Christopher Dresser – A Selected Chronology

1834
Born Glasgow, the third child of Christopher and Mary (nee Nettleton), both from Yorkshire families.

Christopher Dresser (1807-1869) an excise officer, served in Yorkshire, Glasgow, Sussex, County Tipperary, County Cork and Hereford; he rose to the rank of collector.

1847
Entered the Government School of design at Somerset House (later to be transferred to Marlborough House)

1852
Awarded scholarship of £15.00

1853
Winner of 3 medals and 3 prizes.

Re-appointed to scholarship.

1854
Re-appointed to scholarship. Prize for design of ‘garment fabrics’.
Married Thirza Perry of Maidley, Shropshire (her father, William,
was a lay missionary with the City of London Mission).

Botanical illustrations and diagrams (for the Department of Science
and Art) and now in the print room of the V & A appear to date from this year.

1855
Patented a method of ‘nature printing’

1856
Responsible for Plate XCVIII in Owen Jones’ ‘Grammar of Ornament’, the plate illustrated ‘the geometrical arrangement of flowers’ – the accompanying note stated: ‘….the basis of all form is geometry, the impulse which forms the surface, starting at the centre with equal force, necessarily stops at equal distances; the result is symmetry and regularity’.

1857
Began a series of articles for the Art Journal on ‘Botany as Adapted to the Arts and Art Manufactures’ which continued through 1858.

Delivered a paper ‘On the Relation of Science to Ornamental Art’ at the Royal Institution where ideas concerning the application of natural laws to design were developed; these were to be expanded in the ‘Art of Decorative Design (1862).

1858
Paper ‘Contributions to Organgraphic Botany’ before the Linnean Society.

1859
‘The Rudiments of Botany’…and ‘Unity in Variety’…published.
Paper – ‘On the Morphological Import of Certain Vegetable Organs’ before the Edinburgh Botanical Society.

1860
Had the degree of Doctor of Philosophy conferred by the University of Jena ‘in consideration of services he has rendered to botanical science’. (The Chair of Botany at Jena was held by M.J. Schleiden, 1804-1881, co-founder with Theodore Schwann of the theory of the cell.

‘Popular Manual of Botany’ published.

Elected Fellow of the Edinburgh Botanical Society.

Candidate for the Chair of Botany at University College, London. (The chair was obtained by Daniel Oliver, 1830-1916).

1861
Elected Fellow of the Linnean Society.

1862
First book on design published – ‘The Art of Decorative Design’.
‘Development of Ornamental Art in the International Exhibition’ published (a critical guide).

Supplied a number of designs for this exhibition.
Although he probably knew something of Japanese design, from the small collection acquired by Henry Cole for the Museum at Marlborough House, it was due to the showing of Sir Rutherford Alcock’s collection at the International Exhibition that Dresser had the opportunity of seeing a comprehensive selection of Japanese work; he made drawings and purchases for Sir Rutherford’s collection.

1865
A sketchbook dating from around this year suggests an interest in the design of silver and plate and a decorative vocabulary that was already mature.

1867
Began a series of articles in the ‘Chromolithograph’ (a short lived publication in which had been incorporated ‘Nature and Art’) on selected examples of his work exhibited in the Paris Exhibition of this year.

George Augustus Sala wrote of Dresser as the designer of ‘beautiful and luxurious carpets’ for Messrs Brinton & Lewis: he also observed ‘…for some years past the skill and taste of Dr. Dresser had been put into requisition by some of the leading art manufacturers both of England and the Continent…both as a designer of models and patterns and as a general art adviser…’

1868
Last lectured in botany at South Kensington.

1869
Moved to Tower Cressy, a large house on Camden Hill.

1870
Began ‘The Principles of Decorative Design’, a series of articles in Cassell’s ‘Technical Educator’ (published in book form in 1873).

1871
Paper ‘Ornamentation considered as high art’ before the Royal Society of Arts which set out views similar to those expressed in ‘The Art of Decorative Design’ (1862); Dresser stated: ‘…that true ornamentation is of purely mental origin, and consists of symbolized imagination or emotion only. I therefore argue that ornamentation is not only fine art, but that it is high art…even a higher art than that practiced by the pictorial artist, as it is wholly of mental origin…’

Designed a cast iron ornamental table and hat stand for the Coalbrookdale Company shown at the International Exhibition, South Kensington.

