in disorder.”

Finally, of Manwaring’s “Cabinet Makers Real Friend,” an excellent manual, which had achieved a considerable circulation, our generous critic declared that there was nothing in it that “an apprentice boy might not be taught in seven hours.” The tit-bit, however, occurs in his own preface where the aggrieved Mr. Sheraton denounces “the ill-nature of those who hate to speak well of any but their own productions.”

Sheraton’s last refuge in London was in Broad Street, Golden Square, where he kept a squalid little bookshop, taught drawing, sold stationery, and wrote and published his books, including those voluminous religious dissertations which now lie in obscurity in the British Museum. His last mad project was an Encyclopedia which it was intended to issue in 125 numbers, only 30 of which he lived to complete.

A pen portrait. — It was in connection with this publication that Adam Black, the Scottish publisher, then a young man in London, called on Sheraton in the hope of finding employment. Black’s unforgettable picture of the man and his surroundings has so often been quoted that one may be excused from repeating it at length.

“He lived in an obscure street,” says Black, “his house half shop, half dwelling-house, and looked like a worn out Methodist minister with threadbare coat.” The writer goes on to say how one afternoon he took tea with the Sheraton family, and found that there were but wo cups and saucers in the house. Mrs. Sheraton drank out of the child’s porringer.

Black stayed with them for a week, writing articles and putting the shop in order, for which he received half a guinea. “Miserable as the pay was,” he adds, “I was half ashamed to take it from the poor man.” It was the old story of Jack-of-all-Trades, as Black’s closing words show. “Sheraton’s abilities and resources are his ruin,” he asserts. “In attempting to do everything he does nothing.”

The end. — Sheraton died in 1806 in his fifty-fifth year, leaving a destitute family behind him. The man who had designed some of the most beautiful and graceful chairs in English domestic furniture gave utterance to these pathetic words: “I can be well content to sit in a wooden bottom chair myself, provided I can but have common food and raiment wherewith to pass through life in peace.”

— Charles Hayward, The Woodworker magazine, June 1951

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4 Responses to The Tragedy of Starved Genius

  1. wardtw says:

    The work of eccentrics is frequently only appreciated in hindsight. Their day to day real time activities can be so odd that people do not pay real time attention to their work

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  2. David A says:

    In the spirit of being helpful, and just in case you’re still proof reading the book, I’ve spotted a minor typo … Stockton-on-Tees. I suspect that spell-check has had its wicked way! The Tees is a significant river that runs through Stockton and empties into the North Sea. Stockton was a terminus of the first ever public, passenger-carrying, steam-hauled railway service, which commenced a few decades after Sheraton’s death. To this day there are trees in Stockton 🙂
    David A

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  3. christopherdopp says:

    Very interesting. I look forward to “Honest Labour” being released later this year. While searching around I came across the following page that may be interesting to some:

    https://www.vam.ac.uk/blog/museum-life/chippendale-and-sheraton-rediscovering-rare-silent-films

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