Dresser pattern, published in Studies in Design 1874
In this post, I want to concentrate on Christopher Dresser 1834–1904, partially because the NGV exhibition has an entire case filled with his art objects. Dresser was one the most important and influential designers in the later Victorian decades. It is said that he championed design reform in Britain while embracing modern manufacturing in the development of wallpaper, textiles, ceramics, glass, furniture and silver art.
Dresser pail, 1874, by Minton, Art Gallery of South Australia
Dresser's baluster vase, porcelain, painted in coloured enamels by Minton
Soon his designs for wallpapers and fabrics could be used on ceramics. Minton and Josiah Wedgwood Companies were delighted to use his work and both companies exhibited his porcelain at the 1862 London International Exhibition, the 1867 Paris Exposition Universelle and in the London Exhibition of 1871. People seemed to love them.
3 legged bowl c1870, bone china, Metropolitan Mus, 9cm high
Roberta Smith got it right. She thought Dresser probably dreamed in abstract patterns, his imagination fed by an eclectic range of sources - particularly Japanese, but also Persian, Egyptian, Indian, pre-Columbian and Assyrian. Dresser did actually visit Japan, published articles on Japanese art forms and wrote an important book called Japan, Its Architecture, Art and Art Manufactures, 1882.
The Aesthetic Movement took place in the late Victorian period from the late 1860s to 1900, coinciding almost exactly with Dresser’s working career. The movement privileged aesthetic values over moral or social themes in the decorative arts. In one sense, its post-Romantic roots did not reflect the more usual Victorian values and so the movement definitely anticipated modernism. A pair of Minton Aesthetic Movement vases c1870 will show you how Dresser interpreted the concept.
Dresser’s books were important for another reason. This was not an unthinking craftsman, creating randomly. In search of a moral design vocabulary, and true to Arts and Crafts philosophy, Dresser established principles based on Truth, Beauty and Power. Truth criticised imitation of materials. Beauty described a sense of timeless perfection in design. Power implied strength, energy and force in ornament, achieved through Knowledge.
Over the years, Dresser worked with or for many companies, and had a directing hand in some of them eg Minton & Co., Wedgwood, Dresser & Holme of Bradford and William Ault's pottery. Dresser's designs for ceramics in the 1880s appeared from a new Yorkshire factory at Linthorpe near Middlesbrough. A local businessman called John Harrison had been interested in Dresser's theories of art and couldn’t wait to work with him in a ceramics enterprise. The Linthorpe pieces were largely distinguished by their interesting shapes and their decorative glazes, not by finely designed patterns.
If Dresser separated himself at all from the Arts and Crafts Movement, it was by recognising the benefits of the industrial revolution. He was, for example, perfectly happy to design and decorate machine-made objects. The application of the gold floral band onto the U-shaped vase was produced by another industrial technique, that of transfer decoration.
Dresser's U-shaped vase, 1886-9, porcelain by Minton, bands of gold stylised chrysanthemums over a deep blue glaze, 19cm high, Metropolitan Mus
He remained committed to analysing good design, writing books and journal articles that dealt with the use of materials and the simplicity of form. For a Bauhaus fan like me, it is amazing that Dresser could have "discovered" the concept of form following function decades earlier in Britain, rather than post-WW1 in Germany. But that might also explain why, after his death in 1904, Dresser's reputation plummeted and he was virtually forgotten by the 1930s.
The NGV exhibition ended 1st January 2011. If you could not get to the NGV, I recommend you read Shock of the Old: Christopher Dresser's Design Revolution, Victoria & Albert Museum, 2004. Another exhibition, Christopher Dresser at the Fine Art Society, opened in London in September 2014. The review was very impressive.
Dresser, ceramic vase, made for Linthorpe, c1890, 22 cms high