At home with Christopher Dresser

Max Donnelley

Max Donnelley Living with Antiques

Photography by Paul Rocheleau| from The Magazine ANTIQUES, December 2009. |

When you visit Janet and Lawrence Larose’s New York dining room, you are surrounded by hundreds of objects designed by Christopher Dresser. They are artfully arranged on a series of shelves: teacups perch on lily-pad saucers; frogs leap around a bowl; butterflies flit across cloisonné skies; and cranes are buffeted by the stormy seas encircling a dozen teacups. Flanking the windows, dragons stalk through textile folds. Larry surveys the collection: “It just crept up on us,” he says with a smile.

Over dinner, the story of this remarkable room unfolds. In fact, Larry, an attorney, and Janet, an attorney turned private art curator and consultant, started collecting with works by Hudson River school painters. Their walls display significant examples by, among others, Thomas Cole, Jasper Francis Cropsey, Martin Johnson Heade, and John Frederick Kensett. Early on they were also drawn to American arts and crafts furniture, by such makers as Gustav Stickley (see Fig. 6), and ceramics, including examples by the Rookwood Pottery, Grueby, and George Ohr (1857-1918). Dresser entered their lives in the mid-1990s, while they were on their annual trip to England to watch the to watch the races at Royal Ascot. Larry recalls that in the booth of the Victorian painting specialist Christopher Wood at London’s Grosvenor House Art and Antiques Fair, he and Janet were both “struck by the shape and decoration of a ceramic vase that displayed a mix of cultures—oriental and Persian. Christopher explained that it was made around 1880 by the Watcombe pottery in Torquay, to a design by Christopher Dresser—a name that was new to us.” They purchased the vase with the inkling that there was more to the story, and a day or two later acquired a copy of Stuart Durant’s monograph on Dresser,1 which they read cover to cover on the flight home. “We were inspired by the diversity of Dresser’s work” says Larry. “We got sucked in.” Their journey had begun.

Dresser was one of those larger than life Victorians. Described variously as “Black of beard, bright of eye” and with “a Jove-like manner, a voice of authority and an aura,”2 he is shown in a carte de visite of about 1865, aged around thirty, sporting fashionable light trousers, a frock coat, and a figured waistcoat (Fig. 4).3 But while he appears more man-about-town than designer, his elbow rests on a folio of designs. His failure to obtain the chair of botany at University College, London, in 1860 seems to have put an end to his original career as a professional botanist, and he shifted his focus to the design studio he had established a year or so earlier. In time, Dresser’s studio supplied designs for British, European, and American manufacturers of everything from furniture, textiles, wallpaper, cast iron and other metalwork, to ceramics, glass, stained glass, bookbindings, carpets, lace, and linoleum. Dresser acted as a consultant and adviser for governments, museums, manufacturers, and retailers; attended and occasionally served as a juror at international exhibitions in Europe and the United States; and he was the first Western designer of note to visit Japan. His ideas were disseminated through lectures, articles, and books. His personal life was no less eventful: at twenty he married Thirza Perry (1830-1906), and ten weeks later she bore the first of thirteen children, eight of whom survived childhood. From time to time his frenetic pace was tempered by bouts of ill health.

Not long after familiarizing themselves with Dresser’s life and work, at a Pier Show in New York the Laroses came across a pair of tall cylindrical goblets made by Watcombe, which they recognized as related to their London purchase and—unlike the seller—realized were designed by Dresser. By 1998, when they acquired a glass and electroplate decanter (Fig 8, third from left), from the New York dealers Historical Design, they were hooked.

During the period surrounding the centenary of Dresser’s death in 2004—marked by major retrospectives at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York and at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London—the Laroses attended and made purchases from a number of specialist sales. “We went everywhere, from the highest-end dealers and fairs to flea markets,” comments Janet. “In London we would spend half a day visiting dealers such as Harry Lyons, Haslam and Whiteway, John Jesse, and Nicolaus Boston, as well as the Fine Art Society. We often found things tucked away.”

As the Laroses’ collection grew, so did their understanding of Dresser’s mission. Larry explains, “Dresser was designing with the whole house in mind.” To ful­­­­fill this aim he established the Art Furnishers’ Alliance in London in 1880 with the intention of making “every homestead artistic in the truest sense of the word.”4 “Whether or not they were designed by Dresser, all the items offered in the alliance’s showroom displayed a high level of design and manufacture,” Larry notes. “It was one-stop shopping—you could commit your taste to him.”

The same holistic approach led the Laroses to commission the architect Benjamin D. Kracauer to adapt the dining room of their Manhattan apartment into a showcase for their Dresser collection. “We directed him to the Thomas Jeckyll room,” explains Larry, referring to the dining room now known as the Peacock Room at the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington. Designed by Thomas Jeckyll (1827-1881) to display the collection of blue-and-white Chinese porcelain of Frederick Richards Leyland (1831-1892), the room is girdled by a latticework of shelves at different heights. Kracauer designed a similar series of narrow shelves for the Laroses, and, again echoing the Peacock Room, devised a ceiling of hexagonal coffering; the ceiling elements were carved in situ and assembled after the ceiling was papered. Dresser deplored whitewashed ceilings and favored papering them, writing, “Dark ceilings give a cosy effect to a room.”5 The Laroses concurred, selecting a Bradbury and Bradbury aesthetic style ceiling wallpaper and, in the center coffer, painting a star-studded sky to create an illusory oculus.

