October 29, 2018

A Look at Christopher Dresser’s Work in Humble Metals

Back in 2009 I set out to contextualize Christopher Dresser’s work in humble metals. As far as I knew, not much had been written on this subject, and as far as I know, not much has been to date. Which is surprising, since from the perspective of American mid-century design, with its emphasis on everyday objects and MoMA-driven affordable Good Design, Dresser’s tin, copper, or brass candlesticks and watering cans could stand as antecedents. So, there is room for scholarship on Dresser’s role in creating these objects—were they his designs or products of his atelier—and on the place of these objects in early modernism.

Christopher Dresser. Photography courtesy of the Linnean Society of London.

Christopher Dresser (1834-1904) cut a wide swath across 19th-century culture and commerce. In a career spanning 50 years, he wrote and lectured about botany and ornament, and produced an array of designs in areas as diverse as furniture, dinnerware, glass, ceramics, silver, textiles, and wallpaper. Hugely successful and influential in his day, he was nonetheless marginalized after his death by a design press that all but lionized William Morris.

Reassessment was slow to take place, and focused on the proto-modernist aspects of his work, specifically on the geometric and austere silver designs of the 1870s and 1880s. Nicholas Pevsner devoted all of one paragraph to Dresser in his 1936 “Pioneers of the Modern Movement,” citing a pair of silver cruets for their startling simplicity of form. Herwin Schaefer similarly mentioned Dresser in passing in “Nineteeth Century Modern” (1970), again focusing solely on the prescient modernity of the silver designs for Hukin & Heath and Dixon & Sons. Only in the past twenty years has a fuller and more balanced picture of Dresser emerged. Notable here are the monographs by Widar Halen (1990) and Stuart Durant (1993), and the 2004 exhibition catalog Shock of the Old: Christopher Dresser’s Design Revolution. These accounts have in common an attempt to illustrate the range of Dresser’s work, and to relocate Dresser as a Victorian thinker and creator, as much a man of his day as ahead of it.

Tin candleholder and watering can for Perry & Sons, 1880. Photography by Larry Weinberg. 

Still, in all these
writings the
astonishing silver
designs take center
stage. Executed after
his epochal trip to Japan in 1877, the silver and silver-plated teapots, decanters, tureens, and toast racks look to our eyes more like Bauhaus or post-modern objects than like Victorian things. They represent a body of work unrivaled in the 19th century, and still relevant in the 21st century—original examples can fetch in excess of $100,000, and Alessi recently re-issued a series of Dresser’s silver designs in stainless
steel. Lost amidst the fanfare for the silver design is Dresser’s work in tin, copper, and brass.

Pewter pitcher and tin candleholder for Perry & Sons. Photography by Larry Weinberg. 

Generally, the designs in these humble metals are treated as poor cousins to the silver designs, and they garner less print and fewer illustrations in the literature. To some extent, this is because less is known about this work, including which designs Dresser himself was responsible for. Still, there is no doubt that in the 1870’s and 80’s Dresser’s office did work in copper and brass for Benham & Froud, and in tin, copper, and brass for Perry & Sons of Wolverhampton. The latter company in particular has attracted my attention, and I have over the years examined 20-25 different Perry & Sons designs that I would attribute to Dresser, and I would guess there are at least as many more still out there. I have collected about a dozen examples, some of which are illustrated here.

Tin candleholder for Perry & Sons. Photography by Larry Weinberg. 

What unites and
identifies Dresser’s
work for Perry & Sons
is what separates it
from most Victorian
design—the interplay of
geometric forms, the
origami-like foldings, the bold use of color, and the lack of superficial ornament. The low cost of the materials, combined with the relative ease of working them, allowed a tangible freedom of expression not present in the silver work. The tin (and brass) candleholders and watering cans convey a sense of delight and exuberance; they are inexpensive but confident works that
make a bold and progressive visual
statement. I would suggest that the
Dresser design team’s tin pieces for
Perry were to the late 19th century
what the Nelson design team’s
clocks for Howard Miller were to the
1950’s—the output of a laboratory for
creative experiment and design-play,
and a proving ground for new shapes
and forms. Yet, before we rip Dresser
out of his Victorian milieu, we 
should point out, as one wag did, that while Dresser was designing forward-looking tin candleholders, Edison was inventing light bulbs.

Brass watering can for Perry & Sons. Photography by Larry Weinberg. 

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