Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Owen Jones and One Thousand and One Letters

Illustration: Owen Jones. Letter 'O' from One Thousand and One Letters, 1864.

In 1864, Owen Jones published One Thousand and One Letters. In many respects, it was a gothic themed book produced in the middle of the enthusiasm gendered towards the phenomenon known as the High Victorian Gothic Revival. It managed to capture the zeitgeist of mid-nineteenth century Britain, its new found confidence in its perceived medieval roots and its projection of that confidence into medieval revival themes that ranged from public architecture down to printed and written calligraphy.

The book itself contained twenty-seven full colour plates, one for each letter of the alphabet and one extra for the numbers one to ten in both Roman and Arabic numerals. Some of the letters were copies from original medieval manuscripts from various sources. However, many more were originals produced by Jones himself. It is interesting how closely he followed the medieval theme so that it is hard to distinguish, without being told, which are his creations and which are the originals.

Illustration: Owen Jones. Letter 'W' from One Thousand and One Letters, 1864.

It is perhaps difficult for us today to understand how large and seemingly all encompassing the Gothic Revival really appeared to be in mid-nineteenth century. The decorative style might well have wandered from early gothic to Elizabethan with a great deal of exaggerated and fictional embellishment in-between. However, from the Palace of Westminster to private villas, the style permeated the fabric of the nation, so much so that in some respects at least the gothic styling of this period has come to represent for many in contemporary Britain today, the whole Victorian era.

The enthusiasm in Britain for early documents of the medieval era was, if anything, even more pervasive than those concerning the remnants of architecture still readily available to view across much of Britain. Illuminated manuscripts were particularly interesting to those concerned with surface pattern and decoration. William Morris himself had a genuine interest in some of the foliage borders that often edged medieval publications and he admitted himself that some of his early experiments in pattern work were fed by this enthusiasm.

Illustration: Owen Jones. Letter 'E' from One Thousand and One Letters, 1864.

It should also be remembered that all original medieval manuscripts and illuminations would have been hand-produced. For an era that saw more and more craft and industry being rapidly replaced by mass production, the intriguing and often romantic notions of labour intensive pastimes could verge on the intoxicating. Many saw medievalism as the apex of design, decoration and craft and by imitating or at least using the period as inspiration, they hoped to reproduce at least an element of the high creative standards achieved during this early period in British design history.

Illustration: Owen Jones. Letter 'N' from One Thousand and One Letters, 1864.

Jones lent a particular emphasis to the gothically inspired. He owned a number of different manuscripts from the medieval era, some of which he used in the One Thousand and One Letters, but also in his more famous The Grammar of Ornament published in 1856. Although many saw the revival of the gothic in Victorian Britain as a means to resurrect a period before the influx of European Classicism, which was to some extent ideologically led, whether politically or religiously, Jones himself saw it much more within the framework of design. He saw the movement as allowing a retrospective analysis of medieval design and decoration and hoped that lessons learned during this period would be a source of rediscovery and even possibly a new direction for the decorative arts in Britain. In fact, this medieval inspired revival indirectly and directly influenced all aspects of the decorative arts in Britain from textiles through to ceramics, metal and wood. It can be said to have both inspired and given direction to the Arts & Crafts movement, which had medievalism at its early core, and flavoured the second half of the nineteenth century and beyond. It is not an exaggeration to say that the Gothic Revival in Britain has had an influence well beyond its initial and more obvious trappings.

Illustration: Owen Jones. Numbers '1 to 10' from One Thousand and One Letters, 1864.


Reference links:
The Gothic Revival (World of Art)
Gothic Revival
Gothic Revival A&I (Art and Ideas)
Viollet-Le-Duc: The French Gothic Revival
Victorian and Edwardian Furniture and Interiors: From the Gothic Revival to Art Nouveau
Victorian Gothic House Style: An Architectural and Interior Design Source Book
A. W. N. Pugin: Master of Gothic Revival
Studies in Gothic Revival (Ucd Studies in the History of Art)
Magic in Medieval Manuscripts (Medieval Life in Manuscripts)
The Wollaton Medieval Manuscripts: Texts, Owners and Readers (Manuscript Culture in the British Isles)
Medieval Manuscripts from the Collection of T. R. Buchanan in the Bodleian Library, Oxford
Medieval Calligraphy: Its History and Technique
Introduction to Manuscript Studies
Courtly Love in Medieval Manuscripts (Medieval Life in Manuscripts)
Trades and Crafts in Medieval Manuscripts
Medieval Texts and Images: Studies of Manuscripts from the Middle Ages
Flowers in Medieval Manuscripts (Medieval Life in Manuscripts)
Medieval Rural Life in the Luttrell Psalter (Medieval Life in Manuscripts)

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