Christopher Dresser: a Victorian designer

Dr Christopher Dresser (1834-1904) was a prodigious designer of applied arts (objects for household use and decoration).  He is recognised as one of the world’s earliest independent industrial designers, associated over a period of nearly forty years with many different British manufacturers.  Dresser’s designs were created for production in a remarkably diverse range of materials.

In 1847 Christopher Dresser entered the Government School of Design in London, where he came under the spell of the outstanding designer and design theorists of the period, Owen Jones (1809-74).  In 1859 Dresser received a doctorate in Botany from Jena University, in Thuringia, Germany.  Although he did not long pursue an academic career, the lessons drawn from nature were to have a profound effect on Dresser’s career as a designer.

Throughout his life, Dresser lectured and published on design.  The Art of Decorative Design was published in 1862, followed by Principles of Decorative Design in 1873 arguably his most important publication, and Japan, Its Architecture and Art Manufactures published in 1882 recalling his significant and influential trip there in 1876-77.

Dresser’s first designs for manufacturers were in 1858, including a carpet for Jackson & Graham (circa 1840-85).  From 1867 he was designing for Wedgwood, and Minton (ceramics), Green and Nephew (glass) and Coalbrookdale (cast iron) (fig. 1).

NOTE: Click individual images to see full-size picture

1. Chairs, (designed with John Moyr Smith), Coalbrookdale, cast iron and wood circa 1870, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City (one chair each)
2. Kettle, Benham & Froud, copper and brass, circa 1880
1. Chairs, (designed with John Moyr Smith), Coalbrookdale, cast iron and wood circa 1870, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City (one chair each)
2. Kettle, Benham & Froud, copper and brass, circa 1880

His relationship with metalworkers Hukin & Heath began in 1877, with Benham & Froud in 1878 (fig. 2), with James Dixon in 1879, with Perry & Co in 1883 and with Elkington in 1885 (figs 3 and 4).  Dresser designed ceramics for the Linthorpe Art Pottery from 1879 and for William Ault & Co. from 1890.  Glass was first created for James Couper in 1888.

3. Sugar bowl, Elkington, electroplated nickel silver, designed 1885, private collection
4. Cruet, Elkington, electroplated nickel silver and glass, designed 1885

Writing in the Architectural Review in 1937, the German-born architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner (1902-83), by then living in London, noted that ‘While engaged in research on the origins of the Modern Movement quite by chance [he] came across the name and two isolated examples of the work of Christopher Dresser.’  Pevsner illustrates electroplated and glass cruets, manufactured by Hukin & Heath of Birmingham, around 1878.  Such practical objects (figs 5 and 6) are in stark contrast to the fussy production of so much mid-nineteenth century British manufacture, and are invariably seen today as anticipating the functional, pared-down aesthetic of twentieth-century design.  But as much as Dresser is admired for his proto-modern aesthetic, he was also a typically curious Victorian, with an informed knowledge of historic sources, and an understanding of colour and texture.

5. ‘Kettle and stove complete’, Hukin & Heath, circa 1878, electroplated nickel silver and ebonized wood, Rhode Island School of Design
6. Picnic set, Hukin & Heath, circa 1876, electroplated nickel silver and rattan, from the collection of HRH The Princess Helena (1846-1923)

Hukin & Heath, responsible for the cruets published by Pevsner, registered the design for the claret jug (fig. 7), on 9 October 1878.  This model, today commonly known as the ‘crow’s foot decanter’, combines several recurring features in Dresser’s work, including humour.  This avian form, with its beak-like spout and pointed feet, is a much less decorated variant of the ubiquitous decanters (often ruby glass with silver gilt mounts), more directly representing birds, which graced the middle-class dining rooms of Victorian Britain.

7. Decanter, Hukin & Heath, circa 1878, electroplated nickel silver and glass.

The protruding, pointed tail of a bird has been transformed into an abstract and symmetrical, vertical shape: Dresser has stripped away the decoration and created a form that is both practical and elegant.  As with many of Dresser’s designs, it pays to imagine this as a simple silhouette.

Since Pevsner’s Pioneers of the Modern Movement (1936), Christopher Dresser has been held in increasingly high esteem. His name featured with twenty works in the important ‘Exhibition of Victorian & Edwardian Decorative Arts’ mounted at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, in 1952. In that show, the ‘Claret Jug (H. 10 in) glass, mounted with silver lid handle and feet’ (H.18) may have been the ‘crow’s foot’ model.

