An elusive artisan in need of revival

Christopher Dresser

January 7, 2005

Michael Whiteway's catalogue devoted to the 19th-century designer Christopher Dresser inspires a sense of anticipation, a feeling enhanced by a visit to the small but exquisite display that was on show at the Victoria and Albert Museum until recently.

Nicholas Pevsner, in his 1937 essay "Minor masters of the XIX century: Christopher Dresser industrial designer", acknowledged Dresser's contribution to the revival of decoration, but it is perhaps the fact that he was an industrial designer that has led to his neglect by scholars. But while Dresser may be elusive, he is a central figure in 19th-century British design.

This exhibition and catalogue explore his complexity, detailing his relationships with the great Victorian manufacturing firms. With its eager embrace of technology and handicraft, and eclectic cultural referents - Aestheticist Japonism, proto-Modernist austerity, primitivist naivety, conventionalised organicism - Dresser's work challenges some comfortable polarities of design history that are in need of critical reassessment.

While the fields of art and design history, visual and material culture studies continue to wrestle with the boundaries, the canons, even the names of their respective disciplines, under-examined polymaths such as Dresser and Emile Galle, so often overshadowed by William Morris and others, provide challenging and fresh case studies.

This lavishly illustrated catalogue consolidates understanding of Dresser.

Whiteway's and Charlotte Gere's introductory biographical study brings Dresser to life. From his early education to the Art Furnishers' Alliance, Dresser emerges as having an extraordinary breadth of interests, from botany to design, that were nourished by the rich cultural milieu of the Great Exhibition of 1851, the South Kensington Museum and contemporaries such as Owen Jones.

Stuart Durant explores Dresser's rich contribution as a design theorist, revealing him to be a scientifically nuanced thinker aware of botanical morphology, tessellation and the evolution debate. This fascination with organic growth helped Dresser to envisage the reasoning and manifestations of his advocacy of design innovation, reclaiming ornament as a "high" art form. Harry Lyons offers a helpful introduction to the furnishing work, while David A. Taylor reveals the particular impact of Dresser's designs for US firms and of his US lecture tour on debates about interior decoration in the US. Simon Jarvis places Dresser in context, juxtaposing him with more famous contemporaries and stylistic engagements such as Morris and the Gothic Revival.

Design history as a whole, and certainly Dresser's contribution in particular, has yet to be integrated fully into general studies of 19th-century visual culture. One can but hope that Judy Rudoe's and Widar Halen's essays will facilitate the inclusion of Dresser in studies and seminars inspired by Edward Said's Orientalism and the issues surrounding globalisation, providing a fresh counterpoint to well-trodden case studies such as Jean-Léon Gérome's seraglio paintings or Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness . Rudoe's essay considers the extraordinary range of international and trans-historical sources that fed into Dresser's creative process.

He moved easily in the fairly standard terrain of Islamic and Egyptian ornament and Japanese stylisation, but also among Minoan and Cycladic forms, Bronze Age British and Peruvian pottery. Unlike many of his contemporaries who absorbed this "lost Eden" through imported wares, Dresser visited Japan. He was one of Japanese culture's most subtle and committed advocates, exploring its faith systems and their manifestation in art and architecture.

Dresser's enlightened engagement with non-European and other ancient cultures, the embattled persona and practice of the industrial designer he typified, and the scientific and spiritualist underpinnings of 19th-century organicism he helped to elucidate, are all issues that merit a more critical analysis. This catalogue and exhibition have done a real service in encouraging this process.

Claire O'Mahony is director of programmes for history of art lifelong learning, Bristol University.

Christopher Dresser: A Design Revolution

Editor - Michael Whiteway
Publisher - V&A Publications
Pages - 240
Price - £35.00
ISBN - 1 85177 428 9

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