Arts & Crafts and Metalware Designs by Christopher Dresser

Arts & Crafts silver plated kettle

Nowadays in the popular culture the name of Christopher Dresser (18034-1904) is often associated with his revolutionary metalware and especially silver plated tableware designs. However, Dresser originally was preoccupied with designs of ceramics, textiles, furniture and home interiors and only relatively later in his career he began contributing to the design field for which he is now particularly adored. For example, in 1862, Dresser published The Art of Decorative Design, as well as a guide to the International Exhibition, and neither book talked seriously about domestic metalware. However, his Ipswitch Sketchbook from circa 1864 contained sketches for metalware in silver and bronze, which suggests Dresser did have a growing interest in designing metalware. According to the archival records in 1865 Dresser designed the first metal items for the company Elkington & Co. It is possible that Dresser’s interest was influenced by the Japanese display stand at the 1862 Exhibition, especially so as he was known to comment on the Japanese tradition of beautifying the most humble of items for the house. Dresser also recognised the poor standard of domestic ware available to the average consumer in England, and he seized the opportunity to produce well designed, useful and cheap wares.

Aesthetic Movement serving dish

Dresser’s first documented plated designs were for Hukin & Heath, which launched its new Dresser range in 1878. Nevertheless, it is certain that Dresser had designed metalware before this time. His first pieces for Hukin & Heath, so bold and confident, indicate that they were based on experience. Companies such as Henry Wilkinson from Sheffield, Richard Hodd from London, and Messrs., Deykin from Birmingham all produced plated metalware in the early 1870’s of such simple, clean design that they advertised themselves as Dresser designs.

Dresser mainly addressed the market for affordable domestic metalware which meant he had to use silver plate instead of solid silver. It also demanded simplicity of design and economy in ornamentation. The simplicity of design, which so neatly sums up the appeal of Dresser metalware is of course a direct follow on from affordability. Any embellishment, unnecessary flourish or ornamentation on an object meant extra time, extra labour and therefore extra cost. The challenge to Dresser as a designer was to show that cheap does not mean ugly. Hukin & Heath’s ground breaking exhibition in august 1879 was described in the press this way:

Many of these articles are designed with an express view of bringing really good and artistic metal-work within the reach of those who cannot afford to invest in expensive and intricate work; they are (mostly) of a severe design, their beauty consisting rather in their outline than in the amount of labour bestowed on their manufacture.

(Furniture Gazette, 23 August, 1879)

Arts & Crafts brass tray

In 1879, Dresser also wanted to see metalware manufacture added to the general Linthorpe pottery complex (Linthorpe pottery was founded that year by Dresser). This idea, however, never came to fruition. Around 1879 Dresser also started working with James Dixon from Sheffield, designing some of his most memorable shapes; it was with Dixon that Dresser seems to have been given most free reign for his imagination. Unfortunately, this period of creative freedom coincided with a poor health, a house move and general work overload. Dresser’s last recorded designs for plated ware were for Elkington in 1885, still showing  much in the way of inventive design, still recognisably Dresser, with a certain quaintness as but somehow lacking the lightness of his designs for Dixon.

Manufacturers of Plated Metalware for Whom Dresser Produced Designs

James Dixon & Sons, Sheffield. The first record of Dresser working for Dixon was in an 1879 workbook containing the cost breakdowns and sketches for his exotic teapots.

Elkington & Co, Birmingham. Elkington’s fame as the leading silver plate manufacturer of Britain during the 19th century was due to the discovery of a plating process patented by George Elkington in 1840. Elkington made a large part of its fortune through licensing agreements, with companies such as Christofle et Cie, Paris. Elkington had a reputation for both quality and design. Designers included Benjamin Schlick in the 1840s, Pierre-Emile Jeannest (who previously worked for Mintons ceramics); 1859 saw the arrival of both the modeller Leonard Morel-Ladeuil and the designer Auguste Adolph Willms, who took over as Head of the Design Studio. Elkington exhibited at all the major International Exhibitions, winning the top prizes and medals; his fame was international. Dresser is first mentioned in connection with Elkington metalware designs in 1865, which was in the course of preparing a range of tableware for the 1867 Paris exhibition. Dresser’s designs for Elkington are often dated as 1885, in accordance with the existing archive in the Victoria & Albert Museum. However, it is possible that they started collaborating previously, as the archives are not very clear on that point.

