The history of the dresser

Janet Gleeson considers the enduring allure of this timeless kitchen icon

Collection of ceramics displayed on a kitchen dresser

Offering eye-catching architectural appeal, invaluable storage and a stunning place to display possessions, it’s easy to see why dressers take centre stage in so many interiors. ‘They’re an iconic piece of English furniture, but every country in Europe has their own versions too,’ says Glenn Ginger of GD Ginger Antiques.

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The Kitchen in the Basement at Uppark, West Sussex. A dresser filled with blue and white china
With over 200 historic properties, the National Trust is a brilliant source of inspiration for interiors. The kitchen at Uppark in West Sussex contains this wonderful dresser, complete with copper
pans and a willow pattern dinner service.

Today, the very word ‘dresser’ conjures images of homely, rustic interiors, but that hasn’t always been the case. In medieval times the dressoir, as it was termed, stood in the grandest halls. Sometimes painted and gilded, sometimes ornately carved and draped in sumptuous textiles, this was an imposing, high-status object on which silver, plate, flagons of wine, spices and food were laid out.

In France, the number of shelves a dressoir had reflected the status of the owner. In the most stately houses steps were needed to reach the upper levels.

Fast forward to the 17th century and the dresser was a familiar feature in kitchens, as well as dining rooms and parlours. ‘They were made from oak, elm, pine, walnut or fruitwood,’ says Glenn. Many had decorative turned legs connected by stretchers supporting a row of drawers, or cupboards in the base with separate shelves on top.

Sideboards made from imported mahogany largely replaced the dresser in the grander 18th-century dining rooms, although they were still used below stairs and in smaller homes. Designs and decoration were often rooted in the fashions of the day, but as they were made by country craftsmen rather than city cabinetmakers, forms were simplified and repeated long after fashionable furniture moved on.

All over the country, every region had their own style, and experts are often able to identify where a dresser was made by its idiosyncrasies
Glenn Ginger

Dressers continued to be made throughout the 19th and into the 20th centuries, and distinct regional variations also evolved. Although there is a caveat here: depending on where you look, the term ‘Welsh Dresser’ can be a generic description, not necessarily where the piece was made.  ‘All over the country, every region had their own style, and experts are often able to identify where a dresser was made by its idiosyncrasies,’ says Glenn.

George III oak dresser
This George III oak dresser fetched £2,700 at Woolley & Wallis.

Remember, these are practical pieces of furniture, and if you are buying one it should fit your needs, says Mark Yuan-Richards of Woolley & Wallis. The market isn’t strong at the moment so there’s plenty of choice. ‘Dresser bases are sought after, as they fit with the uncluttered look. Earlier pieces, with good colour, provenance and patina, will be popular, as will distinctive later versions by leading designers or makers such as Mouseman,’ explains Mark. Painted dressers are covetable if the paint is original.

‘Value depends on age and originality. A 17th-century dresser hasn’t dropped as much as later versions and might cost £10,000 from a dealer,’ says Glenn. An 18th-century dresser could have an estimate of £1,500-£3,000 at auction, while those made in the 19th century often sell for under £1,000. ‘It’s important to work out what is original. But don’t forget that, as a dresser may have stood in a kitchen and been used every day, there should be signs of wear and tear, and repairs are to be expected.’


Buying guide

Things to bear in mind when choosing your dresser

1

Size

Small is often more sought after than large: what fitted in a high-ceilinged Georgian kitchen may swamp a modern interior.

2

Condition

Check drawers, handles and bases. Restoration, replacements and large repairs may devalue a dresser, but there should be signs of genuine age.

3

Colour

Look for a good mellow patina of age.

4

Paint

Original paint is highly desirable.

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5

Provenance

A dresser that once stood in a grand house will have extra cachet.