A Minton ceramic by Christopher Dresser

Christopher Dresser’s bold rethinking of design for household items and decoration made him one of the most radical British designers of the nineteenth century. Like William Morris he held the conviction that the decadent manufactures of mid-century Britain might be replaced by the work of artisans trained in the principles of good design. His influential theories emphasized the expressive power of decoration, which ‘symbolised imagination or emotion’, and he claimed for ornament the status of a fine art. 

Dresser’s early career was as a professor of botany, which discipline, along with geometry and a scientist’s habit of analysis of cause and effect, informed his work as a designer and theorist from the 1860s onward. His wide-ranging practice included designs for furniture, wallpaper, metalwork and carpets, as well as ceramics. 

This extraordinary matchpot for a mantelpiece was made by Minton in 1867. It is apparently the only example made from Dresser’s design, which is preserved in the factory’s estimate book for the Paris International Exhibition of that year. Humour is characteristic of Dresser, who valued it as a mark of humanity in Celtic grotesques and other forms of historical decoration he admired. Above the words OUR DOG TRAY IN THE FLESH we see Tray in his kennel, his round eyes peering from the darkness. On the other side of the matchpot OUR DOG TRAY IN THE SPIRIT appears transformed as an expression of boundless energy, recalling William Blake’s creations. According to Dresser’s writings, the ‘spiny forms’ are ‘exciting’, and ‘purple, green and orange suggest feelings of response, gladness and excitement, respectively’. Here is a dog full of the joy of life! 

This gem is one of a group of significant Minton ceramics donated in 2001 by Dr Robert Wilson. It includes characteristic white ‘parian’ porcelain sculpture, colourful majolica wares, and vases by the masters of Minton’s distinctive pâte-sur-pâte porcelain: Louis Solon, Alboin Birks and Charles Toft. These works are a core part of a most generous ongoing gift of nineteenth-century decorative art from the age of the great international exhibitions. 

Margaret Legge