Tiles and Dr. Dresser's Principles of Decorative Design



In Principles of Decorative Design Dresser does not mention tiles apart from those on roofs, does not mention floor decoration excepting that should a floor have a decorated border the carpet should compliment it, and when discussing decoration for walls only speaks of painting and papers. In the chapter on buildings he only discusses rooms where tiles are not normally used apart from in fireplaces. He does not discuss fireplaces, for they are architectural fittings designed by architects not by ornamentists, he does mention fire-irons but mostly to say that the decoration is inappropriate for tools.

The book was published in 1873 three years after the so-called Dresser blue tits and butterfly tile designs were registered. The cranes design for ceramic flowerpot adapted for tile is also usually said to be circa 1870, although it may be earlier. Joan Jones and Lockett give this date, the Metropolitan Museum of Art suggests that the design is circa 1860 and states that the flowerpot bearing it was exhibited at the 1862 International Exhibition in London. Had Dresser designed any tiles prior to the writing of this book I can not see how he could have failed to mention the subject, that he does not surely indicates that he did not. Similarly in Studies in Design published three years later in 1876 Dresser does not discuss tiles.

Dresser's chapter about buildings is most illuminating for the only parts of buildings he discusses are rooms and apparently only the main domestic rooms and larger commercial and institutional halls. There is no mention of hallways or corridors, bathrooms or kitchens where tiles may normally be used. He does not discuss floors excepting that they should be plain and their covering in a chapter on carpets, all he discusses is surface decoration of walls and ceilings, in paint and paper. He introduces the chapter by expressing the difficulty of designing for rooms because the architecture is preeminent.

We commence by considering how rooms should be decorated; yet, in so doing, we are met at the very outset by a great difficulty, as the nature of decoration of a room should be determined by the character of its architecture. My difficulty rests here. How am I to tell you what is the just decoration for a room, when the suitability of the decoration is often dependent upon even structural and ornamental details; and when, in all cases, the character of the room should be in harmony with the character of the architecture.

Now to the decoration of a room. If one part only can be decorated, let that one part be the ceiling. Nothing appears to me more strange than that our ceilings, which can be properly seen, are usually white in middle-class houses, while the walls, which are always in part hidden, and even the floor, on which we tread, should have colour and pattern applied to them; and of this I am certain, that, considered from a decorative point of view, our ordinary ceiling is wrong.

This is the view of an artist looking for the largest canvas to decorate and misses the practicalities of life. He is overly obsessed with decorating ceilings, and so falls in to the artist's trap of form over function. Ceilings for the most part are out of the range of normal vision, we do not generally look upwards, we look around us. Our eyes are positioned to look around us, if we were meant to frequently look directly above nature would have provisioned for it with eyes in the top of our heads.

We only like a white ceiling because we have been accustomed to such from infancy, and because we have been taught to regard a clean white ceiling as all that is to be desired.

Ceilings, especially those in domestic interiors, are painted white for a very good reason, to provide illumination. Lighting was restricted to gas, oil and candle which do not provide great illumination and with the exception of well managed gas lighting, which was only usually found in the main rooms of the house, has a yellow tinge. Light comes from above, the sun in the sky, and the earth below is dark, this is the natural order and is the most harmonious.

Domestic interiors should be comforting, echoing the natural world, for they are where one relaxes after the exertions of the day, after the trials of work. For this reason most wall decoration is of leaves and flowers, and that the dominant colour is green which induces the greatest comfort and relaxation of all colours. When observing nature there is nothing more pleasing than a view of the grass of the field and the leaves of trees bathed in sunlight only disturbed by the flowers and fauna going about their business, tiny things in relation to the dominant green.

Not only were ceilings best in white for the evenings when illumination was provided by fossil fuel means but also in the daytime to maximise the available light. All rooms can not have a south facing window and the light grey overcast skies pervasive in Britain and most of the then developed world did not a great source of light provide in north facing rooms. Windows were a costly element in the construction of buildings being many times the cost of bricks and mortar. Furthermore a tax on glass had been in place and although abolished twenty eight years before Dresser's writing few existing buildings were adapted with larger windows.

