Scottish designer, Botanist and writer. He trained at the Government School of Design, Somerset House, London, between 1847 and 1854, during which time he was strongly influenced by the design reform efforts of Henry Cole, Richard Redgrave and Owen Jones. In 1854 he began to lecture at the school on botany and in 1856 supplied a plate illustrating the ‘geometrical arrangement of flowers’ for Jones’s Grammar of Ornament. In 1857 he presented a series of lectures at the Royal Institution entitled ‘On the Relationship of Science to Ornamental Art’, which he followed up in a series of 11 articles in the Art Journal (1857–8) on the similar subject of ‘Botany as Adapted to the Arts and Art-Manufacture’. His first three books were on botanical subjects, and in 1860 he was awarded a doctorate by the University of Jena for his research in this area.
Following the International Exhibition of 1862 in London, where he was particularly interested in the Japanese collections of Sir Rutherford Alcock, Dresser visited and wrote about most of the major international exhibitions. In his first design book, The Art of Decorative Design (1862), Dresser stressed that plant forms should be ‘conventionalized’ rather than naturalistically imitated. According to the preface, he was already supplying designs to a number of well-known manufacturers, and during the 1860s he established himself as a major commercial designer, with a studio of ‘Ornamental Art’ in Fulham, London. The only known sketchbook by Dresser (Ipswich Mus.) dates from this period and contains annotated designs for metalwork and ceramics, and sketches of geometric and floral ornament.
In 1874 Dresser lectured on Owen Jones at the latter’s memorial exhibition, and two years later he purchased a large number of Jones’s drawings and sketches. The influence of Jones’s colour schemes can be seen in Dresser’s Principles of Decorative Design (1873), which was based on a series of articles in the Technical Educator, and in Studies in Design (1874–6). Dresser designed for a wide range of media: cast iron for Coalbrookdale; textiles for at least eight firms, including Warners and Crossley & Sons; wallpaper for Jeffrey & Co.; silver and plate for Elkington & Co. from 1875, for Hukin & Heath from 1878, and for James Dixon & Sons from 1879. Some of his best-known designs are for such small-scale metal objects as toast racks and claret jugs . An advocate of machine production, Dresser was an innovative designer; his works, generally austere and undecorated and usually with exposed rivets, show a primary concern for function. In 1876 Dresser visited the Philadelphia Exhibition, and from there went to Japan, where he travelled extensively in 1877, representing the British Government and also collecting Japanese objects for Tiffany & Co. of New York. Much of Dresser’s subsequent work was informed by his appreciation of Japanese design. From 1879 to 1882 he was art director of the newly formed Linthorpe Art Pottery, near Middlesbrough, Cleveland, which mass-produced vases and tableware of Oriental and Pre-Columbian inspiration. He also designed ceramics for Minton & Co., the Old Hall Earthenware Co. and the Ault Pottery.
From 1879 to 1882 Dresser was in partnership with Charles Holme (1848–1923) as Dresser & Holme, wholesale importers of Oriental goods, with a warehouse in Farringdon Road, London. In 1880 Dresser was appointed art editor of the Furniture Gazette, a position he held for one year, during which time he frequently reproduced his own angular furniture designs. The same year he founded the Art Furnishers’ Alliance in Bond Street, London, with financial backing from Arthur L. Liberty and George Chubb, a safe manufacturer whose firm also made ‘artistic furniture’ designed by Dresser. The business was not a commercial success and was liquidated in 1883. Dresser also designed furniture for the Bath cabinetmakers Thomas Knight. In 1882 he published a major work on the art and architecture of Japan, and in 1886 his final design book, Modern Ornamentation. From the mid-1880s Dresser designed Clutha glass, patented by James Couper & Sons of Glasgow. In 1889 he moved to Barnes, London, where he ran a design studio with ten assistants, including J. Moyr Smith and Archibald Knox.
From Grove Art Online
© 2009 Oxford University Press