Christopher Dresser in Wolverhampton
by Frank Sharman
Christopher Dresser is now one of the most fashionable names in design history - and in antique dealing. Dresser’s main occupation as a designer – of almost anything and everything – and his business mainly involved selling his designs to manufacturers. The matter of interest to this web site, concerned as it is with the history of Wolverhampton, is what did Dresser do in Wolverhampton and for its companies. Wolverhampton was one of the greatest centres for the production of hollowwares and other domestic items. And little is known about who actually designed most of Wolverhampton’s products. It seems as if most of it was done in house but it is hard to be more specific than that. But it is clear that there was, in Wolverhampton, a greater interest in design than there was in many other manufacturing centres. Wolverhampton, under the influence of George Wallis, showed a consistent interest in matters of good design. Wolverhampton makers were consistent exhibitors at international exhibitions and Wolverhampton organised more than its fair share of industrial exhibitions, both before and after the Great Exhibition of 1851. As late as the exhibition of 1902 it was Orme, of Orme Evans, a leading light in the organisation of the exhibition, who was still busily explaining that one of the aims of such exhibitions was the improvement of standards of design. And Wolverhampton had its own art school from 1851. It may not have been large but it was there and it was teaching students with the intention that they should be industrial designers.
1. The problems of finding Dresser
If we are to look for Dresser in Wolverhampton we immediately run up against the standard problem in researching Dresser: there is very little written evidence, especially from Dresser himself. What documentation there is tends to come from the archives of the companies he worked for or to be secondary. This material does give us excellent evidence of some of Dresser’s designs. More evidence comes from finding pieces which are marked with Dresser’s name and, fortunately, Dresser seems to have been keen to have manufacturers put his name on pieces he had designed (a commercially useful thing for both parties and maybe also a reference to Dresser’s interest in Japanese productions). Of course, Victorian businessmen were not quite as fussy as we might be about the authenticity of their claims and it is possible that pieces which proclaim themselves to have been designed by Dresser were not.
After that we are left with trying to identify pieces as being by Dresser on “stylistic grounds”. That means saying that a piece looks as if it was designed by Dresser. In assessing whether a Wolverhampton made object was designed by Dresser, or was simply influenced by Dresser, or had nothing at all to do with Dresser, there is a number of matters to be taken into account. Most of these are fairly obvious and well known (and carefully taken into account by the authors of most published accounts of Dresser’s work) but some of them at least are worth setting out here, not least because there is little documentary evidence of Dresser in Wolverhampton and attribution on stylistic grounds is very often going to be all we have to go on in trying to establish which firms, if any, he worked for.
a) First, the most obvious difficulty: if an object looks like a Dresser design, does that mean it was designed by Dresser? Much of the argument about what Dresser designed or did not design revolves around this problem, which is one well known to archaeologists as well as others. If vase A is by Dresser and vase B looks very much like it, it is tempting to say that vase B is by Dresser. Then vase C is found and looks very much like vase B and the temptation is to say that therefore vase C must be by Dresser. Then vase D comes along and has features in common with vase C. So vase D is a great risk of being identified as being by Dresser too and that may happen even though vase D is nothing much like vase A at all.
This problem is made more severe if anyone trying to identify a Dresser article on stylistic grounds seizes upon single features. As Angeline Johnson has pointed out to me, it is easy to identify the spout on a water can or the handle of a ewer as being like those on known Dresser jugs. But that does not make a Dresser design. You have to look at the whole object and all its features to get near the truth.
b) Nearly all of these pieces have peculiarities which are now identified as indicators of Dresser. What we do not seem to know is whether or not Dresser designed items which do not have these now well known indicators. It is notable that in his book on interior design he refers to his characteristic style as the "new style", separating it out from designs which we might refer to as being in the mainstream tradition. This, as well as his other writings, suggest that Dresser designed in the mainstream too. Further, if we consider the size of his studio operation and its apparent success, it seems highly likely that the known designs would not have fully occupied or fully financed it. He must have designed very many things which nowadays we would not identify as Dresserish. If this body of work does in fact exist then we do not know the full range of his work. This matters when establishing what work Dresser did in Wolverhampton, simply as a matter of accuracy and record – Dresser might have designed lots of things made in Wolverhampton but without any of the style peculiarities (and very peculiar some of them are) which is all we often have to identify his pieces. It also matters in establishing what one is actually doing when attributing items to Dresser on design grounds.
