Christopher Dresser was not an entirely typical Victorian. But his thinking on interiors reflects the preoccupations of his era — science, history and the fascination with the enticing world beyond Europe.

‘Intelligent and imaginative eclecticism’ should be the watchwords of the modern designer said Owen Jones, architect, designer, traveller and publisher. He was Dresser’s principal mentor. And then there was the matter of taste — a word which we are coy of using. Despite the confidence of the Victorians they felt that they needed guidance in aesthetic matters. Dresser, as a scientist in his youth, was in a unique position to lay down rules of taste which had been sanctioned by contemporary science. He had attained, remember, real distinction as a botanist before he was thirty.

The new bourgeoisie lived in off-the-peg houses — shopkeepers, clerks, unfashionable lawyers, or perhaps instructors in the new technical colleges. The London suburbs, created by the railways, are crammed with such houses — one prim street of houses after another. These houses are invariably in pairs — the psychology of the British fondness for the paired house has yet to be explored. Wilkie Collins describes an interior in a house like one of these in Basil: a story of modern life — one of the most violent and sexually-charged of all the great sensation novels. It was published in 1852 — when people with cultivated visual sensibilities were still reeling from some of the excesses of the Great Exhibition.

Some of the excesses of the Great Exhibition [Click on the thumbnails at left for more information].

Collins chronicles, in grim forensic detail, the drawing room of a Mr Sherwin — the money-grubbing draper, father of Margaret, whom Basil, the eponymous hero — a young aristocrat — wishes to marry on the basis of physical attraction alone.

Everything was oppressively new... the paper on the walls... red, and green on a white ground... the showy window-curtains of white and sky-blue, and the still showier carpet of red and yellow, seemed as if they had come out of the shop yesterday. . . Never was a richly furnished room more comfortless than this.

Sherwin’s suburban house — like the New York brownstones — was, for all its vulgarity, the descendant of the chaste Georgian town house. But these new houses had flamboyant stucco mouldings, portentous steps and extravagant Roman doric porticos. Inside there were the familiar skirting boards, dados, dado-rails, friezes, elaborate cornices and those ornate dust-accumulating ceiling roses. This, in truth — despite his fondness for innovation — was the decorative language which Dresser perfectly understood and indeed spoke. Often the nouveau riche, unlike the bourgeoisie, built houses as convoluted and idiosyncratic as old country manor houses. They wanted their glossy new money to look like discreet old money. But these were not the people for whom Dresser designed.

Dresser’s first attempt to publicise his principles of interior design was in a lecture — dated April 15th, 1868. His theories, which he circulated as a paper, survive in a single copy. It was found by one of the leading authorities on Victorian design — the late Clive Wainwright of the Victoria and Albert Museum. There is a surprising amount of science in a lecture for a general audience. The paper, presumably handed out by Dresser himself, contains the extraordinarily intricate rules of colour ‘harmony’ to which he subscribed. These are largely derived from the authority on pigments George Field and from Owen Jones — Dresser’s principal mentor. Like them, Dresser believed that blue, red and yellow — the three primary colours — had to be present in all perfect colour schemes — but in a particular proportional relationship, in terms of surface area : 8 of blue to 5 of red to 3 of yellow. With the secondaries the proportions were : purple 13, green 11, orange 8. If one employed the tertiary colours — themselves composed of the primaries — olive, russet and citrine — one arrived at the daunting formula of 24 to 21 to 19.

Do not feel too intimidated, for Dresser reassuringly concluded:

There are subtleties of harmony which know no rule. Where genius begins rule ends. The rarest harmonies are those which lie closest to discord. Rich harmony of colour is very analogous to rich harmony of music.

Dresser used ‘The Decoration of Ceilings’ to advance the cause of what he called ‘ideal art’. To know what Dresser actually meant by ‘ideal art’ is to understand why he made claims for the power of decoration to influence the minds of people. He actually claimed that ‘ideal art’ — non imitative, non naturalistic, art — was superior to ‘imitative’ art — the art of the history painter, the landscape painter, or the still-life painter, who merely copied what was seen — just as a photographer takes a photograph. ‘Ideal art’ was the product of the intellect, the imagination, and therefore superior to imitative art. If Dresser does not exactly say the same thing as the early abstract artists he comes within striking distance.

