The Fine Art Society, London, has most generously given its permission to include in the Victorian Web the following essay from the catalogue of its 1972 Dresser exhibition. The copyright on text and images remains, of course, with the Fine Art Society and Stuart Durant. [GPL]

Christopher Dresser delighted in his own times. His enthusiasm for scientific progress and the machine-age contrasts with the pessimism of Ruskin and Morris. He expressed his optimism in his Popular Manual of Botany (1860): "The night of science is fast passing away; the dawn of a glorious day -- time has long since commenced, and we live in the early morning of this long-hoped for day." The new knowledge was to be infused into his design. Design should exemplify the quality he called "mind'. In the Planet in "On Decorative Art" published in January 1862 Dresser put forward a view that he often re-stated: "the greater the manifestation of mind in a work of art... the more pleasure we derive from it."

Dresser believed, (like D'Alambert the eighteenth-century mathematical philosopher), that existing scientific laws were destined to become outmoded by newer and simpler laws which would have wider applications. The association of simplicity with progress led him to believe that design should be simple.

The distinctiveness of Dresser's design of objects often springs from his ability to provide solutions to problems without resorting to the nineteenth-century practice of basing design on historical precedent. In pattern and ornamental design Dresser remained an eclectic, a brilliant one throughout his career.

The two principal reasons for Dresser's rejection of historicism were his recognition of the importance of function (or "fitness for purpose") and his belief, inspired by the teachings of Owen Jones, that design should be appropriate to the age in which it was created. Pugin, Redgrave and Jones had recognised the importance of functional design. Only Dresser was able to detach himself from the umbilical cord of historic style.

Dresser began his professional career as a botanist and this period was of great importance in his development; the imprint of his years as a botanist can be seen in all his design. Plant structures were transformed into pottery, glass and metal, not naturalistically but conventionalised. He held several professorships in both scientific and "art botany," presented a number of papers before the leading learned societies and produced three excellently illustrated manuals for students of botany. He retained his interest in botany until his death and maintained a fine garden. The only photograph of Dresser that seems to survive shows him seated, in his late sixties, in a well stocked and typically Victorian conservatory.

Dresser's botanical text books were concerned almost exclusively with the structure of the plant (as opposed to its chemistry or micro-structure). His text books were stylishly presented with numerous clear illustrations and ingenious diagrams, and marked a new high level in educational publishing. One would have expected elegant presentation from a botanist who had been trained mainly at the Schools of Design. It is surprising that Dresser's botany itself should not lack interest to the historian of botany.

Agnes Arber in her Natural Philosophy of Plant Form (Cambridge, 1950) credited Dresser with an original hypothesis regarding the nature of the leaf. For Dresser the leaf was a "modified branch" or "a branch with a retrograde development." Such thinking may now strike us as outside the mainstream of scientific thought, but in the 1840s and 1850s controversy regarding the true nature and relationships of organs was taken very seriously. For the botanists of Dresser's youth the plant was held to consist of two fundamental organs, the stem and the leaf. Goethe had held that the leaf represented the essence of the plant. Dresser, on the other hand, held that the fundamental organ of the plant was the stem.

Dresser's botanical speculations came just before Darwinism was to sweep all ideas which savoured of natur-philosophie before it. The very title of his second book on botany, Unity in Variety ... an attempt at developing that oneness which is discoverable in the habits, mode of growth and principles of all plants, suggests the nature of his botany. He attempted an ordered and concise picture of the plant world, the sort of picture that botanists had tried to provide before the real advance of modern scientific botany had begun in Germany in the late 1830s.

A notable feature of Dresser's botany was his interest in trying to reduce the plant to an orderly geometrical form, the geometry of the plant was to become his speciality. The drawing of plants in an "ideal' form, ignoring the deformations and irregularities that exist in reality was developed in Germany. In the first decade of the nineteenth century Phillip Otto Runge, a Romantic painter who made particular use of imposing symmetry on his compositions to achieve an other-worldly or spiritual quality, made drawings of plants according to ideal regular plans. By 1831 Alexander Braun had established mathematical laws governing the disposition of leaves around the stem. Dresser later became familiar with this work in the 1850s. (The reducing of plants to regular plans seems to epitomise the confidence of the mid-nineteenth century, however misplaced, in having at last begun to learn the real workings of nature).

While the mathematics of growth were a particularly German preoccupation, the interest in the symmetry of plants, reflected in both Dresser's botany and his design, had originated in France with Xavier Bichat and Corréa da Serra and later A. P. De Candolle (whose work so impressed Goethe). In 1852 John Lindley (1799-1865), who in the early 1830s had introduced Goethe's botanical revelations to the English public, gave three lectures to the students of the Schools of Design called The Symmetry of Vegetation. Dresser, either as a student or a young teacher, would have attended Lindley's lectures. Not only were Dresser's views on the symmetry of plants derived from Lindley but so were many of his other botanical ideas. His views on the nature of the leaf are essentially a continuation of the Goethe-Lindley tradition.

