Tiles Designed by Dr Christopher Dresser?

 See also

Some sightings of 'Dresser tiles'

Tiles and Dr. Dresser's Principles of Decorative Design

 

 

If you are looking for a genuine Christopher Dresser tile you will search long and hard which likely seems a strange comment because virtually wherever one looks these days they are offered for sale. Of course when one sees a 'Dresser' tile for sale one has to reach a judgment as to whether the tile on offer was really designed by Dresser or is it salesmanship but it may well be neither for the seller may well have consulted sources that appear credible. Books abound in which the authors attribute to Dresser but few go as far as to say by Dresser for there are no tile patterns known to have been designed by Christopher Dresser. Not a single tile design signed by him has been found nor other contemporary record such as receipt for payment for his work, out of the myriad attributions to Dresser there is just one from an apparently credible source but even that is flawed. The confusion no doubt arises because the majority of books about ceramic design and designers who designed for ceramics have been written by pottery and porcelain experts who extrapolate to tiles without fully understanding the differences.

There are many reasons why Dresser would have little interest in designing tiles, points widely misunderstood by writers are the relative roles of artists and architects, what is known as artistic sensibilities and the tension between tiles as bulding materials and tiles as decorative art objects. A sure indicator of Dresser's lack of interest in tiles is that in his own books designs for many media and materials are shown but none for tiles. Dresser had a known association with Mintons from the 1860s to the 1880s and this has been extrapolated to assume that he also designed tiles for them.

The following two quotations are from an essay by Wendy Walgate, Dresser: Influences & Impact of a Victorian Visionary. In the manner of a serious work she cites all her references apart from one which is dutifully noted, the remark perhaps most relevant to this essay!

Dresser himself asserted that ornament and not architecture was his "sphere", however he believed that the two disciplines were indivisible.[footnote needed here] He stated, "The material at hand, the religion of the people, the climate have . . . determined the character of the architecture of all ages and nations . . . and the nature of the ornamentation of the edifices."[37] This statement is to some degree similar to Semper's list of influences that determine basic form: both materials and tools along with "place, climate, time, customs, particular characteristics, rank, position".[38]

From the Gothic or as Pugin would call it, Catholic style, Dresser took the idea of "simple honesty and boldness", a concept which he would use in his manufacturing designs.[47] Dresser eventually discontinued his use of Gothic decoration since, "having passed from its purity towards undue elaboration, it began to lose its hold on the people for whom it was created, and the form of religion with which it had long been associated had become old, when the great overthrow of old traditions and usages occurred, commonly called the Reformation."[48]

37, 47; 48 Dresser, C., 1881 Principles of Art , adopted by the Art Furnishers' Alliance with prefatory notes by E. Lee. London. no publisher.
38 Semper, G., 1989. The Four Elements of Architecture and Other Writings. Cambridge: Cambridge U.P.

In the preface to the 1881 Mintons and 1883 [1] Mintons Ltd tile catalogues A. W. N. Pugin, John Moyr Smith, H. S. Marks and E. E. Houghton receive credit for their designs but not Dresser, I am sure that he had by this time a sufficiently illustrious reputation to warrant inclusion had he designed tiles for Mintons or Minton & Co.. Pugin designed tiles for Minton & Co. and passed away long before the formation of Mintons, he is greatly praised in the introduction, somewhat ironically many of the tiles erroneously attributed to Dresser were in fact designed by Pugin. Most of the 19thC tile designers especially those from the middle of the century were architects, Pugin of course, E W Godwin, John Bradburn and many more, John Moyr Smith trained as an architect, Halsey Ricardo noted for his work with Wm de Morgan & Co. was an architect, he also designed tiled fireplaces for Wedgwood in the 1880s.[MB]

The catalogue's introduction is of course marketing and should be construed as such but there is no reason to doubt its veracity, three points are emphasised, the history of the company, the designs of A. W. N. Pugin and Reynolds' patented printing process. We read, "The process for the decoration of Tiles was early favoured by the late Mr. A. Welby Pugin, "the great restorer of the Gothic Art," in the Houses of Parliament and in many other places, and the patterns in that style of ornament in this book are all from his hand" and so it is taken that all gothic designs shown are by Pugin. It can also be seen that at least two designs by A. W. N. Pugin, and so one presumes others, were introduced many years after his death being copied from his book Floriated Ornament.