c) This problem is related to, but not covered by, the problem that Dresser’s design principles could have lead others to produce designs similar to his. Take, for example, his emphasis on working with materials, not against them; and on producing functional objects; and on the need to understand production methods. All of these, like much else in his design theory, comes directly from the South Kensington School and could be described as a commonplace of Victorian industrial art. Certainly they are points which were constantly re-iterated by George Wallis. It seems to me that if a manufacturer decided to produce a water can for domestic use, and designed it in accordance with these principles, he is likely to have come up with much the same result as Dresser would have done. Similar materials and similar production methods, applied to similar articles, produce similar designs. As an example we may take what we might call Dresser’s straight sided vessels. It has to be remembered that, part from a cylinder, the easiest shape to make from sheet metal is a cone. The cut out sheet only needs bending, not hammering or pressing or stamping into shape. That is why so many metalware water ewers are conical – or, to be precise, the bodies of them are, since the top of the cone has been removed, frustra of right cones. Many of the vessels which are said to be characteristic of Dresser are simply one or more frustra connected to each other. Such a design is quick and simple and follows from manufacturing cheaply.
d) We might say that the next problem is that of Dresser’s influence. If we have an object which looks as if it might have been designed by Dresser then, before saying it is by Dresser, we have to bear in mind that Dresser wanted other people to design objects in his style. He saw himself not just as a designer but as a teacher of design. He points out that, wherever he went, he tried to write articles in local newspapers and to give talks to local groups. This was not just pr work. And it was in addition to his books and the articles he produced in national magazines. He was a publicist for good design. It seems to me that if a place like Wolverhampton was not producing articles in his style, Dresser would have been disappointed.
What that indicates for Wolverhampton designs it is hard to say. The factors are that Dresser was certainly known in Wolverhampton; his practice and his cause may even have been promoted by George Wallis. Dresser’s work for Perry may have acted as good pr and encouraged other Wolverhampton firms to commission him.
But on the other hand we have to allow for the fact that most firms in Wolverhampton knew exactly what the other firms were producing. Wulfrunian manufacturers were probably not immune from the common Victorian practice of freely copying other people’s successful idea. The introduction to a catalogue, from about 1890, issued by Orme Evans says: "We are prepared to supply almost every article in sheet iron, steel, brass, copper or enamel, and our close touch with the trade throughout the United Kingdom enables us to be constantly bringing our articles thoroughly 'up to date' and exactly suited to British tastes and requirements". The least that shows is a willingness to be, shall we say, heavily influenced by other people's designs. The commercial travellers would report on what was on the market and what was selling and the company would react accordingly.
e) Nor is there any reason to suppose that Wolverhampton makers were incapable of producing their own designs, quite uninfluenced by Dresser. Because of the context in which they were working their designs might tend towards looking Dresserish. And they could read Dresser’s books and articles as well as anyone else. They were open to influence by Dresser and there is no reason to assume that any article they produced which looks Dresserish was not designed by them.
2. Dresser’s connections with Wolverhampton
Bearing in mind all those caveats, and noting that how firmly one attributes anything to Dresser depends on the evidence and, especially, the weight one attaches to the evidence, we can now start the search for Dresser in Wolverhampton. It is best to start with the case which is established beyond reasonable doubt and then to proceed to other suggestions.
Richard Perry Son and Co
The strongest evidence that Dresser had anything at all to do with Wolverhampton is the work he did for Richard Perry Son and Co.. That Dresser did design for this company is established beyond a peradventure, both by the evidence of Pevsner’s original article on Dresser and by signed pieces. If all the pieces illustrated in Andrew Everett’s works were indeed designed by Dresser himself, then the amount of work he did for that company was considerable.
A George Wallis connection
But there are other, more tenuous links, as well. There are many indications of close links between Dresser and George Wallis.. The relevance of this is that Wallis was a Wolverhampton man by origin and, although he lived and worked in many other places, spending most of his working life in London, he remained a Wulfrunian, visiting the place often. His children saw him as a Wulfrunian: they erected a memorial to him in St. Peter’s church in Wolverhampton and arranged a memorial exhibition to him in the Wolverhampton Art Gallery. Dresser a pupil at the South Kensington School when Wallis was a teacher there and seems to have thought that Wallis was one of the best of them because his practical experience of machine work informed his views of design and his teaching and practice of design. The apparent regard of one man for the other may also have had some base in both of them being the only members of the set who did not have a university education – something that Dresser’s later enthusiasm for his doctorate seems to emphasise.
There are later indications that the two men maintained contact. When Wallis was presenting to the Royal Society the results of his attempts to develop a cheap and effective reprographic system for the better distribution of images, he specifically mentions that Dr. Dresser was working on a similar project. The fact that he knew about it and no one did, suggests a continuing connection.
One of Wallis’s main interests in Wolverhampton was the Art School and a leading supporter of the Art School was Henry Loveridge. There seems to be a possible link between Wallis, Loveridge and Dresser, a link which would have been based on a mutual interest in design.
