I had intended to tag a visit to Middlesbrough onto my visit to York a couple of weeks ago, but the weather was getting colder, wetter and windier and it didn’t seem fair to visit under such circumstances. Middlesbrough needs to be seen in a good light.
So I waited until today and was rewarded with a sky so blue that the elegant transporter bridge was almost invisible. I had no idea what to expect; I thought the river crossing would involve ascending. Not a bit of it: the gondola is suspended at road level like a very long swing – a kind of hanging ferry. The bridge was built to replace the overcrowded ferries but not incommode the busy river traffic. A swing bridge would have been up and down all day, so a transporter bridge it was. It seems a hugely over-engineered way of crossing the river, but steel and engineering skill were readily available. Having seen that there was a lift to the top, I just had to book myself on, so I have walked along the upper storey and seen the flat wastelands that were once docks, shipbuilding yards and steelworks.
Middlesbrough has seen better days, and I imagine that the days of heavy industry and public wealth are no more than a folk tale to many of its current inhabitants. It’s trying to come back via higher education and (like eastern Germany) heritage tourism, but it’s a long haul. Admittedly it’s winter, but I couldn’t find any postcards anywhere . . . but I could find cheap luxuries like champagne bars and cocktail bars.
The other reason for my visit was Christopher Dresser (1834-1904). He was art advisor from 1879-82 to the Linthorpe Art Pottery just down the road, and the Dorman Museum has a gallery of his designs. Dresser is significant in being the first independent designer who designed for the industrial process – unlike, say, William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement, who looked back to handicrafts to furnish Victorian homes. Dresser designed things that were beautiful, machine-made, functional and affordable; Morris, in contrast, just produced beautiful things.
I only knew Dresser for his angular teapots in the British Museum, but this small gallery illustrated the breadth and versatility of his domestic designs: wallpaper, furniture, glass, ceramics, etc. (He started his studies when he was 13, so he had plenty of background.) His works are not quite pin-downable as many artists’ are: there certainly seemed to be a certain angularity, until you saw his flowing ceramic designs for Linthorpe. He looked to stylised natural forms and was also influenced by Japanese and Middle Eastern art. What he didn’t do were hunting scenes: there was a bizarre Huntley & Palmer biscuit tin with exactly that on the top and a restrained Dresser design around the edge.
Even local museums have moved on since I was a child, but the Dorman Museum did have one room that had been pickled in aspic:
It’s practically a museum within a museum . . . but it’s actually quite good at letting you see birds from very close.