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Christopher Dresser in Japan

Before founding the Linthorpe Art Pottery, Christopher Dresser made a life-changing journey to Japan which inspired his career in designing ceramics.

Christopher Dresser. Image courtesy of Middlesbrough Museums Services.

Christopher Dresser was one of the first and most important designers in Victorian Britain. He was a pioneer in making beautiful furniture and decorations for people’s homes which could also be mass-produced and affordable.

In 1876 he embarked on a journey that would take him across the world in search of inspiration from other designers. His ultimate destination was Japan, but first he arranged a business contract with the New York designers Messrs. Tiffany and Co., and was sent to Japan as an emissary by the British Government.

This was an exciting time for the West – after centuries of isolation from the world Japan was opening its doors to international trade. Dresser was instructed to select decorative Japanese objects to be sold in the Western markets.

Christopher Dresser was inspired by the shape of sake bottles to create the design for these Linthorpe Art Pottery vases. Image courtesy of Dorman Museum.

Before the year was out, he had reached Japan and was immediately enchanted by the country – “It was on the 26th day of December at 6:30 in the morning that I first saw Japan… we could see that the land was pleasantly undulating and richly wooded; that in some of the valleys, fissures and gorges nestled little picturesque villages…”

He was made an honoured guest of Emperor Meiji who gave Dresser unprecedented access to the Imperial Treasures. In turn, Dresser personally delivered to the Emperor a gift of British art ceramic.

Minton plate with a stylised Byzantine floral motif. This plate is similar to the ceramic that Christopher Dresser presented to Emperor Meiji. Image courtesy of Dorman Museum.

Dresser spent four months travelling across Japan. He visited the temples, surveyed the architecture, and witnessed the work of potters, cotton-weavers, basket and paper makers and many others working in traditional crafts. He was awe-inspired by Japan’s countryside and natural features, although he does amusingly describe the small eruptions of an active volcano – possibly Mihara on the island of Oshima – as “inferior to that produced by the blast furnaces of Lowmoor or of many in the Cleveland district”.

Dresser’s journey also coincided with the beginning of the Satsuma Rebellion. This new era of modernisation in Japan had stripped the rights of the Samurai, who had for centuries exercised great power in the country, and the disenfranchised Samurai of the Satsuma Domain had begun to rebel against the Emperor. The rebellion was eventually crushed in September 1877, after Dresser had left the country.

Following his trip to Japan Dresser sent two more gifts of British ceramics to the Japanese government. This Linthorpe Pottery bowl is like one of those ceramics. Image courtesy of Dorman Museum.

Dresser returned to England by April 1877. He produced a book detailing his experiences, ‘Japan: its Architecture, Art and Art Manufactures’, and two years later he had founded Linthorpe Art Pottery in Middlesbrough alongside local businessman John Harrison. Many of the shapes, designs, and glazes of Linthorpe pieces were inspired by his time in Japan.

Although Linthorpe Art Pottery was only short lived, its pieces had a legacy on the effect of Japanese design on British ceramics. Many early pieces from the Pottery were bought by people in Japan, and years later some of these pieces found their way back into the British Market under the impression they were Japanese.