In the 1850s, while still in his early twenties Dresser drew plans, elevations and sections of plants. His ability at this was evidently considered exceptional, and Owen Jones asked him to contribute a whole plate of his geometrical plant drawings to the monumental Grammar of Ornament (1856). The value of drawing plants in this way is obvious to the designer of patterns, but in Dresser's case it also marked a real commitmentto the belief thatthe duty ofthe artist was to idealise rather than copy nature.

Writing in 1862 in his Development of Ornamental Art (a critical guide to the International Exhibition) Dresser set out his views on the order inherent in plants:

In plants we have the manifestation of order in the protrusion of every member. A leaf does not grow casually, or a blossom in an accidental position. Yet while the development ofthe plant is governed by laws of the most severe character, the harshness ofthe manifestation ofthe rigid principle upon which the parts are protruded . . . is frequently . . . disguised by the membraneous and elastic character of the foliage, and the pliability of the parts . . . in all instancesthe unfolding ofthe plant manifests the working by law.

Dresser's attitude to the plant is echoed in his design which was always constructed on a firm geometrical base.

By 1862, while still lecturing on botany. Dresser had begun to devote more and more time to design and claimed to have designed a number of the exhibits at the International Exhibition of 1862. Six years later he had virtually abandoned botany as a profession. The most likely reason for the dramatic change was that as one of the very first free-lance designers for industry his ambitions, in a profession that was only just being established, would stand greater chance of fulfilment than in botany. There were many excellent botanists but few competitors in design.

Dresser's sketchbook of the mid-1860s (an "ideas book" would be a more apt description) discovered by Patricia Butler, Curator of the Ipswich Museum, reveals that at even this date his ideas on design were very firmly established. There are designs that appear in his "Studies in Design' of 1874-76 and designsfor metal work which were to appear later still, work that was remarkably advanced in the 1870s and 1880s in fact originated in the 1860s.

Writing Development of Ornamental Art in 1862 Dresser stressed: "Utility must precede beauty" In the Technical Educator of 1870-73 he was to say: "the designer must be a utilitarian, but he must be an artist also." He studied the processes of manufacture and the workings of nature, the economy that he saw running through nature he embodied in his design. The Studio article of 1899 on Dresser spoke of his "Spencerian" philosophy.

Another aspect of Dresser's realistic approach to design was his acceptance of the rational eclecticism that Owen Jones had propounded. Writing in the Journal of Design for June 1851, Jones had stated his position:

Each civilization in the ascendant goes to nature for its principles, and enriches its own invention with the choicest conceptions of antecedent ages; . . . declining civilizations substitute only a series of decrepit, disordered and fruitless caprices.

We possess the inestimable advantage of living in an age when nothing ofthe past remains a secret . . . how little have we shown ourselves worthy of this great privilege I The ease with which our knowledge might be obtained has made us indifferent to its acquirement, or led us to substitute an indolent imitation for an intelligent and imaginative eclecticism.

Dresser, more than any other Victorian designer, and indeed Jones himself, responded to the call for an "intelligent and imaginative eclecticism." In the Chromolithograph in 1868 he wrote: "Variety has at no period been so much sought as at the present. . . Unlike past periods the present has no national architecture. We erect one building in the Gothic style, another in imitation of the classic Parthenon, and the third in form as an Egyptian temple." Style was always simply a matter of surface for Dresser, the Studio in 1899 talked of his "marvellous knowledge of past styles'. As with plants he sought to discover the essence of things. In his three-dimensional design he rejected stylistic solutions to produce work that is timeless within the period of the machine-age.

Throughout his career Dresser acknowledged his debt to Owen Jones and the idea of his Principles of Art obviously derives from Jones' "Propositions,' which were published in the Grammar of Ornament and instilled into several generations of art students. Jones gave designers rules of good taste, based on common-sense, the study of nature and lessons learned from past styles. Dresser's Principles on the other hand are a kind of manifesto where he attempted to establish the superiority of non naturalistic art over representational art: "ideal" and "imitative" were his terms.

In an evening at the South Kensington Museum in 1859 Ruskin spoke on "The Deteriorative Power of Conventional Art over Nations" -- a diatribe against conventionalism (the term for the kind of ornament Dresser championed) which he associated with degenerate morality, singling out the art of India for special opprobrium. (In 1859 England was still reeling from the shocks inflicted on her pride by the Indian Mutiny.) But it was exactly the conventionalism of Oriental art that Dresser admired, a taste he acquired from Owen Jones. While Jones was content to produce scholarly variations of Oriental pattern. Dresser created a new language of ornament into which were infused not only his knowledge of many national and past styles, but his understanding of the forms of plants and his remarkable geometrical ability.