These three marketing points were all appropriated by Campbell the owner of Mintons from the preceding Minton, Hollins & Co. tile business which passed in to the ownership of its manager of near three decades Michael Hollins. Pugin designed for Minton & Co. long before Campbell joined the company, Reynolds was persuaded to leave Hollins to join Campbell, even the history of tile making owed most to Hollins who had managed the tile business for the preceding twenty-eight years since 1840 including the development and manufacture of designs by Pugin. During this time Hollins oversaw the manufacture of both Pugin designs and Reynolds' printing and was the dominant figure in the development of the business. Hollins can take virtually all the credit for the development of industrial wall tile manufacture and turned the loss making tile business in to profit, it was he who first made tiles using Prosser's patent process. Whilst the introduction appears in the catalogue dating from 1883 and another from 1881 it may have been used in earlier catalogues and the date of its writing is unknown.

The foreword to the reproduced catalogue written by Joan Jones unfortunately contains several errors typical of a pottery expert discussing tiles. The Minton companies are confused, "Minton China Works tile catalogue." should be Mintons China Works at least but most correctly Mintons Ltd (China Works was the address not the company name nor the trading name). "Mintons diversity of output never ceases to amaze, from decorative wall tiles to encaustic floor tiles, from the classical to the naturalistic, Gothic to Japanese style, the tiles are depicted individually and as they would be seen in situ in borders, arrangements, floor layouts and fireplace panels and hearths." Mintons never made any encaustic floor tiles and there are no floor layouts shown in the catalogue, Minton & Co. and Minton, Hollins & Co. made encaustic tiles.

There may be as many as two hundred designs by Pugin illustrated in the catalogue as stated in the original preface penned by the company in 1881 or earlier and quoted above, whilst impossible to mention them all why 1327 and 1328 receive special mention is a mystery. There are those more dramatic, bigger and more brightly coloured and interesting such as pattern 1303 which Pugin selected for the cover of Floriated Ornament. There is pattern 1063 taken from floriated ornament printed in 1849 yet registered by Mintons in 1869. It would have been good to know which designs are thought to be by Christopher Dresser, the writer says, "[designs by] the radical art botanist Christopher Dresser come to life amongst its pages". Certainly there are some dado designs taken from Dresser's Studies in Design and the crane tiles adapted from a Dresser flowerpot design, but these are designs adapted by Mintons rather than tiles designed by Dresser.

Dresser as with all noted designers whose work was widely distributed and illustrated and published in the media was much imitated, there is no doubt that Mintons amongst many others plagarised and copied Dresser designs for other materials and applied them to tiles. As discussed here Mintons was as comfortable with borrowing designs as many other companies. Mintons is recorded as having commissioned designs from Dresser for tablewares, from The Dictionary of Minton: "His association with Minton began in the late 1860s when he supplied them with numerous designs for tablewares and ornamental pieces, including some very revolutionary shaped vases with richly coloured decoration." As ever there is no reference to tiles.

A design by Dresser is illustrated in Lockett and described as, "pen and wash design in blue on a white ground of three cranes flying over stylised waves. 71/2ins . by 11ins. Signed 'Chr Dresser'. A Minton tile was based on this design". Note Lockett's guarded comment, he does not attribute the tile to Dresser but notes the similarity. When examples come to market they are almost universally stated as designed by Dresser yet it is fairly clear that the designer, most likely inhouse, adapted Dresser's original. The 11" x 7.5" design has three cranes, a cloud and the sun nicely distributed in plenty of free space. The tile keeps those elements, adds an extra cloud and cuts off virtually all the free space above the sun in the original. The design is now, in comparison to the original, cramped, incoherent and totally lacking the hallmark of simplicity evident in the original. I believe that Lockett used exactly the correct phrase, "was based on", "after Chr Dresser" and especially "in the manner of Chr Dresser" miss the point completely. This same design is described by Jones on page 180 as "for a tile" when it clearly is not, she also only gives one dimension, 20.5 cms, obscuring the fact that is rectangular and not of typical tile proportions.

After having commented that at 11ins by 7 1/2ins it a design for a vase, platter, plaque etc and certainly not for a tile and that the design and its dimensions are well suited to a cylindrical vase it was found that The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a tile and links it to a piece of pottery. It observes, "The composition of the tile relates directly to a Japanese blue and white ceramic flowerpot, circa 1860, that was exhibited at the 1862 International Exhibition in London and later acquired by the South Kensington Museum (now Victoria and Albert Museum)."

