Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Owen Jones and the Moresque

Illustration: Owen Jones. Moresque Decoration from The Grammar of Ornament, published in 1856.

In 1832 when Owen Jones was in his early twenties, he started off on a Grand Tour of Europe. The fact that the tour would take up possibly the most important two years of Jones life and culminate in the parameters that were to shape his future career shows how fundamental this early touring aspect of Jones life really was.

He started off with the mandatory visit to Italy, then moved on to Greece where he was to meet Jules Goury a French architect who became his travelling companion when the two moved on to Egypt. Here both young men were obviously intrigued by the remnants remaining from the Ancient Egyptian culture, as most were at the time and still are. However, what intrigued them most was the abundant Islamic pattern work that they discovered in Cairo.

Illustration: Owen Jones. Moresque Decoration from The Grammar of Ornament, published in 1856.

Cairo was never wholly part of the Ancient Egyptian world, or even that of Christian Egypt, but had been constructed as an Islamic statement. Although the city has now expanded and incorporated a number of settlements from various eras of Egyptian history, it is still counted as one of the great achievements of the Islamic world. Both Jones and Goury studied the complex and wide ranging examples of Islamic decoration that could be found in the capital of Egypt, and in some respects, this exploration helped to form ideas about surface pattern, decoration and ornamentation and the way that geometry and the abstraction from the real world played such a large role in Islamic decoration.

When Jones and Goury moved on via Constantinople to Spain, it was the Islamic period of the Iberian peninsulas history that drew them to Granada and inevitably the Alhambra. Although still relatively early as far as travel and exploration within the nineteenth century was concerned, the two young men were by no means the only visitors to what many see as one of the high points of Islamic architectural and decorative achievement. A number of writers and travellers had visited the Alhambra and literature on the subject, while not necessarily extensive in the early part of the nineteenth century, was still readily available. Probably the most widely read publication from the 1830s was that of the American writer Washington Irving who had lived actually in the Alhambra in 1829 and had published The Alhambra in 1832.

Illustration: Owen Jones. Moresque Decoration from The Grammar of Ornament, published in 1856.

Although Cairo had shifted both Jones and Goury's awareness of Islamic architecture, decoration and ornamentation, it was the Alhambra that made fundamental changes in both men's theories concerning pattern and geometry. During their six month stay at the palace complex the two men studied pattern work in great detail, much of which was to go towards a publication that would be the culmination of the creative partnership between the two men. It would deal not only with the technical aspects of Islamic architecture and design, but also give indications as to how Islamic decoration could be used at least on an inspirational level, for contemporary European decoration and ornamentation, particularly within the discipline of surface pattern.

Unfortunately Jules Goury died of cholera while at the Alhambra at the ridiculously early age of 31. However, Jones insisted when on returning to London, to produce both his and Goury's findings and did so in an exhaustive nine year long publication over twelve parts from 1836 to 1845. The book was entitled Plans, Elevations, Sections and Details of the Alhambra and as its title suggests was a detailed technical and analysed report on the building complex of the Alhambra. Although costing Jones a fortune not only in publication fees, but also in complex colour printing costs, the book did place Owen Jones in a position whereby he became rapidly recognised as both a critic and scholar concerning the theory of design and decoration.

Illustration: Owen Jones. Moresque Decoration from The Grammar of Ornament, published in 1856.

Jones went on to publish more ground breaking publications that went to reinforce his reputation. However, at the core of both his theories and scholastic knowledge was the world of Islamic decoration, but more particularly that of the Alhambra. So much so that one of the largest chapters in his 1856 volume The Grammar of Ornament was dedicated to the Alhambra. The illustrations in this article are all drawn from that 1856 chapter.

To say that Islamic decoration profoundly affected both the career and idealism of Jones is not a wild exaggeration. The technical aspects of geometry and flat pattern work lay at the heart of much of Jones theorising, but also at the heart of much of his own contribution to the decorative arts, particularly within the fields of textile and wallpaper design. Without Jones visit to the Alhambra, his fundamental theories concerning architecture, pattern, decoration and ornamentation, may well have not made the impressive impact that they inevitably did. That nineteenth century pattern work would have continued to impress with its skill and craftsmanship is without doubt. However, without the contribution of Jones and his fascination with the fundamental aspects of Islamic decoration as perceived through the work produced over centuries at the Alhambra, contemporary work during the period of jones career may well have suffered without his valuable contribution.

Illustration: Owen Jones. Moresque Decoration from The Grammar of Ornament, published in 1856.

Reference links:
The Grammar of Ornament: All 100 Color Plates from the Folio Edition of the Great Victorian Sourcebook of Historic Design (Dover Pictorial Archive Series)
Owen Jones: Design, Ornament, Architecture & Theory in an Age of Transition
Decorative Ornament
Tales of the Alhambra
Splendors of Islam: Architecture, Decoration and Design
Islamic architecture and its decoration, A.D. 800-1500;: A photographic survey
Islamic Designs in Color (Dover Pictorial Archive Series)
Ornament and Decoration in Islamic Architecture
The Language of Pattern : an Enquiry Inspired By Islamic Decoration
Islamic Design (Dover Pictura)
Islamic Designs (International Design Library)
Islamic Ornament
The Language of Pattern: An Enquiry Inspired by Islamic Decoration (Icon Editions)
Geometric Patterns from Islamic Art & Architecture
Pattern in Islamic Art

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