Back Into The Future with Christopher Dresser in Middlesbrough

Christopher DresserSometimes a knowledge of the past can be a springboard for the future. Last week was the inauguration of a society that promises to make Middlesbrough a destination for students, designers and antique lovers. And if the launch event is anything to go the Christopher Dresser Society will have real global appeal.

Last week a society to the great Victorian designer Christopher Dresser was launched at the Dorman Museum and Teesside University. The event attracted Dresser followers from three continents, a former top flight footballer in a room that buzzed with excitement.

Collector Harry Lyons has donated his entire life’s work collection of Christopher Dresser designs and archive to the museum.

The aim is to open a new gallery next year at the museum dedicated to Dresser and as well as an archive to a man whose legacy has been vast but whose name is today perhaps not so well known outside specialist circles. The Dorman Museum gallery and archive could well change all that. This was made possible through generous funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, V & A Purchase Grant, The Art Fund and Middlesbrough & Teesside Philanthropic Foundation.

Christopher Dresser came to Middlesbrough in the middle of the industrial revolution to launch the Linthorpe Pottery. He would move on to work in metal, furnishings and carpets and produce household objects for the middle classes and eventually the masses.

In his day he was a truly a household name not just in this country but in Japan where he travelled and across the Atlantic in USA. In fact he was a giant in his era, he was maybe unique in running a Victorian design consultancy. At one time he had equal standing to the great arts and craft protagonist William Morris. Unlike Morris he designed objects that were affordable by embracing the industrial revolution. So it was a great fit for Dresser to be working in the Infant Hercules.

Dresser worked in many other towns and cities and worldwide in fact but no one was ever previously claimed him. His name is on the rise again and the Heritage Lottery funded gallery and archive are set to make Middlesbrough a hot destination for lovers of art and design.

I interviewed Gill Moore, Curator of the new Dresser Gallery at Middlesbrough’s Dorman Museum to tell us more about Christopher Dresser, the Middlesbrough connection, why he was so important in the 19th century and just why his name could make a difference again in the 21st century.

Gill: I am here today at the launch of the Christopher Dresser Society. And for those of you who don’t know who Christopher Dresser was he was the originator of The Linthorpe Pottery just down the road from the museum. And we are really excited because in the past Middlesbrough has had such a bad press, it is all doom and gloom. Whenever you see anything in the local news it is about unemployment or something negative whereas Christopher Dresser is looking at a different side, it is a really positive aspect of the town. We really want to make people proud of their heritage. This is something that has been kept quiet for so long and it is of real importance nationally and international significance. We are going to make a really big thing of it and we are going to be able to attract people from all over the world to Middlesbrough.

RN: As this day has shown.

Gill: We have got people from all over; from all over the country and we have even got someone from South Africa, a member of the Dresser family. We have someone from Washington USA. In fact Dresser is probably better known in USA and other countries than he is here and this is why we need to address this and do something about it and celebrate his legacy to the town.

RN: And will the Dorman Museum be a centre of excellence to Christopher Dresser?

Gill: It will be. We have got a tremendous archive so it will be an opportunity for anyone to come and study Dresser. It will be accessible to people. You just need to get in touch and we will give access to the fantastic resources we’ve got here.

RN: A lot of people might know the name Christopher Dresser from items shown on Antiques Roadshow but from what I have gleaned today perhaps his name should be up there alongside William Morris for the influence he had as a designer etc.

Gill: Exactly. Dresser’s name disappeared into obscurity after his death. I think part of the problem was because Dresser was designing for the future, he was mass producing things. So people didn’t hold him in quite such high esteem as William Morris’ hand produced things.

But now of course when we look at the way technology and mass production Dresser was always looking to make good design affordable for the masses. So in some ways although William Morris promoted himself as a socialist it was Dresser’s ideals that targeted the right audience.

RN: And his designs were so innovative they have stood the test of time and are still being made today.

Gill: That is right. The design company Alessi are still producing work that Christopher Dresser designed 150 years ago.

RN: And we can be proud because of his association with Linthorpe Pottery.

Gill. Yes and also the Dresser family are a local family. The family actually came from North Yorkshire originally. Some people might be familiar with Dressers the newsagents and stationers in Darlington and Northallerton but they part of the extended family. Tom Dresser VC,Middlesbrough, he was also part of that family. So really it has got a lot of connections with this area. And as I say it is something we haven’t really recognised before.

RN: And today is the launch of the society?

Gill: This is the launch of the society and we are hoping it is going to get bigger and better but we are really positive about the response today. There are lots of enthusiasts and lots of excitement and positive thoughts about the future.

We are also redeveloping one of our galleries in the museum to dedicate it to Dresser. So that will be a bigger draw. So, the sky is the limit really as to how far we can go with Dresser and the benefits it could actually bring to the local economy because it is going to attract people from all over the world.

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Christopher Dresser could soon be a name that trips off the tongue with William Morris. A pioneer in a pioneering town. A blast from the past could be a jewel in Middlesbrough’s revival.

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