The glass tax was introduced in Great Britain in 1746 and was only abolished in 1845. This was primarily due to the denudation of the woodlands of Britain for fuel for glass making and it was the development and wide deployment of of coal fired furnaces that preceded the abolition. Iron manufacture had also been responsible for the depletion of Britain's woodlands but in this period most iron was imported from Sweden and Russia.

An 1845 account in the medical journal The Lancet described the glass tax as an "absurd impost on light" and remarks how the lack of light adversely affects quality of life.

In a hygienic point of view, the enormous tax on glass, amounting to more than three hundred per cent on its value, is one of the most cruel a Government could inflict on the nation ... The deficiency of light in town habitations, in a great measure caused by the enormous cost of glass, is universally admitted to be one of the principal causes of the unhealthiness of cities.

Ceilings were also subject to the pollution from light sources, gas, oil and candles all produce some smoke which rises with convection and settles on the ceiling. There was also smoke from fireplaces and from gentlemen's cigars assisted by convection to rise to the ceiling, and the air in general was much dirtier from the fires of homes and the furnaces of industry. What better then than to have a white ceiling, easily repainted with whitewash from time to time, practical and economical for creating a pleasing and productive room?

Dresser advocates patterns all over the ceiling, in such colours as deep blue and black, and goes so far as to denigrate advocates of lighter decoration. Simple patterns in cream-colour on blue ground, but having a black outline, also look well; and these might be prepared in paper, and hung on the ceiling as common paper-hangings, if cheapness is essential. Gold ornaments on a deep blue ground, with black outline, also look rich and effective. These are all, however, simple treatments, for any amount of colour may be used on a ceiling, provided the colours are employed in very small masses, and perfectly mingled, so that the effect produced is that of a richly coloured bloom. A ceiling should be beautiful, and should also be manifest; but if it must be somewhat indistinct, in order that the caprices of the ignorant be honoured, let the pattern be in middle-tint or pale blue and white only.

I think that Dresser has completely lost the plot, fails to see the purpose of rooms in houses and merely views them as canvases on which to pronounce bold artistic statements. In some rooms this may be appropriate, those which are solely for entertainment and enjoyment of the arts such as a music room, but such rooms are few and supplementary to the drawing and dining rooms that are essential in every home.

In the chapter on carpets Dresser urges; "I cannot too strongly advise the young ornamentist to study the principles on which Nature works." Again when speaking of carpets he references mankind's connection with nature and the desirability of recreating it in interiors. "Man naturally accustomed to tread on grass, when brought into a state of civilisation, seeks some covering for his floor which shall be softer to the tread and richer in colour than stone or brick. And in our northern climate he seeks also warmth; hence he chooses not a mere matting, or lattice of reeds, but a covering such as shall satisfy his requirements."

Had Dresser applied the same principle to ceilings he would say that ceilings should be bright, in white, light grey or light blue, to reflect nature. It is clear that Dresser lacked a full understanding of architecture, he only addresses the subject only to say that decoration of buildings should be in harmony with the architecture of that building. The purpose of architecture is to provide buildings suited for their purpose not to provide canvases for artists to decorate.

I have no doubt that similar comments to mine were raised by others in the day, the quotation from Wendy Walgate, Dresser: Influences & Impact of a Victorian Visionary, which lacks a citation is likely from such a commentary. "Dresser himself asserted that ornament and not architecture was his "sphere", however he believed that the two disciplines were indivisible."

Indivisble insofar as the ornamentist should follow the lead of the architect and they must be in harmony. Dresser purposefully avoids design disciplines and fixtures that are the province of architects, no tiles, no fireplaces, no windows, and no doors, he addresses surface decorations, walls and ceilings that may be painted or papered, and carpets. This is indicative of the great divide between the disciplines of architect and ornamentist.


Tiles Designed by Dr Christopher Dresser?

Some sightings of 'Dresser tiles'


Created 16 May 2014

Edited 27 May 2014


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