Christopher Dresser’s Linthorpe Pottery

WhereGreat Broughton Village HallType of EventIllustrated Talk
WhenMonday 19th May 2021TutorGill Moore

Gill Moore is curator of the Dorman Museum’s Christopher Dresser Collection. She asserted that Dresser was among the most important of British designers. He is celebrated all over the world, but probably least known in the U.K. There are collections of his work in the British Museum, the V&A, Milan, New York – and Middlesbrough. In fact, the Dorman Museum holds the largest collection in the world. Gill brought some examples of Linthorpe pottery for members to handle.

Dresser, the son of a tax collector, was born in Glasgow. The family moved around a great deal (Stockton-on-Tees, Ireland) but always considered Yorkshire as their ancestral home. He enrolled at the School of Design in London where he won prizes. He also studied botany and his designs were frequently inspired by his love of nature. He designed furniture, wallpaper, glass, metal and ceramics. Gill compared the designs of Christopher Dresser with those of William Morris – both born in 1834 – and on the surface they appeared strikingly similar. The essential difference was that Morris stressed hand-crafted work and Dresser embraced the emergence of new machinery. Dresser’s work was, consequently, affordable.

In February 1874 Dresser gave a lecture at the Mechanical Institute in Darlington; an event organised by Henry Pease.  At that meeting he met John Harrison, an owner of a brick works in Linthorpe. Dresser visited the works and, partly because he recognised the quality of the clay and partly because there was a recession in the building trade, convinced Harrison that they should open a pottery there.

In August 1879 production commenced, following a grand London launch. What was Dresser doing in the five years before the launch?

He had been sent in 1876 as an official of the British government to investigate design and manufacture in Japan, a country recently opened up to the rest of the world. On his outward journey he spent time in America and in China on his return journey. In total he spent three months in Japan, was presented to the Mikado and given unrestricted access. In turn, Dresser promoted Japan through his designs.

In the prospectus for the Linthorpe factory Dresser presented his dream – not just a ceramics manufacturing centre but an arts complex creating wallpaper, glass objects as well as pottery. It was the first pottery in the U.K. to use gas-fired kilns, a revolutionary glaze and unusual, organic shapes. Conditions in the factory were enlightened – workshops were light and airy. For the first three years Dresser was the main designer his name appearing on the work of this period. His products were sold all over the world. However, he took on too much, designing a whole range of products as well as ceramics, including carpets and furniture, editing a magazine and in 1882 his relationship with Linthorpe Pottery ended. 

Liberty in London bought a great number of Dresser’s products and, in fact, he worked for a while as a designer for that firm. The pottery carried on for another six to seven years until John Harrison’s sudden death. Everything was sold off. In the meantime competitors had sprung up – Ault Derbyshire, Burmantofts and others – and a number of designers and workers relocated to these other factories, taking Dresser’s influence and skills with them.

What now? With the help of a grant a new Dresser Gallery at the Dorman Museum has been established. The official opening is on July 4th. There are over 200 pieces there designed by Dresser (including furniture, glass, metal, wallpaper and ceramics) and, in total, 1,500 pieces of ceramics from the Linthorpe Pottery. Together with archive material it will provide the centre for the study of Christopher Dresser’s life and works.

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