The Sheraton Chair
Why I care
Antiques are getting cheap. Crazy cheap. Dirt cheap. These are objects that were hand made from quality materials by highly skilled craft-people over a hundred years ago. In the 1980s they were worth thousands of pounds, and now they’re worth hundreds.
Most of my friends don’t really get antiques. They go nuts for historical dramas on Netflix and spend hours in museums. They love social history and are interested in the evolution of culture and design.
But I think that if you’re interested in history then you should be interested in antiques. Because for very little money you can have a piece of real history in your home.
I’m on a mission to bring antiques alive by putting them in context. I believe that by understanding a little bit about where an object comes from you can bring meaning, beauty and joy into the things you use every day.
This is my first attempt at trying to put an antique into context. And I’m starting very close to home. My bottom is currently in contact with this object.
The Sheraton Chair
I’m currently sitting on a chair that could be bought for well under £100. It was made by hand in London in about 1810 in the style of a cabinet maker and designer called Thomas Sheraton. It’s very comfy and I’ve been using it as my office chair for the last few weeks during The Lockdown. But that’s not why it’s interesting…let me try and put it into context:
Culture and design
Furniture for the wealthy was heavily influenced by the fashions and artistic movements of the period, and this chair is no exception. In 1810, despite the Napoleonic wars, what was fashionable was French. Aristocrats and their craftsmen fleeing from the social upheaval of the French Revolution (the French king was executed in 1793) came to London, along with their visual language: The Empire Style — rooted in Neoclassicism.
In the early 19th century the wealthy of Europe were “rediscovering” the architecture and culture of Greece, Rome. Men like the young Byron were starting to go off on Grand Tours (basically a pissed-up Gap Year) to go and see first hand the art and style of Rome and Athens, and they were bringing back books, sketches and souvenirs of their travels. The mathematical beauty of well proportioned columns and pediments dominated.
Leading French designers adopted the austere, architectural style of Neoclassicism partly as a reaction to the theatrical pomp of the Rococo style, which was a pretty clear stylistic reflection of the decadence of the pre-revolutionary French nobility.
Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt in the late 1790s led to an explosion of interest in the visual language of Ancient Egypt. The Empire style is reflection of this, with ostentatious Egyptian shapes being incorporated into the framework of neoclassicism.
In London Thomas Sheraton was quick to pick up on this trend and to codify the visual language into a play-book that any cabinetmaker could use to deliver on-trend furniture to wealthy clients. He seems to have made his money from books like The Cabinet Maker’s and Upholsterer’s Drawing Book rather than by making furniture himself.
The clean simple lines, fluted surfaces and of course the arm supports based on classical columns are a dead giveaway that this chair is neoclassical in style. The sweep of the arm up into the back of the chair is a characteristic Sheraton design feature that’s easy to spot — and it bares a striking resemblance to Ancient Egyptian throne design.
See it on Netflix
Are you a lover of the original BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice? Jane Austin’s novel was first published in 1813 and is set in Regency England.
Remember all those high waisted dresses? This was very much in the style of the day — an attempt to copy the lines of Greek and Roman dress. This chair design is novel for having vertical arm supports (in the form of classical columns). Older chairs generally needed to have the arm supports curved or set back to allow room for the much larger hooped dresses that were previously the fashion for women.
Industry and Inventions
It might feel like 1810 is deep in “history” in a place where modernity is a long way off. But in fact Britain was in the first boom of the Industrial Revolution.
In 1814 Puffing Billy, the world’s first commercial steam locomotive was brought into use in a coalfield near Newcastle.
In 1814 gas street lighting was first introduced in London where this chair was made.
They Royal Philharmonic Society was formed in London in 1813. Its first performance included a Beethoven symphony. In the same year Beethoven was composing a new piece called “Wellington’s Victory”, which became a popular hit.
War and politics
In 1807 the Slave Trade Act outlawed the slave trade in the British Empire.
In 1810 Britain is at war with Napoleonic France. In 1805 Nelson had defeated a French invasion of Britain at the Battle of Trafalgar. In 1815 the Duke of Wellington’s forces fully defeat Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo.
In 1812 the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom was assassinated in the lobby of the House of Commons.
In 1810 London had a population of over 1 million and was probably the biggest city in the world (along with Beijing). It was a hub of industry and global trade. In 1814 the last River Thames Frost Fair was held — this was the last time the Thames froze over and an elephant was walked across the ice.
As the first owner of this chair sat in their library by candlelight, what might they have been reading? Or what new work of literature might they be discussing with their friends over a glass of wine? Maybe they were one of the first readers of Frankenstein (published in 1818).
Or perhaps they were being swept away by a small book of poetry from Byron or Keats.
So this page is a bit of an experiment… What I’ve tried to do is give some cultural context to a 200 year old object that you could have in your home and use every day for well less than £100.
For me this context is what brings the object alive. I love that it prompts me to think every day about social and cultural history. If you can root the things you learn about history to something you see and use every day it makes them so much more real. And having this real history in your home has never been so cheap.
I want to bring antiques alive by putting them in context, and to help a wider audience to own and enjoy these little bits of history. This page is an experiment in how I might do that.
I’d love to hear what you think — Please do share your comments below.