Ornament — Dresser preferred the word to ‘decoration’ — was an art form which could incorporate the lessons of science: botany, colour theory, geology, the movements of viscous materials, even glaciers — the whole gamut of nineteenth-century scientific knowledge. He even enthused about the colours which could be seen in what we now call neon tubes — then called ‘Geissler tubes’ after their German inventor Heinrich Geissler, scientist and glassblower, who had perfected the idea in 1857. One can see clear evidence of the influence of these early neon tubes in some of Dresser’s designs in his Studies in Design, 1874-76, which contains many examples of Dresser’s ‘ideal art’. It is a pattern book intended for interior decorators. It is a sumptuous and expensive work which would have cost at least twice the weekly earnings of a skilled worker.

Although Dresser’s brilliance and ingenuity were recognised by his contemporaries, he had few disciples, or imitators. His idiosyncratic, assertive, style never really became popular. Dresser’s large studio, with his pupils and his assistants — who were sometimes autonomous designers themselves — generally produced work which accorded with current fashion. This vast outpouring of decorative design consisted mainly of textiles, lace, wallpapers, linoleum and carpets.

Fashions change and interiors are swept away, like dead leaves — invariably with no record that they ever existed. This has to be said of most of Dresser’s interior designs. What about Dresser interiors in publications? In Dresser’s time there were books showing interiors by R W Edis, Moyr Smith and two formidable Gothic Revivalists — Charles Eastlake and Bruce Talbert, There was also Harriet Prescott Spofford — novelist and poet -who brought the ideals of the Aesthetic Movement to the United States in her Art decoration applied to furniture (1876). And then there were the journals for the decorating and furnishing trades — like The Furniture Gazette for which Dresser was Art Editor in 1880. Or The Journal of Decorative Art. But there are no complete interiors by Dresser to be found in any of these publications. This is not entirely significant, for no William Morris interiors appear either in books or journals — the first time a Morris interior appeared in a journal was in a photographic coverage of the interiors of a house near London in The Studio in 1893. By then, the Dresser era had passed.

Remarkably, two Dresser interior schemes survive, at least in a form which tell us what Dresser did with an interior — if he had a client with plenty of money to spend. The earlier of the examples is Allangate, a house outside the woollen manufacturing town of Halifax, in the industrial north of England. Dresser designed the interiors of Allangate around 1870. Since we know so little about Dresser’s interior design patrons, it is worth commenting on Thomas Shaw, the owner of Allangate.

Shaw was Chairman of the woollen manufacturing firm John Shaw & Sons Ltd. He was a nonconformist and charitable — a major figure in a progressive and prosperous town. Shaw seems to have been an archetypical representative of the class of progressive northern manufacturer and he controlled a business which had been created by his grandfather — a self-made man. Shaw was mayor of Halifax and later its Member of Parliament — as a Gladstonian Liberal. He had a bust of the great reformer John Bright in his study.

Shaw had an interest in the arts and evidently wanted to impress other leading citizens by transforming Allangate, a handsome, but unostentatious, late eighteenth-century clergyman’s residence, into a fashionable modern house. Dresser would very likely have met Shaw through the Crossley family. The Crossleys were Halifax carpet manufacturers — far wealthier than Shaw — for whom he designed many machine-made carpets, one of the mainstays of the Dresser studio. The Crossleys had also employed Dresser as an interior designer. They had spent the equivalent of what would now amount to over three hundred thousand dollars on a single Dresser ceiling. Unfortunately, none of Dresser’s work for the Crossleys has survived.

The 1870s saw the beginning of the so-called Aesthetic Movement — when art began to compete with religion as a pastime for the middle classes. The colours which Dresser chose for Allangate are typical of the era — for the fireplaces — black marble, with incised geometric decoration picked out in gold; for the furniture — ebonised wood — again with incised gold decoration; for the walls sombre colours — chocolate, with stencilled motifs in gold. Described as Dresser’s ‘masterpiece’ is a ceiling with a lattice grid, through which one could see another layer decorated with gilded star motifs. In one room there were stained glass roundels — with figures symbolising morning, noon, evening and night. At night these were back-lit by gas jets.

There was also an extraordinary stained glass window at the head of the main staircase. It is simple and geometrical — the disposition of its colours establishes that Dresser, like Seurat, the pointillist, a decade or so later, understood the optical mixture of colours. In one room there were plate glass cases set into the wall where hothouse plants could be displayed. These were illuminated at night by powerful gas spotlights. These miniature conservatories could be replenished from outside the house. The gardeners, with their muddy boots and leather aprons, never needed to enter.

