Taking Tea with Design Icon Christopher Dresser

Our Decorative Arts & Design specialist, John Mackie, has been looking into the fascinating history of a rather rare teapot by design icon Christopher Dresser, due to be offered in our next auction of Decorative Arts: Design since 1860 on 25 October in Edinburgh. 

This rare teapot is one of a group of remarkable designs that the pioneering Victorian designer Christopher Dresser produced for James Dixon & Sons of Sheffield from 1879 -1883.


Christopher Dresser teapot

SILVER TEAPOT, DATED 1882 | hallmarked James Dixon & Son, Sheffield 1882 | £10,000- 15,000 (+fees)



Christopher Dresser was born in Glasgow in 1834, the son of a tax collector and in his career he became Britain’s first professional, independent, industrial designer. Unlike William Morris, his direct contemporary, Dresser fully embraced new production techniques in colour, pattern, material and ornamentation and worked with innumerable manufacturers to produce objects which were well designed and available to many. 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. His early designs were informed by his study of botany, however his work was transformed by his trip to Japan in 1876 as the official representative of the Victoria & Albert Museum, giving it a remarkably contemporary appearance.


Christopher Dresser


A series of costings books, held in the archives at Sheffield, reveal that Dresser produced approximately 80 designs for James Dixon & Sons, not all of which are thought to have gone into production. This was possibly due to comparative expense of manufacture, but also because of the radical nature of his designs. Dresser's interest in and close understanding of the process of manufacture and the use of materials are reflected in these books. They show how much each item produced cost to make in detail, how they were made and, in most cases, which were designed by Dresser, as in this case. The illustration shows the entry in the costings book for this teapot and, as well as laying out costs, also shows who would carry out some of the work. The cost, at £1/3s/10d, makes it an expensive item, however unusually the current example is made in silver rather than plate making it a special request and even more expensive to produce. Hallmarked in Sheffield in 1882, this teapot design first appears in the 1879 costings book.


Christopher Dresser costings book


Several other versions of this teapot were made including a version especially created for Tiffany & Co. with hammered decoration. 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 made to order.


hallmarks of James Dixon & son sheffield




The expense of these wares "broke Dresser’s most cherished rules about the economical use of costly materials and ease of production", however what they did achieve was his posthumous reputation as a proto-modernist and mark him out as one of the greatest talents of 19th century design.




Join us in celebrating 15 decades of design

Our dedicated auctions of Decorative Arts: Design since 1860 continue to go from strength to strength, with our April auction reaching a selling rate of over 85%. Highlights from this sale included a beautiful, and rare, covered cup by the English architect and designer C.R. Ashbee which sold for £30,000, and a playful bronze of Peter Pan by Sir George Frampton which reached over £36,000.


The field of Decorative Arts is wide and varied, encompassing 15 decades of design - from the English Aesthetic and Arts & Crafts movements of the late 19th century through to Art Nouveau, Art Deco and Modernism in the 20th century.


Our next Decorative Arts: Design since 1860 auction is scheduled for 25 October 2017


If you would like a visit, a valuation, or would like more information about the sale, please call
John Mackie | 0131 557 8844 | john.mackie@lyonandturnbull.com


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