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Hand screen

  • Date:

    ca. 1880

  • Artist/Maker:

    Christopher Dresser (designer)
    Art Furnishers' Alliance

  • Credit Line:

    Purchase funded by Clarissa Ward

  • Museum number:

    W.3-2015

  • Gallery location:

    British Galleries, Room 125, Edwin and Susan Davies Gallery, case 1

This hand screen – probably one of a pair – was used to shield the face from the heat of the fire. They were hung either side of the fireplace or arranged decoratively on the mantelpiece.

It is a rare and striking example of an object decorated after a plate in one of Christopher Dresser’s most important treatises, Studies in Design (1875). Plate 2 shows the owls standing upright, and is captioned ‘Parental advice’. Dresser wrote in the caption text that the design ‘may be painted on the panel of a door, on the door of a cabinet, or in any recess in a wall, especially suited to a smoking- room or nursery’. On this hand screen, the figures assume a comical Shakespearian guise, the owlet becoming Yorick, lying dead, the larger owl Prince Hamlet, as identified by the caption which quotes the first three words of Hamlet’s famous line in Act 5, Scene 1 of the play: ‘Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy’.

In adapting Dresser’s design so imaginatively, and given the date at which the design was published, it is possible that the hand screen was decorated under Dresser’s direction for the Art Furnishers’ Alliance Co., an association of art manufacturers founded by him in 1880. It operated a retail premises in New Bond Street, Mayfair, London, until its liquidation in 1883. If this is so then the object’s form, probably based on that of a rigid Japanese fan (uchiwa), may relate to Dresser’s travels in Japan from 1876 to 1877, further demonstrating the influence of South East Asian objects and design on the Aesthetic Movement.

As stated in his preface to Studies in Design, Dresser ‘prepared this work with the hope of assisting to bring about a better style of decoration for our houses . . . It will also, it is hoped, aid the designer and the manufacturer of decorated objects, by suggesting to them useful ideas.’ Whether or not it was made directly under his instruction, this object provides a tantalising glimpse of the kind of interior decoration, now almost entirely lost, which Dresser was advocating.

Date

ca. 1880

Artist/maker

Christopher Dresser (designer)
Art Furnishers' Alliance

Object history note

This hand screen is a rare and striking example of an object decorated after a plate in one of Christopher Dresser’s most important treatises, Studies in Design (1875). The chromolithographic plates in that book were a compilation of designs made in Dresser’s studio between 1860 and 1875, described by Dresser in his introduction to chapter 1 (p. 2) as ‘my original designs, with the exception of one or two examples, which are by my advanced students and assistants. They are in all cases expressions of my individual feeling. They have been prepared during the last fifteen years’.

As stated in the preface, Dresser ‘prepared this work with the hope of assisting to bring about a better style of decoration for our houses . . . It will also, it is hoped, aid the designer and the manufacturer of decorated objects, by suggesting to them useful ideas.’ Plate 2, on which the painted decoration of this hand-screen is derived, shows both owls standing upright, and is appropriately captioned ‘Parental advice’. Dresser wrote in the caption text that the design ‘may be painted on the panel of a door, on the door of a cabinet, or in any recess in a wall, especially suited to a smoking- room or nursery’, suggesting that he thought it equally suitable for a father (a respectable woman would not smoke) or child.

On this hand screen – probably originally one of a pair – the figures assume a comical Shakespearian guise, the owlet becoming Yorick, lying dead, the larger owl Prince Hamlet, as identified by the caption which quotes the first three words of Hamlet’s famous line in Act 5, Scene 1 of the play:

‘Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy’.

Simultaneously, the grim remains of Yorick and Hamlet’s musing on his fate introduce the theme of earthly transience which would not have been lost on a Victorian audience.

In adapting Dresser’s design so imaginatively, and given the date at which the design was published, it is possible that the hand screen was decorated under Dresser’s direction for the Art Furnishers’ Alliance Co., an association of art manufacturers founded by Dresser in 1880 and which operated a retail premises in New Bond Street, Mayfair until its liquidation in 1883. If this is so then the object’s form, probably based on that of a rigid Japanese fan (uchiwa ), may relate to Dresser’s travels in Japan from 1876 to 1877, in addition to demonstrating the wider influence of South East Asian objects and design on the Aesthetic Movement.

Whether or not it was made directly under Dresser’s instruction, the object is contemporary to the publication of Studies in Design and, besides being a fascinating object in its own right, provides a tantalising glimpse of the kind of interior decoration, now almost entirely lost, which Dresser was advocating.

Descriptive line

Hand screen

Collection

Furniture and Woodwork Collection

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