One of the first and most influential independent designers, Christopher Dresser described himself at various times in life as an artist, an ornamentalist, and an architect – these terms failing to fully summarise his work. The contemporary term ‘designer’ better describes what Dresser actually did. He was the first to depart from his contemporaries in designing creatively for industry. Dresser believed that affordable household items should still have intrinsic beauty. But to be affordable, he understood that his designs needed to suit the capabilities of industry. The ideals of the Design Reform movement clearly resonated with Dresser who followed the maxim that “form follows function”, which together with “the elimination of excess ornamentation” resulted in ground-breaking designs of the era. Dresser championed the use of natural organic forms and was one of the first to incorporate Japanese artistic traditions into his designs, anticipating what was later to become known in Europe as “Japonisme”. At his peak, Dresser also directed a ‘design studio’ (in the modern sense of the phrase) with over ten staff. His radical designs were decades ahead and have stood the test-of-time.
Influential Early Years
Born into a Yorkshire Methodist family in 1834, the son of an excise officer who, as his career demanded, was to complete various assignments throughout the UK and Ireland. Initially posted to Glasgow, where his second son Christopher was born – followed by Stockton, London, Bandon, London, and Halifax. It was in Bandon (County Cork) where Christopher received the bulk of his schooling and where his artistic inclination appears to have been nurtured. How his family regarded this is unknown however Christopher, with characteristic resolve, gained a place at the London School of Design in 1847 at the young age of thirteen.
Dresser could not have arrived at a better time. With the acceptance within government that the Schools of Design were failing to serve industry’s needs, his arrival coincided with the complete re-evaluation of their ideals. His seven years at the London School of Design were during the time when the Design Reform movement was at its most influential. With luminaries such as Owen Jones deeply involved in planning the Great Exhibition of 1851 and leading figures such as Henry Cole, Richard Redgrave, George Wallis and Matthew Digby Wyatt steering the school. Dresser would have been acutely aware of the issues shaping government policy, debated by the very people who were his teachers.
Manufacturers were encouraged to approach the Schools of Design for ideas as well as to sponsor awards. Records of awards given start from 1851 and Dresser’s name regularly appears as a prize winner for designs on textiles and ceramics. In addition to prize money received (no doubt providing some help in supplementing his scholarship) these accolades gave Dresser the opportunity to gain valuable contacts within industry which he would later utilise. It was during this time that Dresser was exposed to the new scientific discipline of botany, finding inspiration from plants and their structures. Regarded as fundamental to the study of ornamentation, Dresser opted to further his knowledge of botany, enrolling at the School of Mines (now Imperial College, London).
By 1854 Dresser was married with his first child and reaching the end of his studies. With a pressing need for income, he accepted a part-time job as lecturer for ‘Botany applied to Ornamentation’ at the Female School of Design. The following year his appointment was expanded to cover the Central School of Design at South Kensington. Dresser spent much of the spare time that his contract afforded him at the botanical gardens in Kew, where he met leading botanists, notably Sir William Hooker who encouraged Dresser to establish himself in his new career in botany. Over the next five years Dresser immersed himself into botany as a science. He published two well received academic books in 1859, followed by a ‘popularist’ book intended for the interested lay person in 1860. Dresser’s specialist field was the morphology of plants which one of the most debated areas of the natural sciences following the publication of Darwin’s ‘The Origin of The Species’ in 1859. Dresser proposed that the leaf was a modified branch, and that the flower was none other than a modified leaf. The submission of his ideas to the botanical faculty at the well-regarded Jena University led to them conferring on him (in absentia) the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. Through self-teaching and with the help of influential mentors, Dresser had forged a position of respect within progressive botanical circles. In 1860 he was appointed to a lectureship in Botany at the Medical School, St Mary’s Hospital in London and in the same year was elected a Fellow of the Edinburgh Botanical Society and a Fellow of the Linnean Society a year later.