 

Widely but erroneously believed to have been designed by Dresser this tile design is in fact adapted by Mintons from a Dresser design for a flowerpot. The original design for a flowerpot, but not the flowerpot itself, is shown in Minton, The First Two Hundred Years of Design and Production by Joan Jones the former curator of the Minton museum wherein it is described as a design for tile despite it not being of dimensions of standard tiles and the flowerpot predating the tile.
 

There is a tile design in the National Archives described thus, "This design is by Dr Christopher Dresser. The design registration does not mention Dresser however this is not unusual. This design, forming part of a design for a border, is illustrated in Joan Jones Minton, Two Hundred Years of Design & Production". This somewhat ambiguous sentence suggests that the tile design is an abstract from a larger design which in itself makes it most unlikely that Dresser designed it. It appears to describe precisely what designers (esp. inhouse) do, take designs from a variety of sources and adapt them to suit their needs. This practice was especially prevalent in the potteries, you have to ask why Mintons would abandon their usual practice and pay for a design that they could easily copy. The tile is in the aforementioned Mintons catalogue pattern number 1143.

The British Museum also has the tile in its collection and apparently being appraised of this essay has amended the curator's comments: This design appears as no. 1143 G, sheet 8 in a Minton catalogue of c 1885 (reprinted by Richard Dennis Publications, Shepton Beauchamp, 1996). It appears elsewhere in several colourways. See Jones 1993 p. 169 for the design in a different colourway. See also Halen 1991. According to Joan Jones an estimate book mentions 'Dresser's Tomtits'. She has also come across the design as 'little birds' and 'grey birds', though at present this is unlocated.

It would appear that The British Museum in the exercise of due diligence has reached out to Joan Jones for verification, unfortunately Jones' comment does not confirm the Dresser attribution. To the contrary we see the attribution is at best tenuous lacking any link to a tile merely to an apparently unrelated estimate book entry. Tomtits are quite different to Blue Tits, the birds on the tile are not Tomtits, and I am sure given the nature of Dresser's attention to detail that Tomtits were selected as the subject matter, wherever they are to be found, for good reason.

Another tile design in the National Archives Registration no. 237644, Cat Ref no. BT 43/68 and dated 31 December 1869 is described thus: "This design is similar to those of Dr Christopher Dresser but no firm attribution to this designer has been established. It is however rare for a designer to be mentioned in the design registers held at The National Archives. Much work has still to be done to distinguish between Dresser's personal work and that of anonymous designers trained by Dresser or inspired by his work." The design is in the Mintons catalogue number 1068, it also appears in Pugin's Floriated Ornament (no. 7 on page 30) albeit without the narrow top and bottom bands which are common on Pugin's designs. Floriated Ornament was published in 1849, it is surprising that the registration was accepted by the Patent Office two decades later as the addition of generic borders hardly seems sufficient to call it unique.

Both Pugin and Dresser and indeed almost any other publisher of designs show simple design forms in their books. The simpler a design is the less likely that it is to be unique. Many Pugin and Dresser designs and especially design elements such as single flowerheads are in isolation impossible to attribute, they could be by either or any of the innumerable artists in the history of mankind.

I would turn the National Archives comment on its head, let us find a single tile design confirmed to be by Dresser before speculating about any others. After years of trying the noted Dresser expert Harry Lyons was unable to find any designs for his book that he could confirm designed by Dresser. Whilst he states, "much of Dresser's work for the Mintons name was in tiles" he fails to illustrate a single example instead in his descriptions of illustrated tiles in all cases bar one he uses the phrase "in the style of Dresser". In the other single instance, the first tile design in the National Archives mentioned above, the author uses the phrase "typical Dresser motifs".

The author's confusion about the chronology of the Minton companies is clearly stated, the need to understand it is excused by the use of the phrase "the Mintons name". The Minton name was used by five tile making companies, the differences between the companies are considerable and can not be so easily dismissed. The showing of Mintons marks for china alongside tiles to which they do not apply will add to the confusion which already persists, it is not uncommon for the X found on some late 19thC Mintons China Works tiles to be misunderstood as the date mark for 1845. In stating, "Minton Hollins ... for a time, even overtook Minton in the production of tiles", the author completely misrepresents the history, that time was the entirety of the existence of the companies a century in Minton, Hollins & Co.'s case, Mintons never came close to equalling the volume or variety of Minton, Hollins & Co.'s tile production and rarely equalled its quality.