Much of Dresser’s furniture was produced by Chubbs. Chubbs were, of course, a Wolverhampton firm. This might be taken as suggesting that Chubbs were another of Dresser's Wolverhampton links. But the member of the Chubb family with whom Dresser had contact seems to have lived in London. Chubb's head offices were in London and they had a safe making factory there; Wolverhampton was their main manufacturing centre, not the place where the leading decision makers lived and worked. Although Dresser’s furniture designs appear in the Chubb Archive it seems most likely that this furniture making activity was a personal sideline of Mr. Chubb rather than something which was integrated into the rest of the firm. And as for Wolverhampton: there was no furniture making tradition there at all. Chubb furniture must have been made in London. And is there any evidence of Dresser designs in Chubb’s core business of safes, locks and keys? There is plenty of scope for such design work but I know of no evidence, even stylistic, of its having taken place. (The same might be said for the other great Wolverhampton locksmiths, Gibbons).
Oliver Wendell Holmes
The most interesting other evidence of Dresser’s Wolverhampton connection is a brief entry in Oliver Wendell Holmes’ "One Hundred Days in Europe" (Houghton Mifflin and Co, 1888), which records his trip round Europe in 1886. Referring to the window shopping he did in London and commenting on the goods he saw, Holmes said (p.223): "I greatly admired some of Dr. Dresser’s water-cans and other contrivances, modelled more or less after the antique .... I should have regarded Wolverhampton, as we glided through it, with more interest, if I had known at that time that the inventive Dr. Dresser had his headquarters in that busy-looking town". That remark raises many interesting questions but what we get out of it is that Holmes thought that in about April 1886 Dresser "had his headquarters" in Wolverhampton.
The only comment I can find on this is in Stuart Durant’s book, Christopher Dresser, Academy Editions, 1993, where he says (p.39) that "Dresser’s ‘headquarters’ were never, as far as I know, in Wolverhampton. In 1866 they were at Wellesley Lodge" and he seems to treat this reference as some sort of misunderstanding by Holmes. (I might as well note here, as anywhere, that Durant goes on to say "But what of the watering cans?" In fact Holmes talked about "water cans" which are quite different).
But Holmes was a careful and reliable observer and there seems to be no reason for doubting that Dresser did have his "headquarters" in Wolverhampton. Where Holmes picked up his information is not clear but somebody gave it to him - and that somebody would not have meant that Dresser’s offices and studios were in Wolverhampton but that Dresser was temporarily staying there and conducting business from there. The reference is not to the idea of the modern corporate headquarters but to the contemporary military field headquarters. We know that Dresser travelled about a lot, selling his services and delivering designs. We also know that he did a lot of work in and around the Black Country. It would be natural for him to stay for some while in Wolverhampton whilst visiting manufacturers in that town and the district. Wolverhampton was the biggest place in the Black Country, had good rail connections with London and good rail and other connections with the rest of the Black Country and the surrounding area. Even Kendricks and Coalbrookdale would have been within reach.
It would be interesting to wade through the local press of the time to see if there are any references to Dr. Dresser but the foregoing by itself shows that Dresser certainly had several connections with Wolverhampton; and that therefore we should not be surprised to find designs by him being produced by Wolverhampton makers; and, just as much, we should not be surprised to find designs influenced by Dresser being produced by Wolverhampton makers.
Dresser and Dresserish designs from Wolverhampton.
Andrew Everett suggests that in addition to the established case of Richard Perry Son & Co., other Wolverhampton makers who may have used Dresser designs were John Marston, Henry Fearncombe, Orme-Evans and Henry Loveridge.
The case of Loveridge has often been raised (on this web site and elsewhere) but in connection with artmetalware. Andrew Everett extends the association to Loveridge designs for japanned ware, which is important not least because it gives the earliest date – c.1866-68 – for Dresser doing something in Wolverhampton. This is based largely on finding a page of designs, in Dresser's style, in one of the books of designs which are said to have belonged to Henry Loveridge. Even accepting that these books were the working design books of Henry Loveridge (and the matter is not absolutely certain), the fact that there is such a limited number of Dresserish designs amongst all the pages in all the books, suggests that it was a note of a matter of interest; and the fact that there are no more would suggest that the interest went no further. The fact that examples of these designs subsequently appearing on actual pieces are unknown, does little to re-inforce the idea that Loveridge had commissioned designs from Dresser.
Loveridge may have noted with disappointment that only six of his apprentices attended the Art School, but six informed designers in his company would be a good start. Loveridge had consistently been represented at exhibitions around the world and took a close a continuing interest in design which he promoted and wrote about. I do not see that there is any need for Loveridge to have engaged Dresser or any other outside designer and do not think it likely that he did so. The Loveridge catalogue of 1898 refers to the company as "patentees, designers and manufacturers" - or, to put it another way, they did their own thing from start to finish. As designers they may have been influenced by Dresser and, as manufacturers and designers, they would have designed things in a way which was very much led by manufacturing considerations - and might therefore end up with designs like those of Dresser or anyone else operating on that principle.