The 1862 London International Exhibition
Throughout his career as a botanist Dresser had continued to maintain an interest in botany as applied to ornamentation. In 1856 Owen Jones published his ‘Grammar of Ornament’ to which Dresser contributed a plate on plants and flowers. In the following year he patented a method of reproducing plants leaves on the printed page. In the same year he was invited to deliver a lecture to the Royal Institution on ornamentation, and also wrote a series of articles on ‘Botany applied to Art Manufacture’ for The Art Journal. In 1858 he gave a public lecture as part of the Schools programme, alongside senior figures from the Department of Education such as Henry Cole and Dr Lyon Playfair – the following year also selling his first designs. The 1862 London International Exhibition however proved to be pivotal in defining Dresser as a designer. Planning for the exhibition started in 1860 with Dresser becoming increasingly involved in responding to manufacturers requests. Records from 1860 to 1862 confirm that he sold designs to Minton (ceramics), Jackson & Graham (carpets) and Scott Cuthbertson (wallpaper) – although believed that he also worked with a number of other manufacturers. In 1862 Dresser also published ‘The Principles of Decorative Design’ as well as ‘The Development of Ornamental Art at the International Exhibition’. From Dresser’s perspective, one of the displays at the 1862 Exhibition deeply influenced him. Whilst he would have been familiar with Japanese forms and ornamentation, the display of Japanese cultural items at the exhibition left Dresser with a life-long love for Japanese art – writing a three-part article on ‘Japanese Ornamentation’ for The Building News the following year.
After the 1862 exhibition Dresser found himself in an ideal position to continue selling his designs. Having successfully worked for several leading companies, he had established links with owners. Dresser’s work on ornamentation was well known, which together with his association to leading personalities such as Henry Cole and Owen Jones, fostered his reputation for pioneering designs. Dresser’s family ties to Yorkshire along with his father’s position in Halifax also provided him with access to important industrialists of the age. The Crossleys, Wards, Listers, and Holdsworths, all families in control of large manufacturing companies, were known to him and bought his designs – the first four also commissioning him to decorate complete interiors. The years following the exhibition saw Dresser devoting more and more time to providing designs for industry and less in advancing his botanical career, delivering his last lecture in Botany in 1868. His design work by now clearly providing him with some degree of success, since it was also in 1868 that Dresser’s growing family moved into a larger, much grander house in a smart West London area.
Emergence of the English Style
The two years running up to the Paris Exhibition of 1867 proved to be another significant period for Dresser. Reports of the time confirm that he completed work in ceramics for Minton and Wedgwood, in metalware for Elkington and Coalbrooke, and in carpets for Brinton & Lewis (winning the company a gold medal at the exhibition). Contemporary accounts of the exhibition also mention that there were European manufacturers exhibiting Dresser’s work, likely including Desfossé & Karth (wallpapers), and Steinbach Koechlin (textiles). Dresser’s own sketchbook, still surviving and dating to this period, also shows designs for glass, furniture, and linoleum patterns in addition to ceramics, metalware, carpets, and textiles. Several of these designs can be matched to items produced by manufacturers, either for the exhibition or subsequently.
With ‘The Grammar of Ornament’ published in 1856, Owen Jones was a major influence in changing attitudes to wallpaper and textile designs. Jones’ patterns tended to be based on linear tessellations – very unlike earlier designs that attempted to be three-dimensional representations of nature. However, existing production methods ensured that these would be intended only for the very wealthy. Dresser’s introduction of organic forms such as stylised flowers and foliage, together with the affordability of their manufacture meant that they were available to the expanding middle classes. It was this accessibility to a growing market together with the diversity of designs that resulted in a fundamental change in taste. The emerging middle-classes (industrialists, professionals, and thriving retailers amongst them) had ‘new money’ to decorate their homes however they lacked the guidance of architects and artists available to the select few. Manufacturers endeavoured to supply patterns that were in demand. But without established fashions and only sales-staff to advise customers, this commonly led to a cacophony of patterns and colours fighting for position within the Victorian home. Dresser could see the issues involved. He regarded the lack of affordable good design together with the lack of guidance for sales-staff and customers as a barrier to advancing good taste. Among many efforts to promote ‘good design’ in the home, the wallpaper manufacturer Trumble & Co presented an exhibition in 1865 which featured Dresser’s wallpapers together with those of Owen Jones.