Michael Hollins owned the rights to Minton & Co. name used on tiles, the problem experienced by many in distinguishing between Mintons and Minton, Hollins & Co. is that both had rights to the name Minton & Co. but only for specified products. This is clearly written in the court judgment transcribed by Barnard and can be seen from other records. For example advertising material for Mintons Ltd tiles bear the title thus, Mintons (Limited); China Works, this is to associate the tiles with the well known Minton company in the mind of the customer, the company called Minton & Co. Minton, Hollins & Co.'s literature always includes the London address and with it the brand name Minton & Co.. Below are pictures of a catalogue sheet circa 1880 and the base of an advertising paperweight from 1903, these are uncommon but not rare we see one every year or so, other Minton, Hollins & Co. catalogues, letterheads and suchlike have similar so it is no great mystery that tiles branded Minton & Co. and Minton, Hollins & Co. are found in the same installation.

 


 

 

Enlarged footer from the above catalogue sheet

 

Most of the tile designs inadvisedly attributed to Dresser are border tiles for example Lyons shows eight unattributed 'Dresser style' designs seven of which are for borders. This makes little sense, if a manufacturer was to commission a design at great expense they would be more likely to chose a design for areas rather than borders or friezes, they would rather sell by the square yard than the running yard. Border designs are those most easily copied from dados, rugs and the like, they are also readily sourced from pottery, book covers and innumerable other places. A comparison can be made with the tile designs by A. W. N. Pugin for Minton & Co., whilst there are a goodly number of borders there are considerably more field tile designs. Another comparison may be made with tiles by Pilkington including designs by Lewis Day, many were wall tile designs for large areas and clearly so as they align in a brick pattern formation.

Another book cited as reference for Dresser tiles is that by Stuart Durant simply entitled Christopher Dresser. It is a lovely book with lots of pictures of pretty glassware, pottery and ironwork and designs for fabrics, furniture and many other materials, it has two page of tiles, pages 109 and 125.

109 shows four tiles, the crane design noted by Lockett and discussed above and three others "attributed to Dresser on stylistic grounds" but as there is no record of Dresser designing tiles the attribution must be considered fiction. Two of the three are a repeating pattern of a cluster of three leaves on stems so simple a design that attribution is not viable, the third is by A. W. N. Pugin. If records of Dresser designing tiles were in existence I would not think it likely that these are by him, as there are no records I have no doubt they are not.

Page 125 shows ten tiles arranged in groups, eight field patterns grouped in fours but also a two and a three as friezes, oddly considering these are repeating designs they are all shown with gaps separating them rather than butted up close as they should be. There are just two lines of text which are quite remarkable for the number of errors contained in such a small space:

Transfer printed tiles [1] for Minton & Company [2] Stoke-on-Trent 1870 - 83 [3]. The design for the three tiles was registered in 1870 therefore these tiles are known to be by Dresser [4]. The other tiles are firmly attributed to him [5]. (Private Collection, London)

[1] Some appear to be encaustic, they are well known as encaustic patterns but not to my knowledge seen as prints.

[2] The printed tiles most likely by Mintons, encaustics by Minton, Hollins & Co. (although one is a popular design made by several companies). Mintons did not make encaustic tiles. Minton & Co. in respect of tiles was Minton, Hollins & Co. as it had been since 1840, for a few years around 1868 - 73 Campbell the owner of Mintons misappropriated the name. Minton & Co. of the China Works became Mintons in 1873.

[3] The date range appears to be a guess, no citation is given, yet the lack of 'circa' creates a false air of certainty. Some designs appear to be earlier and the tiles certainly continued in production until much later.

[4] Registered in 1870 but "known to be by Dresser" referring to the buttterfly tile shown below is wrong and misrepresents that which appears in the design registration records. Design registrations give the name of the registrant, usually the company in this case Minton & Co., they do not indicate the artist/designer, artwork may rarely be found signed but it is not in this case.