Dresser tried to raise the status of ornament to a level higher than that of painting. In 1871 he claimed before an audience at the Royal Society of Arts: "true ornamentation is of purely mental origin, and consists of symbolised imagination only... ornamentation is not only fine art, but ... it is high art... even a higher art than that practised by the pictorial artist, as it is wholly of mental origin'." This view, voiced when it was, was as daring as it was controversial.

Dresser's interest in Japanese design began with the International Exhibition of 1862 where Sir Rutherford Alcock (1809-1897), the first British Consul in Japan, displayed a collection of Japanese manufactures. Dresser made drawings of a number of Alcock's exhibits and succeeded in buying a number of others which became the basis of his fine collection of Japanese work. In 1877, at the height of the enthusiasm for Japan, Dresser travelled to Yokohama and began a detailed survey of Japanese arts and industries, the first by a European designer. The account of the visit to Japan was published in 1882 and is highly readable and well illustrated with delightful woodcuts. Dresser wrote of the Japanese as "the only perfect metal workers which the world has yet produced, for they are the only people who do not think of the material, and regard the effect produced as of far greater moment than the material employed." Elements of Japanese design often appear in Dresser's work, but he was no slavish imitator.

In 1880 Dresser was appointed "Art Manager' of the Art Furnishers' Alliance founded to "carry on the business of manufacturing, buying and selling high-class goods of artistic design." The Alliance was financed by a number of leading manufacturers. Dresser saw it as a platform from which he would influence middle-class taste in the way that Morris had done. In 1899 the Studio recalled his association with the Art Furnishers' Alliance:

In the eighties he was the originator of the so-called Art Furniture Alliance, which opened in New Bond Street for the sale of metalwork, pottery, glass, fabrics, and other things, the majority being designed by Mr. Dresser himself, or executed under his supervision. Attendants robed in many aesthetic costumes of the period, in demure art colours, added a certain airto the place, which set it absolutely apart from a shop. So far as memory may be trusted the average work there was very good, and that the enterprise did not continue is perhaps partly owing to the fact that it was before its time. For it was alone in its mission in addressing a popular audience. It is true that Morris & Co. were known to few . . . but no window in a popularthoroughfare was supporting the movement destined to assume such large proportions later.

Frederick Burrows, who entered Dresser's studio as an articled pupil in the late 1890s, remembered that the studio was mainly engaged in textile design. Dresser employed about 10 assistants and pupils and his daughters helped with the running of the office. Dresser was an authoritarian but well-liked figure. His technical knowledge was a legend among his assistants, and he would firmly smudge drawings that fell below his standard. Dresser used to repeat a slogan to his assistants: "maximum effect with minimum means." There was always an atmosphere of being hard-pressed for money.

Unlike Morris, Dresser left no disciples. He had trained many excellent commercial designers, flexible and able to survive in a competitive world, but men who were unable to pass on his genius.

In the 1860s and 1870s Dresser had been the leading popular writer on design. Referring to Principles of Decorative Design (1873) the Studio in 1899, by then buzzing with news of the arts and crafts, was to say:

one finds scarce a single theory of good taste . . . or a single piece of advice . . . but it is as sound and as pertinent today as then ... one might quote page after page and find not a line . . . that would not be endorsed by the members of the Arts and Crafts Association today.

In his lifetime Dresser suffered no lack of recognition and it becomes increasingly strange to us that the leading Victorian industrial designer should have undergone a period of comparative, if not complete, neglect. Nikolaus Pevsner's article in Architectural Review of 1937 ensured that Dresser remained in the minds of historians. Peter Floud's Victorian and Edwardian Decorative Arts exhibition of 1952 helped restore Dresser's reputation (as it did many others) and gave a wide public the opportunity of seeing an excellent small selection of his work. Tschudi Madsen and Schmutzler recognised Dresser's immense importance, and Shirley Bury's article "The Silver Designs of Dr. Christopher Dresser" (Apollo December 1962) showed some of his prophetic designs for silver. Now is the time to look at the work of a designer who earlier than any other knew how to make use of the machine, who believed that nature was to be understood and not copied, and that in a healthy society good design was to be for everyone. Dresser represented the Victorian mind at its best.

Richmond 3 August 1972


Dennis, Richard, and John Jesse. Christopher Dresser, 1834-1904. Exhibition catalogue. London: The Fine Art Society, 1972.

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Last modified 15 January 2005