The prolific designer may have been ahead of his time when it came to his famous use of ornament but a lack of business nous meant he was all but forgotten in the early decades of the 20th century.
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Now, on the 180th anniversary of the Glasgow-born design reformer's birth, Alison Brown, curator at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, charts the pivotal points in Dresser's life that saw him introduce the cult of Japan to Britain and become one of the first designers to create a brand.
The whimsical style of Dresser, most memorable in the anthropomorphic qualities he gave everything from silver milk jugs to iron chairs in the late 1800s, epitomised the technique of the man who was a household name in his heyday. His hand touched everything from wallpaper and textiles to ceramics, glass, furniture and metalware.
A precursor to Liberty of London and a prototype of designer and retailer Terence Conran, Dresser was at his most influential when he was designing and advising companies from Linthorpe Art Pottery to Hukin and Heath and Glasgow's Clutha Glass. His signature was pressed on the base of ceramics and tin ware that were much sought after by the ever-growing middle classes of the time.
"He was a pioneer of the aesthetic movement and the artistic advisor and designer for a lot of companies that survived well into the 20th century. By the height of his career in the 1880s he was employing 10 other people in his workshop but he didn't make himself a limited company, so when he dies in 1904 it all went and there's a theory that is probably why he was forgotten about in the early 20th century," explains Brown.
"He set up his own business, The Art Furnishers Alliance in New Bond Street, London, but it only lived for three years and went into liquidation. Everything in the shop were his approved designs. Maybe it was just ahead of its time, maybe given what else he was doing over that time period he just didn't have the time to focus on it as a business. He branded his work so there must have been people who sought it out."
While Britain's homes were draped in heavily patterned Victorian era styles, Dresser was obsessed with the Far East and his boundless enthusiasm took him to America and Japan, setting up business contacts and buying and selling long before the days of a joined up transport network.
"Such was his passion for Japanese art and design that he was invited by the Japanese government in 1876 to visit for three months," says Brown. "He had made enough contacts there for the Japanese to recognise what he could also probably provide for them; he was consulting for them on their own production, as well as going out there with a collection of work from the British art industries.
"While he was in Japan he was also collecting for Tiffany in America, so he was being a businessman in every sense of the word."
The Japanese influence on Dresser's work can clearly be seen in a copper kettle on show at Kelvingrove. The bar across the top is a nod to shapes he would have seen in Shinto temples and the strength of the design is in its simplicity, unlike the excessively ornamented homeware for sale at the time.
"He did make a remark in a lecture that in Britain the kettle was used every day by most people in this country but you have to actually go to Japan to learn how to make one," says Brown, adding that Nikolaus Pevsner in his book Pioneers of Modern Design illustrates one of these on a wrought iron stand and makes the comment that the stand is a forerunner to art nouveau by a good 15 to 20 years.
Much could be learned in later years from the iron chair Dresser designed for the Coalbrookdale Ironworks company, a lesson in flat-pack furniture Ikea would be proud of that is also on display at Kelvingrove. Simply made in four sections, there is the back piece, the two legs and the bolted stretcher. This is what makes Dresser such a good industrial designer, according to Brown: he simplifies the principles of design, fitness for purpose and purity of form, which makes it easy to manufacture.
"This is a beautiful, simplistic design. Dresser worked with Coalbrookdale from 1867 to 1872 and in their catalogue, where this is illustrated, there is also a matching hallstand," says Brown.
Dresser supplied the Japanese displays at the 1873 London Exhibition and in the same year founded the Alexandra Palace Company which stocked the emporia of a Japanese village at Alexandra Park. One of his last big connections was with Liberty London; it had a stand at Alexandra Park and is the likely link in the chain for Dresser to go on to make Clutha Glass with James Couper & Sons of Glasgow.
At Kelvingrove there are pieces of Dresser-designed Clutha Glass on show with the Liberty mark of the lotus and "Registered Clutha, designed by CD" on the base. Dresser's legacy lives on in the fantastical, free-flowing forms and the work was described in The Studio before the end of the 1800s as a glassblower's fantasy because he understood the molten properties of the glass and how to apply them to create these beautiful vessels.
A milk jug designed by Dresser and made by Elkington & Co, Birmingham, sits in a display cabinet at Kelvingrove next to work by Charles Rennie Mackintosh; both designers were heavily influenced by Japan but expressed their work in very different ways yet the simplicity of form unites the two. The extending tendrils of plant life fascinated both designers and Dresser contributed a botanical plate to Owen Jones's The Grammar of Ornament.
Dresser was working 20 years or so before Mackintosh but one could have had an effect on the other. Brown explains how Dresser came back to Glasgow in March, 1882, to give a lecture at the City Art Galleries, now the McLellan Galleries, on Japan, architecture, art and art manufacturers, after the publication of his book of the same title.
"It is nice to think the young Charles Rennie Mackintosh would have been 15 at the time and wouldn't have been too young to attend such a lecture. Certainly in Glasgow it was a big deal, there was an exhibition at that time running from December 1881 to April 1882 in the McLellan Galleries looking at Japanese and oriental art with loans from all over the place. At the heart of it was Glasgow's own Japan exchange material that had come into the collection in 1878; more than 1000 pieces of textiles, metalwork, ceramics, printed papers and material samples had come in exchange for engineering knowledge going out."
Tirelessly travelling around the world lecturing, setting up businesses and advising companies, Dresser was maybe born a few decades too early for the world to keep up with his prolific output but his work will never be forgotten.
"Within the art world he was held in incredible esteem, he was revered among his peers and it was said he was the most perfect art intellect to come out of Britain," says Brown.
For information on Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow, visit www.glasgow museums.com