[5} As there is no record of Dresser designing any tiles all attributions are inappropriate, it is unknown who made such attributions, the author appears to have relied upon a third party. Eight of the ten designs are in the gothic style in the manner of A. W. N. Pugin and bear no resemblance to the other examples of Dresser's design shown in the book including other surface decorations such as fabrics and ceilings.

 

*The registration for the butterfly tile incorrectly described as 'known to be by Dresser' in the national archives has this note attached. "This design has elements which are inspired by Dr Christopher Dresser. Much work has still to be done to distinguish between Dresser's personal work and that of anonymous designers trained by Dresser or inspired by his work." Designs continued to be registered under the name Minton & Co. until 1873 when it changed to Mintons. The tile appears to be in part based upon a design for vase made by Minton & Co. in 1867, see Durant page 104.

 

Designs often attributed to Christopher Dresser
Palmette or Anthemion an ancient greco-roman design. Dozens of examples in the British Museum to copy and dozens portrayed in The Grammar of Ornament by Owen Jones. This variation made by both Minton, Hollins & Co. and Mintons.
This Passion Flower design is by A. W. N. Pugin, it was made by both Minton, Hollins & Co. and Mintons in whose catalogue it has pattern number 801 indicating introduction in the 1850s and so improbably early for a Dresser attribution.
This appears to have been an exclusive design for Barnard, Bishop and Barnard and is most likely a design by Thomas Jekyll who did much design work for the company. Shown in BBB's catalogue and made by Mintons on unnamed blanks.
Unattributed design apparently based on Thomas Jekyll designs, not just the preceding tile but those on cast iron firegrates. Pattern number 1643 in the Mintons catalogue.
Another Pugin design. Pugin being associated with the Gothic style and its taste generally narrowly interpreted in its simpler forms this may not be normally recognised as Gothic. Pattern number 950G in the Mintons catalogue indicating an 1850s or 1860s origination date.
This design pattern number 1704 dates from around 1880 and so is of the time frame possible for Dresser although rather late however there being no record of such one has to take it that it is an internal design.
Almost any design featuring cranes seems to get attributed to Dresser as if he was the only designer who recognised the artistic potential of a long-legged, long-beaked, pointed winged birds. Their penchant for catching fish and eels adds to the potential for expression. This by E. Smith of Coalville.
Attributed to Dresser by both Harry Lyons and Stuart Durant this is by Pugin. A 7" x 7" tile, pattern number 983 in the Mintons catalogue.

 

Many designs inappropriately attributed to Dresser are taken from The Grammar of Ornament by Owen Jones published in 1856 the designs therein being almost exclusively taken from historical sources including the then collection of The British Museum and other noted collections. The book was published as a guide and source book for artists and designers so it is unsurprising that elements of design and complete designs that appear in therein also appear on many other products. This is what art departments do, buy source materials, follow the trends in news, magazines, attend lectures and classes and produce works of the times at a fraction of the cost of a design by a noted designer. To attribute such designs to Dresser, Jones or anyone else is entirely disingenuous. Dresser provides a single page for the book described by Jones as, "exhibiting the geometric arrangement of natural flowers" which itself seems to draw heavily on sources such as egyptian designs illustrated earlier in the publication.

Just because an object was made in the 19thC does not mean the design it bears was created in the 19thC if anything the opposite is true and there are plenty of known examples. Start with Minton & Co., they started tile making with reproductions of medieval tiles, when they started making wall tiles they copied art work from Jean Claude Watteau and oriental sources. William Morris sought to return to medieval design values and did so copying many originals, William de Morgan likewise. A. W. N. Pugin, Owen Jones, John Leighton and many other artists and designers produced books showing designs from historical sites and artefacts for use as reference material, some such designs are found unmodified on then modern objects.

 

[1] The reprinted Mintons Ltd catalogue widely described as 1885 is slightly earlier from 1883. The highest pattern number is 2012, pattern number 1993 was registered on 30th March 1883. The sheets of embossed tiles are of later date the pattern numbers indicate 1891.

[MB] Wedgwood Ceramics 1846-1959 by Maureen Batkin

 

See also:

Some sightings of 'Dresser tiles'

Tiles and Dr. Dresser's Principles of Decorative Design

 

 

Edited 9 March 2015

 

Information
Tiles For Sale
Contacts
Order Information

 

 

Copyright 2000 - 2014, All rights reserved