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Star exhibit at the Met: the Christopher Dresser album the V&A could not afford

Modern designs at the Met

New York

A major album of drawings by the late nineteenth-century British industrial designer Christopher Dresser (1834-1904) acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art last year has given the impetus for the museum’s current survey of its designs for modern decorative arts, “Drawings for Design: Christopher Dresser to the Present” (until 4 April) organised by J. Stewart Johnson, Consultant for Design and Architecture of twentieth-century art and David W. Kiehl, Associate Curator of prints and illustrated books.

The early history of the album is unknown, although it was in America at one time, as it bears a tantalising price of $35 inscribed in the upper right corner of the first page. In 1991, it appeared in a books and manuscripts sale at Phillips where it was bought jointly by the Fine Arts Society and the dealer Michael Whiteway for £13,000.

Immediately offered to the Victoria & Albert Museum for £40,000, the museum, although interested, was unable to purchase it as its funds were exhausted by the purchase of two huge albums of eighteenth-century architectural drawings from Elton Hall. An unidentified spokesman for the V&A was quoted in The Independent newspaper of 16 May, 1992 (which featured several colour illustrations from the album) as stating, “We have always said that we could not raise the money to buy it, but would be very happy if someone would buy it and give it to us”.

After the British Museum turned the book down, the dealers applied for an export licence, which, to their annoyance, was deferred. The Export Reviewing Committee subsequently reported that the dealers had circumvented them after withdrawing the export licence and dismembering the book, sending the individual sheets (each valued at an sum below the licence threshold) to New York. The Fine Arts Society denies this, but by lowering the price to £35,000, just under the export limit, and selling to a foreign buyer, they also avoided the 17% VAT (sales tax) on their profit which they would have paid had they sold to a British institution.

Besides the Dresser drawings, the Met’s exhibition features other notable groups of designs, which Johnson has tellingly juxtaposed with similar examples by different “schools”: several rug designs by 1920s British designer Eileen Gray are placed near a group of anonymous Bauhaus rug designs which strongly suggest Klee; fabric patterns by such diverse talents as the American painter Stuart Davis, French couturier Paul Poiret and anonymous masters from the Wiener Werkstätte are remarkably similar, as are finely finished watercolours for furniture by the American L. and J.G. Stickley Company and Swedish designer Erik Gunnar Asplund.

Although there is a small case of sketches juxtaposed with finished products (a Richard Meier key ring and a Hans Hollein wristwatch), it is frustrating that larger objects in the Met’s collection (from an 1879 Tiffany mixed-metal salver and a Woodstock cabinet made at Byrdcliffe Colony around 1904, to 1988 chairs by Emilio Ambasz and George Ranalli and a Morison Cousins prototype “Soup to Nuts” bowl for Tupperware) could not have also been included beside their preparatory drawings.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Modern designs at the Met'