Items of Loveridge’s art metalware can be found which show some features which may also be found in Dresser designs – for example, scalloped edges and exposed rivets - but this is a long way from saying that Dresser designed them. It may be that Loveridge was influenced by Dresser. Or was it the other way round?
Andrew Everett’s identification of John Marston as a maker of art metalware, and of the identification of the pieces he made, was a valuable new development.
A wide range of Marston's domestic wares is not known but it does seem that most of them that are known have quite strong stylistic associations with Dresser. Martson himself is not known as having any great personal interest in design or art but if a second Dresser client, after Perry, is to be found, he seems to be the best candidate.
Everett also (in an illustration from a catalogue) makes a case for Orme Evans possibly being a client of Dresser. As Orme was a leading light in the 1902 Exhibition, in which capacity he expressed his concern about the continuing need for education in good design, he must have been interested in design. He would have known about Dresser. His designs might have been influenced by Dresser’s. But there is no evidence to go any further than that.
It can be said that Fearncombe took an early interest in design and exhibited at the big exhibitions. But so little is known of his products that the association with Dresser is as tenuous as Orme’s.
Other makers including one pottery
Other makers of art metalware seem to show no Dresser influence at all. For example the very large producers, Sankey, were only down the road at Bilston, but there is nothing in their currently known products to suggest anything by Dresser. The other point to make is that Andrew Everett refers to Loveridge’s japanned wares but all the other possible instances of Dresser in Wolverhampton are in the area of art metalware. There is not much point in looking round Wolverhampton for Dresser designs in the many other types of products which he is known to have designed and which were probably his major areas of output. To all intents and purposes there was no manufacture of carpets, wallpaper, glass, textiles, furniture or ceramics in Wolverhampton.
3. A sort of conclusion
It is as certain as such a thing can be that Dresser designed for Perry. So Dresser had at least one connection with Wolverhampton. It is unlikely, though possible, that he only had one. If we take into account Holmes’s remark about Dresser’s headquarters, then it becomes somewhat more likely that Dresser designed for more than Perry alone in the immediate vicinity. One takes into account also that this was the centre of production for domestic wares of all kinds, just the sort of thing that Wallis and other design gurus of the time wanted to ensure were objects of beauty in every home. Dresser would have had policy reasons and strong practical reasons to work the area as thoroughly as possible.
It therefore seems likely that Dresser designed for Wolverhampton maker’s other than Perry. The only evidence we have is that these may have included Loveridge, Marston, Orme Evans and Fearncombe. But the evidence is not very convincing. It can all be explained in ways other than saying that Dresser designed it.
What I am arguing here may amount to saying that Dresser was influential. It seems to me that there has been an unresolved problem in the study of Dresser. After his death he seems to have been almost immediately forgotten. His name came to attention again in Pevsner’s 1937 article and after that he became not much more than a footnote. It is only in the last decade or so that a number of books and exhibitions have elevated his status and fame. The argument of these books and exhibitions seems to have been that Dresser was a brilliant designer. But if he was so brilliant, why did he have no followers? Why was he not influential? In his time he was financially successful and some of his designs, at least, must have sold well, otherwise he would not have got repeat orders. Would that not encourage imitators? It seems to me to be arguable that the many Wolverhampton products with Dresserish features show, not that Dresser designed them, but that he was influential, in his own time, as a designer. To attribute to Dresser anything which looks in any way like his "new style" designs is, in effect, to deny that he had any influence on design.
There is a related problem. Many of Dresser's design principles arise from an application of principles (such as the importance of function, of truth to materials, of the influence of manufacturing meothods) which were espoused and set out before the time Dresser was at art school and were taught to him while he was there - and continued to be taught by Wallis and others throughout the nineteenth century. When we see these principles in practice we may not be seeing the influence of Dresser but the influence of Wallis and others.
I say all that subject to this query: should one say that some Wolverhampton products have Dresser features on them – or that some Dresser designs have features from Wolverhampton products on them?
The main publications which relate to Dresser and Wolverhampton are:
Andrew Everett, "Wolverhampton Japanned Ware" (in Harry Lyons, Christopher Dresser: The People’s Designer, 1834 – 1904, Antique Collector’s Club, 2005, at pp. 217 – 227)
Andrew Everett, “Christopher Dresser: the Art and Craft of Design”, Archenfield Decorative Arts Society, 2006 (the catalogue of the exhibition of the same name at Hereford Museum and Art Gallery, 20th January to 3rd March 2007).
Both of those publications deal with Wolverhampton specifically (as well as with much else). The other now standard works on Dresser mention Perry but not much else.