Friday, 27 July 2007

Dresser - daringly different

Admirers of his work reckon that Christopher Dresser was one of the most talented designers of the High Victorian era. Others are less charitable, one art market commentator once describing a Dresser kettle as more like a model of the Russian Sputnik!

The same acid writer is about to find himself in a minority as a new exhibition elevates Dresser to one of the new darlings of the day

Opening at the Victoria & Albert Museum next Thursday (Sept 9) and running until December 5 is the first UK retrospective on Dresser, an exhibition which marks the centenary of his death.

The whole spectrum of his work, including metalwork, furniture, ceramics and textiles, from his early more decorative designs to his later streamlined minimalist work will be on show.

Remember how Clarice Cliff’s gaudy Bizarre pottery was one derided by the purists? Then the first Clarice Cliff exhibition at Brighton wowed visitors in 1972 and today she is lauded as one of the most influential ceramics artists of the 20th Century.

Watch this space, as they say.

Christopher Dresser was among a handful of young designers who dared to be different. By 1899, he was hailed in the pages of The Studio - the bible of Victorian and Edwardian craftsmen artists - as "perhaps the greatest of commercial designers, imposing his fantasy and invention upon the ordinary output of British industry".

He was ahead of his time. When Britain was at its zenith during the Victorian period, good taste and design were forfeited for the sake of innovation and mass-production.

For example, it has been estimated that in the six decades of Queen Victoria's reign, more furniture was produced than in all the previous centuries put together.

Aesthetic judgment became subservient to efficient manufacture, with the result that design took on a new conservatism.

The manufacturer had no reason to go to the expense of commissioning new designs while his market remained aesthetically uncommitted.

Dresser turned that on its head, using mass-production methods to make the simplest of domestic objects with a high degree of sophistication in what was the first hint at modernism and functionalism.

He could turn his hand to designing almost anything for the home from wallpaper to toast racks. Even cast iron garden chairs and hat stands can be found with the Dresser touch of distinction.

Christopher Dresser (1834-1904) the son of a tax collector was born in Glasgow in the same year as William Morris but moved to London in 1847 having won a scholarship at the exceptionally early age of 13 to study at the Government School of Design at Somerset House.

Following a system of art education set up to train designers for industry, Dresser studied both design and botany and won numerous medals and prizes.

He subsequently gained a doctorate at the University of Jena in Thuringia, Germany, and at 18, he became a lecturer in botany at the Department of Science and Art in South Kensington.

In 1854, he married his wife, Thirza Perry, of Madeley, Shropshire, whose father was a missionary with the City of London Mission. The couple had 13 children.

These early years were his most formative and it was then that he came under the influence of another designer, Owen Jones (1809-1874) publisher of the important manual Grammar of Ornament.

This compendium of historic ornament, published in 1856, contained 37 "Propositions" - rules of design which were to remain a guiding factor for Dresser throughout his career.

Proposition 8 was that "all ornament should be based on geometric construction" while Proposition 13 – ironically – decried the use of flowers in ornament other than "conventional representations founded upon them sufficiently suggestive to convey the intended image to the mind".

Dresser's first published work was Plate XCV111 in Jones' Grammar of Ornament, illustrating a geometric arrangement of flowers. There followed many other articles, books and lecture tours on the relationship of botany and design.

Dresser published his own design book, The Art of Decorative Design in 1862 and in 1867, he visited Japan as official representative of the British government, exchanging the best examples of European design for their Japanese equivalents.

At the same time he also collected Japanese works of art on behalf of Tiffany's in New York. He published a lengthy account of his visit in 1882 under the titled "Japan, its Architecture, Art and Art Manufacturers" and clearly, his visit was a huge influence on his style.

In 1879, he formed a partnership with Charles Holmes of Bradford to import Oriental wares to England and the pair opened a shop in a short-lived venture selling Japanese goods. The experience added yet another dimension to Dresser's designs.