Two Halifax based companies which Dresser had long-term involvement with were John Crossley & Sons (the largest carpet manufacturer world-wide and the largest British publicly quoted industrial company by 1868), and J.W. & C. Ward (one of the largest textile manufacturers and world-wide exporters of the time). Both companies exhibited Dresser’s designs at the 1871 and 1872 London exhibitions – in 1871 winning both a gold medal for Crossley and high acclaim for Ward, with their designs featured in the Art Journal’s review of the exhibition. By the early 1870s Dresser had developed his own distinctive style, with reviewers of the 1871 and 1872 exhibitions referring to his new “English style” – a term often re-used in later 19th century trade articles. At the time of the 1851 London Exhibition, at which British exhibits had been heavily criticised, France had been seen as the place to go for good household design. Within twenty years, a number of leading French importers of wallpapers were heading to England for their designs. Whilst still producing traditional patterns, they also began producing patterns in this new “English style”. One could arguably say that it was at this point that the Aesthetic movement (as we know it today) became an important force behind 19th century design – its influence still enduring today.
A New Concept - The Art Advisor
Dresser found that the designs he sold would be exposed to influences within the company and thus were often not realised as initially intended. Because of this, Dresser was known to have adopted a role akin to that of chief designer or art director. It was also his practice to install his choice of manager to oversee design staff. Dresser was adept at selecting people whom he saw not only as competent, but also someone who would reliably direct operations in his absence and report back regularly. Companies where there is documentary evidence of Dresser’s paid role as “Art Advisor” include: John Crossley & Sons, and Brinton & Lewis/John Brinton & Co (carpets), Hukin &Heath (plated metalware), J.W. & C. Ward, Barlow & Jones, and Tootal Broadhurst Lee (textiles), and in ceramics, Ault Faience and of course, the Linthorpe Pottery. The length of time that he acted as advisor with each company usually being around two to three years – however, whilst he may have moved away from his role as advisor, Dresser continued selling designs to most of these companies. The earliest company in which he acted in this advisory role was probably John Crossley & Sons c1865, and the last was Ault Faience, with his last payment recorded in March 1896.
The Linthorpe Pottery, Middlesbrough represented a unique departure from other companies Dresser had been involved with in that he had a primary role in establishing the company itself. Dresser had discussed setting up a pottery with Henry Tooth in 1874 – initially as part of a larger ‘art industry’ complex also producing wallpaper, glass, and metalware. Opportunity presented itself on Dresser’s return from Japan in 1877 when he met John Harrison, a local businessman and landowner. Dresser’s intention was that the pottery should produce ware not previously attempted in Britain and at the same time alleviate some of the hardship in the area by engaging upwards of 100 staff at the works. With Dresser acting as “Art Superintendent”, Henry Tooth as manager and Richard Patey overseeing production, the first firing took place in the early autumn of 1879. Greatly admired from the start, Linthorpe ware won several awards at exhibitions around the world. In 1880/81 shares were issued to raise money with intent to expand operations to include the production of wallpaper – however this never happened. Perhaps because of this, Dresser’s involvement with Linthorpe lessened and his role was terminated in 1882, although he continued selling designs to the pottery. Increased material costs together with competition from cheaper imitations brought increasing financial pressure on the company, with its final blow in 1889 when Harrison was bankrupted due to the collapse of another of his business ventures.
Illness, Recession and Recovery
In addition to his ongoing workload, during the late 1870s Dresser embarked on two business ventures, with mixed success. In 1879 Dresser went into partnership with Charles Holmes to form Dresser & Holme – an import company of Japanese, Indian and Middle Eastern wares. Whilst launched to great acclaim and success, Dresser sold his share in the business in 1882 – although his son, Christopher, settled and continued an export business in Japan. In 1880 Dresser was part of a consortium that launched the Art Furnishers’ Alliance in New Bond Street as a ‘one-stop-shop’ for customers. Acting also as art director, Dresser saw this as another opportunity to enlighten consumers whilst also promoting his designs – also to include furniture. The enterprise aimed to cover the more affordable end of the market and was established on a sale-or-return basis for manufacturers – a concept that was largely negatively received. After a limited programme of ‘exhibitions’ with mixed reviews, the AFA went into receivership May 1883. In 1880 Dresser refers to a ‘long and painful illness’ which forced him to curtail several of his activities. In addition, 1882 saw economic recession in Britain with several manufacturers cutting back on production costs and some well-known names brought to bankruptcy. Companies such as Hukin & Heath and Linthorpe terminated their contracts which together with the work he had been forced to curtail, amounted to a significant loss of income for Dresser. In 1882, he was forced to sell his imposing house in Notting Hill, take up a more modest house in Sutton and reduce his studio staff to a few.
