Decanter. Designed by Christopher Dresser, manufactured by Hukin & Heath Birmingham, England, 1879 Silver-plated metal (electroplate), glass. Lent by Andrew McIntosh Patrick. © 2001 Michael Whiteway.
Kristen Bailey is neither use nor ornament at the first UK retrospective of Britain’s first independent, industrial designer, at the V&A until December 5.
I’m looking at a breathtakingly elegant decanter with a strangely insect-like feel – an oval glass vessel tapering to a point at its base, just like the body of a wasp; held in a silver and ebony frame whose angular lines remind me of a spider’s legs.
I half expect it to scuttle away at any minute.
It’s just one of dozens of amazing pieces by Christopher Dresser (1834-1904) in this exhibition of his ceramics, glass, metalwork, furniture, wallpaper and textiles.
Covering his 50-year career, it traces his influences and those who he influenced in turn. Most of the items here are from private collections and not usually on public view.
Pitcher. Designed by Christopher Dresser, c. 1880. Manufactured by Linthorpe Art Pottery, Yorkshire, England. Earthenware David Bonsall, Image Bank Ltd. © 2001 Michael Whiteway
From the age of 13, Dresser studied at the Government Design School, where every student was required to study botany, and he later taught the subject. Some of the large drawings he produced as teaching aids are here – and already the hand of the designer is apparent.
Dresser shared John Ruskin’s belief that true beauty could come only from natural forms and based his designs on the geometry he found in nature.
It’s fascinating to trace the origins of Dresser’s style. The exhibition has several examples of work by his mentors – Pugin, Henry Cole and Owen Jones – each piece illustrating the effect these men had on the young designer. Notable is Jones’ proposal for the Exhibition Building in Manchester, which astounded Dresser. A sweeping construction of glass and steel, it made no reference to the past.
A beautiful Japanese jardinière, covered in reliefs of dragons and sea turtles, is on display. Dresser would have seen it when it was on display at the London International Exhibition in 1862.
Teapot. James Dixon & Sons, Sheffield. Electroplate and ebonized wood,designed c. 1878, made c. 1878-85. © The British Museum, London.
He later visited Japan as an official representative of the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A) and was overwhelmed by what he saw. It influenced his work for the rest of his career.
The uncluttered minimalism of Japanese style is evident in a set of electroplate teapots with ebony handles designed by Dresser for James Dixon & Sons.
With their perfect geometric shapes and sleek detailing, they look like Art Deco pieces, but were produced in 1879. It’s a strange thing to be looking at items from the Victorian era, which wouldn’t look out of place in Habitat today. Indeed, some of them are still being produced by fashionable design firm Alessi.
A wide range of the pots and vases Dresser designed for the Linthorpe and Ault Potteries are on show. (Examples of his work for Linthorpe Pottery can also be seen at the Dorman Museum in Middlesbrough.)
Toast Rack. Designed by Christopher Dresser, manufactured by James Dixon & Sons Sheffield, England, c. 1879 Silver-plated metal (electroplate). From the Collection of Ellen and Bill Taubman. © 2001 Michael Whiteway.
Some are strikingly modern shapes, some classical in styles with grotesque embellishments, many in startling colours. One in particular caught my eye – a spherical Ault vessel in acid yellow. It was made in 1893, but wouldn’t look out of place in Barbarella’s front room.
For me, the loveliest items on display are the set of glass vases Dresser designed for the industrial glass manufacturer James Couper.
Called 'Clutha', the old name of the River Clyde, they are blown glass in soft, fruity shades, whose outlines undulate as if they are bending in the breeze.
It’s easy to see how Dresser may have inspired Tiffany's famous 'Favrile' glass, which went on to typify Art Nouveau style.
Two Vases. Designed by Christopher Dresser. Manufactured by James Couper & Sons Glasgow, Scotland, c. 1890. Clutha glass (blown, bubbled glass with coloured inclusions). Lent by The Birkenhead Collection. © 2001 Michael Whiteway.
An exact contemporary of William Morris, Dresser was pretty much forgotten after he died, while Morris’ reputation soared - Dresser having pursued design for industrial production while the Arts & Crafts movement championed a nostalgia for individually hand-crafted objects.
They did, however, share the belief that objects should be both beautiful and functional, which has given their work lasting appeal.
Christopher Dresser is now receiving the acclaim he deserves, and his mass-produced modernity surprises and inspires.
For more information on the exhibition and the work of Christopher Dresser, pay the V&A's microsite a visit.