At the same time, Dresser was working extensively as a freelance designer for Minton and Wedgwood in the Staffordshire Potteries and designing carpets for Brinton and Lewis.

In 1879, he initiated the founding of the Linthorpe Art Pottery, acting as art superintendent for the Middlesborough-based firm owned by businessman John Harrison. Dresser designed most of the ceramics produced there and they bear his impressed facsimile signature.

His association with the company ceased in 1882, although production of his designs continued until its collapse in 1889. As a result, examples of Dresser-designed Linthorpe are naturally scarce today after just 10 years of production and consequently change hands for large sums.

Another minor pottery to benefit from the Dresser influence was that run by William Ault at Swadlincote, near Burton-on-Trent, Staffordshire.

Between 1892 and 1896, Dresser designed a number of fantasy vases with long necks, gourd shapes and goat's head handles. Production continued after Dresser's death in 1904, but examples are still rare.

By now Dresser had established a studio for design work in all media, working from 1882 in Sutton, Surrey, and from 1889 in Barnes in London. There, he worked on numerous projects for a bewildering variety of customers.

From about 1885 onwards, for example, he produced designs for Clutha Glass, manufactured by James Couper and Sons in Glasgow. The flowing bubbled and streaked glass is acid etched with the words "Clutha designed by C.D. registered".

Clutha is an old Scottish word meaning "cloudy" and Dresser stated that "glass has a molten state in which it can be blown into the most beautiful shapes ... this process is the work of but a few seconds”.

Working to his designs, Couper's glass blowers created sensual elongated shapes usually in a pale green glass "clouded" with internal swirls of milky glass of a quality that was comparable with the best that French glassmakers could make.

The important Coalbrookdale ironworks at Madeley, the Shropshire home of Dresser's wife, probably had the benefit of the master's designs from as early as 1871 when a table and hat stand was shown in the London International Exhibition.

Production of a wide range of Dresser ironwork designs continued for many years, much to the delight of today's collectors looking for classy garden furniture.

Designs of metalwork of a more delicate nature were for silver and silver plate for a variety of smiths and manufacturers.

They are perhaps his most revolutionary and well ahead of their time. Hukin and Heath made several different types of elegant claret and water jugs, cruets, teapots (including the Sputnik one) and other tableware, as did Sheffield firm James Dixon and Sons and Birmingham-based Elkington and Co.

Last month an electroplated teapot made in 1879, one of only six known, sold for a record £94,850.

Once seen, a toast rack designed by Christopher Dresser is never forgotten. They are made from angular V-shaped sections formed by rods and joined by small spheres. In silver plate, they are worth £400-600.

At the height of his career, Dresser employed 20 or more studio assistants, including J. Moyr Smith and Archibald Knox who were subsequently to become important designers in their own right, going on to play major roles in shaping design in the Arts and Crafts Movement.

Pictures show: A silver-plated teapot with ebonized wood handle made by James Dixon & Sons. Sheffield in about 1878 © The British Museum

A silver-plated toast rack by James Dixon & Sons Sheffield, in about 1879. © 2001 Michael Whiteway

A silver-plated decanter made by Hukin & Heath Birmingham, England, 1879 © 2001 Michael Whiteway

The picture of Christopher Dresser is © Linnean Society

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Anonymous patricia said...

found this artical on christopher dresser very informative
thank you

6 November 2008 at 01:26  
Anonymous w flettcher wilson said...

Dear sir, I am trying to identify the designer/maker for my silver plated teapot..Itis hand made, seam jointed down the body and the spout, The shape of body is a cone, with a flat top , in the shape of a disk. for the "filler" which is fitted with a small spherical knob...the spout is also formed from a cone. the teapot is fitted with a carved type conventional shaped wooden handle painted in black. The top and bottom rims are seamed joints, SHEFFIELD PLATE?>. height 5 1/2 over knob. dia .base .5.1/2 ins. I WELCOME YOUR KIND RESPONSE....REGARDS...W.FLETCHER WILSON.

2 July 2010 at 02:25  

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