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Christopher Dresser in Wolverhampton  June 14, 2017 – 04:47 pm
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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...

Chamberstick by Perry. A Dresser design. The shape of the handle makes for an unbalanced design but at least it is practical. Most of Dresser's other designs for Perry's chambersticks are quite impractical and would result in burnt fingers at the least.


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