In Depth: Dresser and Minton

With a selection of Christopher Dresser designs now available to view on the site and with plans to highlight some of this amazing work on the blog in the future we felt now was the perfect time to discuss this part of Minton’s history in more detail. Adapted from extensive research notes written by Joan Jones, Museum Curator at Minton and Royal Doulton, we hope you enjoy this in depth look at Dresser and what is known of his relationship with Minton.

Dr Christopher Dresser and the Minton Connection

Joan Jones [Adapted] · 4 minute read

Minton, the leading ceramic manufacturer in the Victorian era, secured the highest awards at major International Exhibitions by retaining the most talented artists, sculptors and designers’ of the age – men such as A.W.N. Pugin, the renowned exponent of the Gothic style for whom Minton executed many designs for tiles and tableware. It was probably Pugin who first told Herbert Minton of his promising young student, Christopher Dresser who was to become one of the most radical and influential designers of the century.

Dresser began his professional career as a botanist. In 1859 he had the degree of Doctor of Philosophy conferred upon him by Goethe’s University of Jena, ‘in consideration of services he had rendered to botanical science’. He was also honoured by a fellowship in several botanical societies. He applied for the Chair of Botany of the University College, London, but upon being turned down, he directed his energy into the field of design and art botany. By 1862 he was well established and held six different professorships in botany and art botany.

‘The Studio’ magazine in 1899 described Dresser as ‘the most meaningful industrial designer, who turned his imagination and gift of discovery to the daily production of British industry… The powerful efforts of Mr Dresser to raise the national design standard to which end he did not create costly individual objects, but instead turned to products for the middle class, indeed objects which would benefit the general public and which deserve every recognition’. His highly original yet practical designs for ceramics, glass, metalwork, furniture, textiles and carpets were in great demand by major manufacturers throughout the country.

Dresser’s principles of design were totally opposite to the conventional school of thought – i.e. the imitation of natural sources. In his book published in 1873, he states “if plants are employed as ornaments they must not be treated imitatively, but must be conventionally treated, or rendered into ornaments – a monkey can imitate, man can create”. These views are similar to those found in architect and design theorist Owen Jones’ influential 1856 publication, The Grammar of Ornament, to which Dresser contributed a botanical plate.

Dresser’s first designs for Minton pre-date the Paris Exhibition of 1867, but the exact date of this connection is not certain. Fortunately, within the Archives are preserved all the pattern books and much of the artwork illustrating their production since 1793. During the 1860’s and 1870’s a naturalistic style predominates but amongst these subtle renditions of nature there occasionally appears, in sharp contrast, a bright vigorous design which illuminates the page with its breath-taking beauty and strength. It is designs such as these which are being attributed to Christopher Dresser. A small quantity of his artwork is signed and a study of this reveals the peculiarities of his own distinctive style and which makes further attributions possible.

(MA: These designs – both signed and attributed – were brought together into a portfolio box marked “Dresser” during Joan Jones’ time as curator of the Minton Museum. As part of the Minton company catalogue it has the finding number SD 1705/MS6000 and selected artworks from it have been made available to view online.)

The distinctive characteristic of his designs is the use of stylised and abstract conceptions derived from plant morphology and of skeletal parts of insects, birds and animals. It is incredible to find such symmetry and beauty from a design made up of stag beetles, spiders, frogs and chameleons but these designs created by Christopher Dresser can be either stunning in monochrome or explosive in multi-colour. It is not surprising that these highly innovative designs which were so daring in their day have the power to evoke immediate and strong reaction today.

According to the Archive’s Estimate Books, the first Dresser designs for Minton were exhibited at the Paris Exhibition of 1867. These were an ivory ground match pot painted with ‘Dog in the Spirit’ on one side and ‘In the Flesh’ on the other; three bottles in red body (different shapes) with painted ornaments in colours and gold and a table plate with red, green, blue and gold ornaments. Dresser intended that most of his thirty designs be used on tall cylindrical match pots (most of his striking border designs were ideal on this shape) also on ewer and basins, tiles and plates. Dresser developed several unusual ornamental shapes for Minton derived from geometric forms such as the circle and cylinder. His designs for cup and ewer shapes were also cylindrical with handles at sharp right angles. He paid particular attention to the position of handles so that the container when full could be held with the least possible effort.

Dresser’s lively imagination created shapes and decoration unique to himself. His knowledge of the materials of modern industry combined with the skills of a draughtsman and the eye of an artist made Dresser one of the most important designers of his time.

Christopher Dresser’s association with Minton seems to have been a long one, although the factory did not execute all the designs he created for them. As a designer he was thought to be ahead of his own time and some of his designs still have an incredible visual impact today. From documents found within the Archive we know that his work for Minton has been featured in major exhibitions across the globe and it is clear that as one of the first industrial designers of the 20th century his work is both highly valued and of great importance.