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Christopher Dresser

Christopher Dresser (1834 – 1904) was born in Glasgow, Scotland and is recognized as one of the first and most important, independent designers.

An article about him on the Metropolitan Museum of Art website states, “Dresser addressed the constraints as well as the strengths of the machine in the manufacture of domestic utilitarian objects. A prolific designer, he created forms and ornament for a wide range of manufacturers in Great Britain, France, and the United States.

“Profoundly influenced by the architect-designer Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812–1852) as well as the ornamentalist Owen Jones (1809–1874), Dresser was also inspired by botanical forms and the arts of Japan.

“In addition to providing designs for industry, Dresser was an importer and furnishings retailer. He published books and articles and lectured throughout his career on topics ranging from botany to appropriate design for industrial production. … Dresser’s books—‘The Art of Decorative Design’ (1862), ‘Principles of Decorative Design’ (1873), ‘Studies in Design’ (1876), and ‘Modern Ornamentation’ (1886)—provide instruction and examples for the student, designer, and layperson on topics ranging from color theory and ornamentation to interior decorating. His comprehensive and landmark book, ‘Japan: Its Architecture, Art, and Art Manufactures’ (1882) helped perpetuate the fashion for japonisme in the last decades of the nineteenth century.”

Dresser was an industrial designer before the profession was invented. He found new ways of production designing that few of his contemporaries could have imagined. He grasped both the properties of materials and the processes of production and adapted his designs and aesthetics to them.

Married at 19 and with a growing family to support, Dresser took jobs as an anonymous designer of fresh wallpapers and textiles for commercial firms such as Jeffrey & Co. Soon he was also turning out designs for cast iron chairs and coat racks for Coalbrookdale, and ceramics for Minton and Wedgwood.

Dresser worked for a large and varied number of manufacturers and created designs for silver plate, cast iron, furniture, ceramics, and glass, as well as textiles, carpets and wallpapers.

His teapots represent how innovative he could be and reveal his principles of design extended to their most extreme conclusion. It is to these designs, along with a select group of others developed in 1879, that Dresser owes his reputation as a major figure in British industrial heritage.

Dresser was multi-talented and spent two years at the Government School of Design at Somerset House, from 1847-1849. He began earning a living as a botanist, lecturing at the Department of Science and Art and St Mary’s Hospital Schools around 1860. He contributed designs to Owen Jones’s ‘Grammar of Ornament,’ published in 1856. ‘The Art of Decorative Design,’ Dresser’s first design book, was published in 1862.

He visited Japan in 1876 as official representative of the British Government exchanging the best examples of European design for their Japanese equivalents. The Japanese rulers presented him with casts of four ceilings, three of which he gave to the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Dresser designed metalwork for Chubb & Co., Coalbrookdale Ironworks, Hukin & Heath, Elkington & Co., James Dixon & Sons and Benham & Froud. His ceramics were created for Minton & Co., Wedgwood, Linthorpe Art Pottery, William Ault, and Old Hall Pottery. He also designed glass for James Couper and Sons of Glasgow and furniture for his solicitor Hiram Owers of Bushloe House.

By 1862, while still lecturing on botany, Dresser began to devote more time to design and claimed to have designed a number of the exhibits at the International Exhibition of 1862. Six years later he had virtually abandoned botany as a profession. The most likely reasons for this dramatic change were that, as one of the very first freelance designers for industry, his ambitions, in a profession only just being established, would stand greater chance of fulfilment in industrial design rather than in botany. There were many excellent botanists but few competitors in design.

Dresser’s sketchbook of the mid-1860s (an “ideas book” is a more apt description) discovered by Patricia Butler, Curator of the Ipswich Museum, reveals that at even this early date Dresser’s ideas on design were firmly established. There are designs in it that appear in his ‘Studies in Design’ of 1874-76 and designs for metal work that would appear later. It is work that was remarkably advanced for the 1870s and 1880s, but, in fact, were first conceived in the 1860s.

In 1880, Dresser started a retail business, The Art Furnishers Alliance, which sold many of his creations. At the height of his career Dresser employed twenty or more studio assistants, the most notable of whom were J. Moyr Smith and Archibald Knox.

The fact that Dresser began his professional career as a botanist is important to understanding his development: his years as a botanist can be seen in all his designs. Plant structures were transformed into pottery, glass and metal, using conventional rather than naturalistic design.

He retained his interest in botany until his death and maintained an admired garden. The only photograph of Dresser that seems to survive shows him seated, in his late sixties, in a well-stocked and typically Victorian conservatory.

Dresser tried to raise the status of ornamentation to a level higher than that of painting. In 1871 he claimed before an audience at the Royal Society of Arts, “True ornamentation is of purely mental origin, and consists of symbolized imagination only… ornamentation is not only fine art, but … it is high art… even a higher art than that practiced by the pictorial artist, as it is wholly of mental origin.”

This view, at the time, was as daring as it was controversial.

Dresser’s interest in Japanese design began with the International Exhibition of 1862 where Sir Rutherford Alcock (1809-1897), the first British Consul in Japan, displayed a collection of Japanese pieces. Dresser made drawings of a number of them and succeeded in buying others which became the basis of his fine collection of Japanese artwork.

Enroute to Japan in 1876, Dresser delivered a series of lectures in the Philadelphia Museum and School of Industrial Art and supervised the manufacture of wallpapers. He was commissioned by Tiffany, New York to form a collection, while in Japan, of art objects both old and new that would illustrate the manufacture of that country.

In four months during 1876-77, Dresser travelled about 2000 miles in Japan, recording his impressions of its architecture, art, and manufacturing output. As he represented the South Kensington Museum, he was received at court by the Emperor, who ordered Dresser to be treated as a guest of the nation opening all doors to him. His pioneering study of Japanese art is evident in much of his own work that is considered typical of Anglo-Japanese style.