Re-focusing on his core business of interior design and ornamentation, Dresser endeavoured to rebuild his manufacturing client base – with companies such as James Dixon, Richard Perry and Old Hall replacing those lost, and others such as Elkington & Co, and Benham & Froud expanding their range of Dresser designs. Around this time Dresser also started selling designs to Liberty – having known Arthur Lazenby Liberty as a shareholder in the AFA. In 1888 Liberty launched its range of Clutha glass which was made by James Couper & Sons to Dresser’s designs. Of interest that Loetz reproduced a selection of these designs that were featured in 'The Studio' in 1898 which was subsequently discovered in the Loetz archive. By 1889 Dresser’s finances had recovered somewhat and the family moved to a more spacious house in Barnes where he was also able to accommodate a larger number of employees for his studio. His studio assistants at this time were predominantly engaged within his core work of textiles and wallpapers, a client base he continued expanding to include work in linoleums for John Wilson in 1891. In addition to ongoing work for manufacturers and retailers in other areas, in 1893 Dresser signed a contract with Ault. This was his last new venture outside of textiles and wallpapers.
By the mid-1890s the emergence of the Art Nouveau movement had resulted in a shift in tastes and the decline of the Aesthetic movement. Dresser readily embraced styles associated with Aubrey Beardsley, Walter Crane and Rennie Mackintosh – adapting his designs to suit the new fashion. Whilst always the creative designer looking for new inspiration, this evolution in Dresser’s designs would have been driven in-part by increasing competition in the field of design – with other design studios reaching eminence. Competition also came in the guise of interior furnishing companies that commissioned and bought exclusive designs from manufacturers – recreating the ‘one-stop-shop’ concept pioneered by the AFA. The 1901 census records Mr & Mrs Dresser as visiting the Isle of Wight on vacation and they were also known to travel abroad. By now aged 67, Dresser was content to take life at a slower pace. Work through his studio now represented the bulk of his output, with Dresser approving everything that left. Nonetheless still active himself, Dresser died in November 1904 during a business trip to Mulhouse where he was buried. Sadly, by the start of the 20th century Dresser was seen as belonging to a different era. His death was marked by little more than a mention within trade and professional journals, remaining in relative obscurity for much of the 20th century.
The art and architect historian, Sir Nikolaus Pevsner came across an object he did not recognise during his research into the origins of modernism. Pevsner eventually identified the designer as Christopher Dresser and proceeded to discover as much as he could about him. Other than obituaries, Pevsner’s 1937 paper on ‘Minor Masters of the 19th century’ was likely the first posthumous account of Dresser. Pevsner’s paper followed by the 1952 V&A Exhibition of Victorian and Edwardian Decorative Arts stimulated wider interest, resulting in further publications and exhibitions on Dresser’s work which have progressively unearthed the extent of his impact on Victorian design. Dresser’s aim was to get his designs onto the wider market opened-up by the Industrial Revolution and by this route, to expose households in Britain to ‘good’ design. This may sound rather arrogant today but placed in context of the perceived poor quality of British manufactured household goods and the Design Reform movement, one may see Dresser’s actions in a different light.
A prolific designer, Dresser created forms and ornament for a wide range of manufacturers in Great Britain, France, and the United States. The documented list of companies he worked for is extensive however these tended to be companies manufacturing for the Victorian upper classes. The list of companies he worked for that marketed to less well-off British and foreign customers is arguably much longer. These were seldom exhibited, reviewed by the press, or featured in trade magazines and surviving company records are scarce. Dresser needed to design for wealthier clients to gain reputation (and no doubt income). However, at a time of industrialisation when money was becoming more readily available to a growing number, Dresser’s focus remained on making ‘good design’ affordable. The extent of his impact is ultimately seen in the changes in attitude towards applied arts during the mid-Victorian era, behind which he was a primary force.
The following books are recommended for further reading and have been primary sources for above.
Christopher Dresser: The People's Designer--1834-1904. Harry Lyons. Antique Collectors' Club, 2005
Christopher Dresser, 1834-1904. Michael Whiteway. Skira, 2001
Christopher Dresser: A Design Revolution. V&A Publication, 2004
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