Designed a number of brocades for J.W.& C. Ward, illustrated in the ‘Art Journal’ which noted that Dresser’s designs ‘…have been of great practical value to many classes….of British manufacturers…’

1873
Visited the Vienna International Exhibition.

1874
Lectured on Owen Jones at Jones’ Memorial Exhibition. Dresser spoke of Jones as first having taught him to think ‘…and what was ornament unless it embodied mind?’ Also referred to 5 lectures delivered by Jones I 1849 and their formative influence. Jones was ‘the greatest ornamentist of modern times’.

The issue, in 20 parts, of ‘Studies in Design’ begun, Dresser wrote that he had ‘…prepared this work with the hope of assisting to bring about A better style of decoration for our houses’.

1875
Began designing for Elkington & Company, makers of silver and plate.

1876
Left England to visit Japan (in a semi-official capacity) calling at the Philadelphia Centenary Exhibition en route.

1877
Spent about 4 months in Japan and presented the Emperor with a collection of examples of the work of some of the leading British manufacturers, intended to form part of the collection of the newly founded National Museum. Dresser told the Emperor: ‘…For years past I have been an admirer of Japanese objects…’

Travelled in all about 1700 miles in Japan visiting temples, shrines and centres of traditional manufacture.

Also collected, o behalf of Tiffany & Company of New York, examples of Japanese goods including ‘many objects for ordinary domestic use’ which were auctioned in June 1877.

1878
Served as Juror (class 22, paper hangings) at the International Exhibition in Paris.

Earliest designs for Hukin and Heath (manufacturers of silver and plate) appear to date from this year.

1879
Entered into partnership with Charles Holme of Bradford; trading under the name of Dresser and Holme, the company was to import Japanese and other Oriental wares.

Sir Rutherford and Lady Alcock and members of the Japanese legation were among the distinguished guests that attending the opening of the showrooms in Farringdon Road.

Began designing for the Linthorpe Art Pottery and acted as ‘Art Superintendent’.

1880
Appointed editor of the ‘Furniture Gazette’ a position which Dresser held for a year. The first issue under Dresser’s editorship contains Owen Jones’ propositions from his Grammar of Ornament (1856) which began ‘the decorative arts arise from, and should be properly attendant upon architecture’.

Appointed ‘Art Manager’ of Art Furnishers Alliance, established to ‘carry on the business of manufacturing, buying and selling high class goods of artistic design’. (Dresser had only a nominal financial involvement in the Alliance). Among the manufacturers and traders who had substantial holdings were George Hayter Chubb (who was appointed chairman), Edward Cope, James Dixon & Sons and A. Lasenby Liberty; Sir Edward Lee, who had organised the Dublin Exhibition of Arts, Industries and Manufacturers of 1872 was appointed Company Secretary. Despite support by influential manufacturers the Art

Furnishers Alliance went into liquidation in May, 1883.
Decorated the interior and designed much of the furniture of Bushloe House, Wigton Magna, near Leicester, the house of Hiram B. Owston, his solicitor.

1882
‘Japan, its Architecture, Art and Art Manufactures’, a lengthy account of the visit to Japan, was published; in the preface Dresser wrote of ‘a long and painful illness’ from which he had suffered during the preparation of the book.

1883
Moved to Wellesly Lodge, Brunswick Road, Sutton (probably an indication of declining fortunes).

1886
‘Modern Ornamentation’ is published (which included work by assistants and pupils), the book represented ‘but one phase…of our office work…there are no examples of architectural work, of designs for furniture, earthenware, metalwork or the numerous things that emanate from this office’.

1889
Moved to Elm Bank, near Barnes Railway bridge (probably an indication of improving fortunes).

Apart from designing textiles and patterns Dresser was probably designing for William Ault’s pottery, for Benham and Froud, metalworkers and William Couper of Glasgow, glass makers.

1899
An anonymous article in ‘The Studio’ spoke of Dresser as ‘not the least, but perhaps the greatest of commercial designers, imposing his fantasy and invention upon the output of British industry’.

1904
Died on 24th November, in his sleep, at the Hotel Central, Mulhouse (Alsace), whilst on a business trip. Dresser was accompanied by his son Louis.

The net value of Dresser’s personal estate was £2.157.3.

‘The Builder’ spoke of Dresser’s last years: ‘…he spent most of his time preparing designs for Manufacturers and in the enjoyment of his garden and flowers’.

‘He was a most genial companion and interesting talker, and never tired of discussion on Art and the habits of the nations of the East, trying to trace their histories by their ornamental forms as a philologist does by their language…’