The Allangate interiors were said to evoke ‘ancient Grecian art’ and one’s mind jumps to the enthusiasm for ancient Greece initiated by Walter Pater — British champion of Théophile Gauthier who insisted that art need serve no moral purpose. Hedonism was to be the leitmotiv of the aesthetes and ‘art for art’s sake’ their war cry, Then there was the painter of mournful young Englishwomen in classical dress — Albert Moore. But the truth is Dresser’s ideas are not typical of the Aesthetic era. Dresser is didactic and scientific when his aesthete peers are relaxed and debonair.

Bushloe House, Wigston Magna, Leicestershire, was decorated by Dresser some few years after Allangate — probably some time before 1880. The client was Hiram B. Owston — who was Dresser’s solicitor, or attorney. He drew up Dresser’s will before he left for his Japanese visit in 1876. Exactly as with Allangate, an existing house was remodelled and a new wing added. The question arises — could Dresser have been the architect? Well, the supervision of the building of the new wing was left to a local architect — but Dresser, more than once, described himself as an architect. Architecture, however, did not constitute a large part of the Dresser practice, but he undoubtedly employed assistants whom we should describe as ‘architects’. In many ways Bushloe House is a typical latish middle class Victorian house — with the occasional nod in the direction of the Gothic — by now a trifle unfashionable.

But there are brickwork details which suggest the hand of a very sophisticated designer indeed at Bushloe House. While he was en route for Japan, Dresser had admired some of the architecture he saw in Philadelphia when he visited the Centennial Exhibition of 1876. There is no doubt that it was the architecture of Frank Furness (1839-1912) — that most forceful and innovative of all Goths — that appealed to Dresser. The Philadelphia work of Furness may well have influenced him in the design of the new wing of Bushloe House. Dresser would have particularly admired the sublime — or is it ugly? — modernised Gothic of Furness’ Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, 1873.

Furness was very much a man after Dresser’s own heart — as a designer who used plant motifs — he must surely have known Dresser’s botanical text books — with their intelligent design subtexts. Dresser, in turn, must, surely, have seen Furness’ Thomas Hockey house, South Twenty-first Street, of 1875 — with its inventive, corbelled, brick details. The grey brickwork at Bushloe is certainly not what would expect to find in a provincial British bourgeois house.

Two examples of Egyptian design by Dresser’s mentor, Owen Jones. From The Grammar of Ornament (1865) [Click on thumbnails for larger images.]

Internally, Bushloe House is ebullient, rumbustious even. Perhaps Hiram Owston was an intimate friend of Dresser’s — closer than Shaw who was a mere client. The over-riding theme is Egyptian. Colours are predominantly tertiary. The palette is harsher than at Allangate. One wardrobe has curious, formalised, owls — half benign, half malevolent, with wings adapted from the well-known Egyptian ‘winged globe’ which appears in Dresser’s Principles of Decorative Design, 1873. He admired Egyptian decoration — with its formality, rigidity and strength. On the same wardrobe is stencilled a handsome design of formalised bulrushes arranged in an arcane geometrical configuration. The taste for Egyptian design, however, was long past its zenith in the late 1870s. Perhaps Dresser was drawn to play variations on Egyptian themes after the republication of Gardiner Wilkinson’s Popular Account of the Ancient Egyptians in 1878. One may hazard that Egypt provided a particular frisson for the Victorians — it was seductively pagan and at the same validated by biblical associations.

Another Bushloe House wardrobe is decorated with lively silhouettes of frogs in varying sober colours — distinctly Japanese and for all the world like the frogs which so amused Steinlen — the art nouveau graphics master. The Allangate and Bushloe House designs reflected Dresser’s own complex psyche.

Examples of Dresser’s. metalwork. For larger images and additional information, click on the thumbnails. For a gallery of his metalwork, click here

Many of us would like to see Dresser as a designer — perhaps the only nineteenth century designer — who anticipated modernism. There is, after all, that extraordinary metalwork for the table. The teapots, toast racks, decanters, tureens, egg coddlers, sugar basins, candlesticks. . . . Proto-Bauhaus? Then some of his published decorative designs, if taken out of their context, have the look of the Art Déco era about them. But Dresser’s modernity is not our modernity. It is the modernity of his own century.

Last modified 27 March 2010