Born in Glasgow in 1834, Christopher Dresser was the son of a tax collector and in his career he became Britain’s first professional, independent, industrial designer. According to Dresser an object which perfectly fulfilled its function was beautiful in itself and needed no ornament and nowhere is this more apparent than in his metalwork.
A series of costings books held in the archives at Sheffield and dating from 1879 to 1883 reveal that Christopher Dresser produced approximately 80 designs for James Dixon & Sons’s, not all of which are thought to have gone into full production. This was possibly due to comparative expense of manufacture, but also because of the radical nature of the designs. What the books also show us is how much each item produced cost to make in detail, how they were made and in most cases which were designed by Dresser.
Scholarly study of the books has tended to concentrate on the costings for 1879, which contains the famous designs for Japanese teapots, and this spherical teapot which appears in the book with the inscription “1 gill teapot 2278/ Designed by Dr. Dresser”.
Looking through the books, the majority of the designs are not illustrated, with the exception of those by Dresser, which usually appear as a thumbnail sketch or photograph. This may be an indication that these more expensive and unusual vessels did not appear in their trade catalogues and were perhaps generally made to order.
Certainly it is widely accepted that at around this point in his remarkable career Dresser was at the height of his powers, about to embark on what would be his bold but ill-fated retail project, The Art Furnishers Alliance. His designs for Dixons indicate his close understanding and interest in the process of manufacture and the use of material. The simple forms and stripping away of ornament in his metalwork designs of this period, credited to the influence of his trip to Japan in 1876, is very much in evidence, and mark him out as one of the greats of 19th century design.
We were delighted to present this rare teapot, designed by Dresser and made by James Dixon & Sons in Sheffield, as a highlight in our November 2020 Decorative Arts: Design since 1860 auction.