New to the Ackland: A Nineteenth-Century British Vase

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A red-brown vase decorated with blue and gold ornamental patterns

This striking vase by British artist Christopher Dresser was among several decorative arts objects that entered the Ackland’s collection earlier this year from the estate of Katharine Lee Reid. It represents the first work by the famed botanist, academic, and freelance designer to enter the Museum’s holdings.

Designed by Dresser and produced by pottery manufacturer Minton & Company for the firm’s display at the 1867 Exposition Universelle in Paris, the red earthenware vase features a stylized botanical motif on the body in gold, green, and maroon, which is set against a dark blue background. The shoulder is decorated with a simplifed pattern in gold and light blue. The ornamentation demonstrates Dresser’s interest in the arts of other cultures, such as Asian, Greek, Egyptian, and Islamic wares, which he combined with a brilliant sense of creativity and eclecticism throughout his work. This design, which conforms to and accentuates the shape of the vase, also follows the designer’s philosophy that an object’s embellishment should emphasize its beauty and form while the object itself remains functional. Additionally, the geometric plant forms draw the eye upward to the mouth of the vessel, acting as the wellspring from which actual flowers might be displayed, offering an aesthetic commentary on the confluence of naturalism and artistic interpretation.

Dresser was a prolific artist and supplied designs to at least fifty companies over the course of his career, both in Britain and overseas. In an 1899 anonymous article published in the illustrated magazine The Studio, Dresser was described as “perhaps the greatest of commercial designers.” Over one hundred years later, he is still considered a pioneer of modern design.

Image Credit:

Christopher Dresser, British, 1834-1904, Vase, c. 1867, glazed earthenware, 4 1/4 × 5 in. (10.8
× 12.7 cm). Ackland Art Museum, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Gift of Katharine Lee Reid,