Hukin & Heath, Birmingham. Hukin & Heath was established in Birmingham as a partnership in 1885 between J.W. Hukin and J.T. Heath. Dresser produced the first designs for this company in 1878. It is possible that Dresser used Hukin & Heath as a scene from which he sought to educate public opinion about his new and revolutionary designs. For example, it is known that Dresser persuaded Hukin & Heath to produce a line in Persian-Indian metalware. The majority of items were to be produced by Hukin & Heath at the source in Asia, with the idea of transferring production of selected items to Birmingham. This meant that they could provide the British consumer with a selection of quality yet affordable items from which to choose. Dresser had already tried importing cheap artistic items in 1876 with Londos & Co, in an effort to break this chicken and egg conundrum: manufacturers produced what costumers selected or asked for, but the costumers could only select from what the manufacturers provided in their catalogues. As with Londos & Co, Dresser’s next step was to arrange publicity: distributing circulars to the press, particularly the trade press, and arranging a grand opening in 1879, in Charterhouse Street, with a few hundred people present, many prominent in the art world. It represented a major change for Hukin & Heath, as the Art Journal described:

Messrs Hukin & Heath whose “works” are in Birmingham, have fitted up room that in themselves are redolent of art. Their art Adviser and guide is Dr Dresser, under whose educated taste and practical experience they have produced a large collection of singularly excellent art works, vast improvements on the “have beens” of earlier time. They have done this without increasing the cost of such articles, supplying ample evidence of the principle that “beauty is cheaper than deformity”. They have acted under the advice of a competent art teacher – there are few better, simplicity and purity of form with readiness of application on the purposes to which they are applied.

(Art Journal, 1879.p.222)

Of course, not all of Hukin & Heath’s production was cheap. In fact, most of its plated ware was aimed at the middle and upper middle class. Expensive items were also produced in silver. If Hukin & Heath produced only the easily affordable, it would have finished their venture rather quickly, as those who had the money to spend wanted luxury and exclusivity. There was a large quantity of new money wanting only the best. The impact of Dresser on Hukin & Heath can be seen from the permanent change in style, which continued long after he left the company in 1880.

Arts & Crafts brass ship candlesticks

The following manufactures were producing plated wares in Dresser’s minimalist style

Deykin & Sons, Birmingham. Deykin & Sons was originally founded in 1854 in partnership with J. & W. Deykin as a button-making company. The new company saw the introduction of electroplating and  by the 1870s, button-making had been suspended. In 1877, Deykin & Sons established a business under its own name, continuing as much sntil 1895. Dresser is known to have sold designs to Deykin.

Henry Wilkinson, Sheffield. Wilkinson & Co, Sheffield received a licence to electroplate in 1843, selling mainly tableware. The company exhibited at both the 1851 and 1862 international exhibitions in London. The company was bought by Walker & Hall in about 1892. Few records exist for Wilkinson and the items that they produced in the style of Christopher Dresser are attributed to him purely on stylistic evidence.

Mark: after 1872, the company acquired limited liability and after this date the letters ‘Ld’ were added to read HW&Co Ld in the shield. In 1892, the company was bought by Walker & Hall of Sheffield.

Richard Hodd & Son, London. Richard Hodd & Son was established in 1872, by Richard Hodd and his son, following the dissolution of an earlier partnership between Hodd Senior and others. The core business of the company was domestic ware for restaurants and hotels. In 1878 the company exhibited in Paris and was awarded a bronze medal.

Arts & Crafts teapot

Other Metal Manufacturers of the Late Victorian Period

Benham & Froud. The original firm was founded in 1785 by Mr Kepp as a small family company in London, the business listed among its achievements the covering of the British museum over 28 years, and the ball and cross which sits atop St. Paul’s Cathedral. It was this ball and cross that was later to become the company logo. In 1850, Augustus Benham and Joseph William Froud joined the company; Benham died in 1884 and Froud then retired. At this point the company became a limited company and R.W. Laws, the manager and chief designer, joined the board. Some changes were instituted in the range, including the introduction of wrought iron. In 1885, Benham & Froud took out a patent on the manufacture of mixed metals. The core business, to do with exteriors, was continued but soon broadened into ecclesiastical interiors and in 1870 included a range of artistic metalware for the home. Domestic ware was mainly concerned with fireplaces, lighting and door furnishing. In 1870, Dresser designed several wooden coal boxes for the company. Benham & Froud exhibited at the London Exhibitions, 1851 and 1862 (bronze medals), Melbourne 1889 (gold) and Adelaide (silver).

Archibald Kenrick & Sons, West Bromwich. Kenrick was founded in 1791 as a workshop operation making buckles for shoes, expanding in the 19thcentury into domestic hardware with huge overseas markets in America, Australia, India and South America. Kenrick produced a range of Gothic cast iron fitments for doors, furniture, the hearth, kitchen and the garden, which were exhibited at the Paris Exhibition, 1878. Contemporary reports suggest that door knockers in Berlin black or bronzed were especially popular in Paris. This may have encouraged the company to expand the range of household ironmongery. Based on the stylistic connection, there is strong evidence that Dresser produced some designs for the company.

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