In 1877, at the height of the enthusiasm for Japan, Dresser travelled to Yokohama and began a detailed survey of Japanese arts and industries, the first by a European designer. The account of his visit to Japan was published in 1882.

Dresser wrote of the Japanese as “the only perfect metal workers which the world has yet produced, for they are the only people who do not think of the material, and regard the effect produced as of far greater moment than the material employed.” Elements of Japanese design often appear in Dresser’s work, but he was no imitator.

From 1879 to 1882 Dresser was in partnership with Charles Holme (1848–1923) as Dresser & Holme, wholesale importers of Oriental goods, with a warehouse on Farringdon Road, London, next door to those of the American inventor and abolitionist, Thaddeus Hyatt (1816–1901).

In 1879, Linthorpe Art Pottery went into production as a direct result of Dresser meeting John Harrison, a local landowner who was interested in Dresser’s theories on art. They decided to start making pottery, using the local clay on the site of Harrison’s Sun Brick Works.

Henry Tooth, an artist, hired as manager though he had little experience in pottery, proved to have found his calling. Dresser was appointed Art Director responsible for design and continued in that role until 1882. All his designs were impressed with his facsimile signature.

In 1880 Dresser was appointed Art Manager of the Art Furnishers’ Alliance founded to “carry on the business of manufacturing, buying and selling high-class goods of artistic design.” The Alliance was financed by a number of leading manufacturers. Dresser saw it as a platform from which he would influence middle-class taste.

From 1882, painted decoration became a more important feature, even as Dresser’s influence remained apparent in many designs and the impressed Linthorpe mark took a new form incorporating the outline of a bowl.

From its inception, the pottery was well received and its output increased. Dresser’s work can be divided into three groups. In the first, the shape was the important factor and drew inspiration from sources seen especially in Japan and Peru. The second group were incised or molded relief with geometric and stylized floral motifs. The third group was painted or molded with botanical studies.

The glazes of these early Linthorpe ceramics were their principal decorative feature and likely the work of Tooth. The creation of the glazes was a mixture that combined various metal oxides to produce color effects unlike anything made in Europe at the time.

Dresser’s vase form, based on the sphere and right angle, appears to pre-date 20th-century Modernism. Dresser’s appreciation of spare, clean shapes, derives from his interest in Japanese forms and his profound understanding of manufacturing processes.

In 1875, Dresser began designing for Elkington & Company, makers of silver and plate. In 1880, he was appointed Art Editor of The Furniture Gazette, a position he held for a year.

Despite support from influential manufacturers, the Art Furnishers’ Alliance went into liquidation in May 1883. Also in 1883, Dresser moved to Wellesley Lodge, Sutton in what was, perhaps, an early indication of his declining fortunes.

In 1886, Dresser published, ‘Modern Ornamentation’ which included work by assistants and pupils. The book, he said, “represented …one phase … of our office work … there are no examples of architectural work, of designs for furniture, glass, earthenware metal work or the numerous things that emanate from this office.”

In 1889, he moved near to the Barnes Railway Bridge, probably an indication of improving fortune. Apart from designing textiles and patterns, Dresser was also designing for William Ault pottery, for Benham and Froud, metalworkers, and for William Couper of Glasgow, glass makers.

In 1899, an anonymous article described Dresser as, “…not the least, but perhaps the greatest of commercial designers, imposing his fantasy and invention upon the ordinary output of British industry.”

Dresser died on November 24, 1904 in his sleep at the Hotel Central, in Alsace, France while he was on a business trip. Dresser had been accompanied by his son Louis.

The net value of Dresser’s personal estate was estimated at over £2 million. The Builder obituary referred to Dresser’s last years stating, “… he spent most of his time in preparing designs for manufacturers and in the enjoyment of his garden and flowers. He was a most genial companion and interesting talker, and never tired of discussion on Art and the habits of the nations of the East, trying to trace their histories by their ornamental forms as a philologist does by their language…”

In his lifetime Dresser received widespread recognition and, unlike many of his well-known contemporaries, he is one of the leading Victorian industrial designers who has undergone a period of comparative, if not complete, neglect.

Nikolaus Pevsner’s 1937 article in Architectural Review helped to keep Dresser in the minds of historians. Peter Floud’s Victorian and Edwardian Decorative Arts exhibition in 1952 contributed to the restoration of Dresser’s reputation (as it did for many others) and gave the public an opportunity to see a small, but excellent selection of his work.

Nowadays, Dresser is regarded as a designer who, earlier than any other, knew how to make use of the machine and who believed that nature was to be understood, not copied and that good design is to be for everyone.

Dresser represented the Victorian mind at its best and is, perhaps, the only nineteenth century designer who anticipated modernism. There is all that extraordinary metalwork for the table: The teapots, toast racks, decanters, tureens, egg coddlers, sugar basins, and candlesticks, anticipating Bauhaus and even, possibly, Ikea.

Some of his published decorative designs, if taken out of context, have the look of the Art Deco era about them. But Dresser’s modernity is the modernity of his own century.

Christopher Dresser is the invisible man of the Victorian art world. Though he is credited with the invention of a whole new profession – that of industrial design – his name is far less well known than those of Ruskin, Morris, Pugin or Burges.

In his book on Japan, Dresser wrote, “No people but the Japanese have understood the value of colour in metal compositions. We make steel fenders, coal scuttles, tin kettles, and iron gates; but we have never fully realized the fact that by producing metal alloys, and combining these with pure metals, a world of colours is open to us.”

A 2017 Symposium on Dresser’s work took place at Teesside University as part of a 3 day Christopher Dresser Festival that ran in conjunction with The Christopher Dresser Gallery at the Dorman Museum in Middlesbrough, England.

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