The table is set with an array of ceramics designed by Dresser for Minton and Company, one of the first manufacturers to recognize his genius and commission work from him. While Dresser would have been aware of the cloisonné designs published by Owen Jones (1809-1874), whom he greatly admired, his own designs incorporated abstract plant motifs reflecting his botanical training (see Fig. 2). Together, Dresser’s designs and Minton’s unrivaled technical prowess led to the creation of some of the most striking and original ceramics produced in England in the nineteenth century, and cloisonné items similar to those in this collection were exhibited and much admired at the major international exhibitions of the day—Paris (1867), Vienna (1873), and Philadelphia (1876).

On the built-in sideboard and lower shelves along one wall, also designed by Kracauer, the Laroses display a marvelous collection of metalwork produced to Dresser’s designs in the 1870s and 1880s. “Dresser was designing items for people to live with,” Janet reiterates as we look at the array of tureens and a rare oak and electroplate sugar bowl and sifter (see Fig. 7). “And he was choosy about manufacturers,” Larry adds. “Whether he was designing coal scuttles or cruets, he wanted them to be well made as well as affordable.” A row of beautifully manufactured toast racks, their bold geometry much in advance of their time, bears out these comments (see Fig. 5), as does one of Dresser’s most daring designs-a hemispherical electroplate teapot skillfully fashioned by James Dixon and Sons of Sheffield (see Fig. 8). Discussing the use of silver for teapots, Dresser mused, “So long as we value the material rather than the art, and insist upon purchasing art objects by the ounce, we can never attain to true knowledge. Whoever heard of music being dealt out in measured quantities. Fancy paying for an oratorio by the length of time taken up in its recital, or purchasing a picture by the yard!”6

In fact, while most of the objects made to Dresser’s designs were of inexpensive materials, they very often transcend their material, like the Clutha glass he designed for Liberty and Company. And the rare hangings made by James Templeton and Company about 1873 in the Laroses’ dining room remind us that the vast majority of designs emanating from his studio were for ephemeral textiles and wallpaper (see Fig. 3).

If Dresser’s approach to design was ahead of its time, so too was his attitude toward the cultural sources that fueled his imagination; his interest in Japan led him to visit that country from 1876 to 1877, travels he described in Japan: Its Architecture, Art, and Art Manufactures (1882). One of his most overtly Japanese designs in this collection—or indeed anywhere—is a relief molded plate made by the Linthorpe Art Pottery in Middlesbrough about 1879 (Fig. 9). The low-relief design in the center is an accurate copy of that on the reverse of a cast-bronze mirror,7 possibly Edo period, that must have been part of Dresser’s own collection. “The great charm in Japanese metal work,” he wrote, “consists in the variety and delicacy, the poetical feeling, and at the same time the boldness, displayed in it.”8 These qualities are certainly reflected in this plate with its bold Japanese inscription, takasago (meaning “dune”).9

Significantly, on the left side of the Linthorpe plate, Dresser retained the signature of the mirror maker: one legacy of his experiences in Japan, where designers and craftsmen enjoyed a higher status than in the West, was his increasing stipulation that products made to his designs bear his name. “Dresser had a canny business sense when negotiating with manufacturers,” notes Larry. “He kept control over them and insisted, for example through contractual arrangements, on what today we would term ‘branding.'” But while Dresser may have been a self-publicist, he was not an egomaniac; as Larry observes, “Dresser did not write about himself—he wrote about his passions” (see Fig. 11). Acknowledging the support he received from his family (several of his daughters assisted him in his studio and in preparing the designs for his book Modern Ornamentation), he wrote in the preface to Japan: “their willing assistance was of great value to me.” Among the Laroses’ collection of original editions of Dresser’s publications is a copy of Modern Ornamentation inscribed to his second daughter, Thirza, “from her affectionate father” (see Fig. 10).

The breadth of the Larose collection clearly shows Dresser to have been a man of imagination, determination, perseverance, and skill, who originated some of the most innovative designs of the nineteenth century. At the same time the collection also charts the journey the Laroses have taken in assembling it, and their pleasure in doing so. At a recent dinner party the entire meal—down to the crème anglaise in a cloisonné sauceboat—was served on or from Dresser objects. As a guest, I must admit I felt a trifle awestruck, but then I remembered something Larry had once said to me: “This room was built with the sole purpose of bringing Dresser home.” I glanced up at the stars in the oculus above, and realized how much at home he would have felt.

1 Stuart Durant, Christopher Dresser (Academy Editions, London, and Ernst und Sohn, Berlin, 1993).  2 New York Times, May 6, 1877, quoted in Widar Halén, Christopher Dresser (Phaidon-Christie’s, Oxford, 1990), p. 41; and Alan Victor Sugden, recalling Dresser in the 1890s, quoted in Durant, Christopher Dresser, p. 39.  3 I am grateful to Aileen Ribeiro for her comments relating to Dresser’s attire.  4 British Mercantile Gazette, quoted in Halén, Christopher Dresser, p. 76.  5 Christopher Dresser, The Decoration of Ceilings (London, 1868), Doctrine 21. 6 Christopher Dresser, Japan: Its Architecture, Art, and Art Manufactures (London, 1882), p. 430.  7 I am grateful to Max Rutherston for identifying the origin of this design.  8 Dresser, Japan, p. 427.  9 I am grateful to Mariko Whiteway for translating the inscription.

MAX DONNELLY is a specialist in decorative arts at the Fine Art Society, London.