Dresser has now also been the subject of numerous monographic exhibitions, starting with ‘Christopher Dresser’, mounted by Richard Dennis, John Jesse and the Fine Art Society in 1972. This was followed by the first non-commercial exhibition ‘Christopher Dresser 1834-1904’ at the Camden Arts Centre in 1979.  In 2002, ‘Christopher Dresser and Japan’ toured four Japanese museums, taking his work back to a country that he had visited, and which had been a considerable source of inspiration.  More recently the Cooper Hewitt, New York and Victoria and Albert Museum mounted ‘Shock of the Old: Christopher Dresser’s Design Revolution’ (2004), an authoritative appraisal of the designer’s work. Dresser’s production in many media – ceramics, furniture, glass, metal work (silver, electroplate, painted tin and cast iron), textiles and wallpapers – is today represented in collections across the globe.  There is now no question about Dr Christopher Dresser’s internationally accepted reputation as the leading ‘Viktoiranischer Designer’, the title of the 1980 monographic exhibition mounted at the Kunstgewerbemuseum, Cologne.

In later life, Dresser’s significance and originality were admired in the pages of The Studio (founded 1893), published by his friend and sometime collaborator Charles Holme.  Although manufacturers such as the Linthorpe Pottery, James Couper (fig. 8) and James Dixon (fig. 9) appear to have used Dresser’s talent as a selling point, adding his name to their makers’ marks, ‘The Work of Christopher Dresser’, published anonymously by The Studio in 1898, is the only published appreciation of the designer to appear before his death.

8. ‘Clutha’ vase, James Couper & Sons, glass, circa 1890, Cooper Hewitt Design Museum, New York
9. Teapot, James Dixon & Sons, electroplated nickel silver and ebonized wood, circa 1879, private collection

Dresser often drew quite directly on exotic or historic sources for his glass and ceramics.  Dresser himself wrote: ‘In order that you acquire the power of perceiving art-merit as quickly as possible, you must study those works in which bad taste are really met with, you must at first consider art-objects from India, Persia, China, and Japan, as well as ancient art from Egypt and Greece (Principles of Decorative Design, 1873).  As Judy Rudoe has noted, this statement ‘reveals in a nutshell his debt to the art of ancient and contemporary civilizations alike.’ (Michael Whiteway, ed., Shock of the Old: Christopher Dresser’s Design Revolution, 2004, p. 81). And Dresser echoes Owen Jones in urging the student ‘to study whatever has gone before; not with the view of becoming a copyist, but with the object of gaining knowledge, and seeking out the general truths and broad principles … [so that] our works should be superior to those of our ancestors, inasmuch as we can look back upon a longer experience than they could.’ (Studies in Design, 1876).

The Studio article on Dresser picked up on several themes recognised today.  He was appreciated as ‘perhaps the greatest of commercial designers imposing his fantasy and invention upon the ordinary output of British industry.’  It was also noted that  ‘Dresser [was] in a way the figure-head of the professional … a household word to people interested in design.’

Early in his career, Dresser produced some extraordinary graphic designs for vases by Wedgwood (fig.10) and then Minton (fig. 11). But the later ceramics that Dresser designed for Ault (figs. 12 and 14) and Linthorpe (fig 13) are intriguing in different ways.  Taken as a group, these vessels unite Dresser’s historicism with something altogether more modern.

10. Vase, Wedgwood, painted earthenware, circa 1867, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
11. Brush pot, Minton, bone china, with underglaze decoration, 1870
12. Vase, Ault, glazed earthenware, circa 1890, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
13. Vase, Linthorpe, glazed and painted earthenware, circa 1880, Louvre Abu Dhabi
14. Vase, Ault, glazed earthenware, circa 1890, Louvre Abu Dhabi

Despite the evident diversity displayed in Dresser’s ceramics, glass and metal, there is equally a unity about his work in his eye for form.  The proto-modern aesthetic of Dresser’s tableware and the adventurous treatments of his (cross-cultural) ceramics reveal those combined elements of the eye and mind so appealing to contemporary taste.

 

This note is largely based on the compiler’s ‘Why is Christopher Dresser so admired?’ in Christopher Dresser, published to on the occasion of an exhibition at Crab Tree Farm in 2015.

All photographs are by Prudence Cuming Associates, London and are the copyright of H. Blairman & Sons, London.