George Seddon was the eighth child of John Seddon of Blakelea, Lancashire. His father apprenticed him to George Clemaphon of Cripplegate to learn cabinet making. He became a master cabinet maker. (He was Master of the Joiner’s Company in 1795).
In the early 1750s he was sufficiently successful to acquire London House, Aldersgate Street, which he converted into England’s first big furniture store (see picture of it on the left). It consisted of extensive workshops, where furniture was made, and showrooms to display the finished products. London House had formerly been a palace of the Bishops of London. The panelled state-rooms were ideal for the display of fashionable furniture; and the chapel and library made convenient workshops. When Seddon married, he converted the garden house and infirmary into the family home. Seddon was the biggest furniture maker of his time. His furniture store covered a two acre site in Aldersgate Street and employed 400 craftsmen and apprentices.
His workshop there was described by London visitor Sophie v. La Roche in 1786:
“We drove first to Mr. Seddon’s, a cabinet-maker,…He employs four hundred apprentices on any work connected with the making of household furniture—joiners, carvers, gilders, mirror-workers, upholsterers, girdlers—who mould the bronze into graceful patterns—and locksmiths. All these are housed in a building with six wings. In the basement mirrors are cast and cut. Some other department contains nothing but chairs, sofas, and stools of every description, some quite simple, others exquisitely carved and made of all varieties of wood, and one large room is full up with all the finished articles in this line, while others are occupied by writing-tables, cupboards, chest of drawers, charmingly fashioned desks, chests, both large and small, work- and toilet-tables in all manner of wood and patterns, from the simplest and cheapest to the most elegant and expensive.”
The 18th century saw an explosion in demand for household furniture. London was becoming a mass market with a large middle-class demand for quality furniture to satisfy. Design quality reached a peak at the same time. Thomas Chippendale, whose reputation was established by the publication of his catalogue in 1754, had a business in St Martin’s Lane in London. George Hepplewhite was designing furniture in London. Towards the end of the century, Alice Hepplewhite, his widow, lived in Whitecross Street, and published his designs.
George Seddon’s own work still turns up at auctions. A suite of satin wood chairs designed by him and made by his company is owned by the Victoria and Albert Museum. Charles IV, King of Spain from 1788 to 1808, owned a cabinet which Seddon made in 1793 to a design by William Chambers. The picture on the right is of a Satinwood Secretaire Cabinet, in original condition from about 1790, attributed to George Seddon.
Skill in design was matched by the skill of the craftsmen. Huguenot and Dutch craftsmen had moved to England in the 1680s to escape persecution as Protestants on the continent. They brought new techniques of joinery, upholstery, marquetry and veneer. England’s trade with America and the West Indies brought large quantities of high-quality woods such as walnut, rosewood, deal, satinwood and, above all, mahogany to London.
Cabinet makers such as George Seddon would employ a wide range of specialists such as joiners, bed-post carvers, looking-glass grinders and framers, castor and spring makers and needle-women. They would also rely on the “slop trade” or “garret-masters”.
These were cheap home-workers who worked up to ninety hours a week in their own rooms in Stepney and Bethnal Green, often helped by their wives and children. Low piece-rates forced them to work long hours.
Seddon suffered three disastrous fires at London House. At the time of the first fire in 1768 he had unfortunately omitted to pay his annual insurance premium and had to meet the losses from his own pocket. During the third fire in 1790 his youngest daughter was burnt to death.
About 1785 his sons Thomas Seddon (1761–1804) and George Seddon (1765–1815) became partners in the firm, which was re-named George Seddon & Sons. From 1790 to 1795, his son-in-law Thomas Shackleton was also a partner, and the firm was called George Seddon, Sons, & Shackleton. Seddon died in 1801 leaving property valued at almost £250,000. His sons continued his policy of fine traditional craftsmanship, side-by-side with factory methods.
In 1815 Thomas’s son Thomas Seddon (1792–1864) took over the business. Two years later his brother George Seddon (1796–1857) joined him. By 1827, Thomas II had retired and George III formed a new partnership with a cabinetmaker and upholsterer called Nicholas Morel and the firm was called Morel & Seddon. One of their contracts was to make furniture for Windsor Castle. In 1830 George’s brother Thomas III joined this partnership. After 1833 the name of the business reverted to Seddon & Sons. The firm finally closed in 1868.
Thomas Seddon III (1821 – 1856) did not work in the firm for long. He went to Paris in 1841 to study art. Although he continued to work in the family firm, his heart was in painting. In 1850 he-founded an art school for working men in Camden Town. From 1850 devoted himself solely to painting. In 1852 his work was shown at the Royal Academy. In 1853 he toured Egypt and the Holy Land with William Holman Hunt. He produced landscapes such as Jerusalem and the Valley of Jehoshaphat from the Hill of Evil Counsel in Pre-Raphaelite style (shown on the left), which proved quite popular when exhibited at the Tate Gallery. He returned to Egypt in 1856 to continue painting, but died there from dysentery.
Thomas Seddon III’s younger brother, John Pollard Seddon (1827 – 1906) was also an artist in his own right and became known as an architect and designer. He trained under the architect T. L. Donaldson. In 1851 he travelled the continent. In 1852 he set up as an architect in London, and designed a hotel (1852–62) at Southerndown, Mid Glamorganshire. During the work he formed a partnership with John Prichard. They did a great deal of work in Wales and were particularly active in church restoration work. The partnership ended in 1863 and Seddon concentrated his creative efforts to the design of furniture, metalwork, stained glass and tiles, leaving much of the architectural work to others. (The picture is of walnut display shelves designed by John Pollard Seddon and manufactured by brother, Thomas Seddon) From 1884 to 1904 he was in partnership with John Coates Carter. Carter described Seddon as ‘the most original of the Gothic revivalists’, for in his designs it was ‘impossible to trace the origin of the detail to any particular medieval style or building’.
The drawing is Seddon and Carter’s design for the church of St. Oudoceus at Llandogo, between Chepstow and Monmouth from about 1890.