10.12. OWEN JONES AND ISLAMIC POLYCHROMY

Owen Jones, Plans, Sections, Elevations, and Details of the Alhambra, Title page, 1841. (Flores, Jones)

Because it is central in understanding the Chicago School to appreciate the influence of Owen Jones’ ideas and designs during the 1850s that, even though I have presented these in Volume One, since this is was done on my Instagram site, I would like to review his legacy, if for no other reason, than to compensate for the lack of coverage by earlier historians of his iconoclastic career.  Although the impact of his book is often discussed in terms of Root’s and Sullivan’s use of ornament, his forward-looking, ahistoric-styled buildings are seldom, if ever mentioned.  This I will rectify in the following sections.

Twenty-six year-old Welsh architect Owen Jones had burst onto the British architectural stage on December 1, 1835, when he presented a paper, “On the Influence of Religion upon Art” at the Institute of British Architects.  The young architect had just returned from a six-month study of the Alhambra Palace in Grenada, Spain, where he had documented and analyzed Islamic techniques of architectural ornament and polychromy.  Having completed his studies at the Royal Academy Schools and an architectural internship with a London architect, Jones had departed in 1832 on his continental Grand Tour.  After touring Italy, he had moved on to Greece where he made the acquaintance of Jules Goury, a French architect who was working under German architect Gottfried Semper at this time in researching the use of polychromy in ancient Greek architecture.  Semper had by this time already departed to return to Germany to publish his findings, Preliminary Remarks on Polychrome Architecture and Sculpture in Antiquity in 1834.  Meanwhile, the two young architects set off first to study Islamic architecture in Egypt and Constantinople, before returning to the continent via Spain, to study the Alhambra.  Inspired by the Islamic approach to design that was totally different from the traditions of Classical antiquity yet had produced buildings that in terms of their beauty were at least the equal to those of ancient Greece and Rome, in his talk Jones had taken the British architectural profession to task for not having kept up with the nation’s engineers, in terms of developing a progressive architectural aesthetic that reflected the country’s new industrial construction materials and techniques. (Note: the year was 1835, before Britain had ever heard of Pugin or Ruskin.) 

Owen Jones, Plans, Sections, Elevations, and Details of the Alhambra, “Divan, Court of the Fish-pond,” 1841. (Flores, Jones)

Following his lecture, Jones had embarked upon a six-year effort to publish his findings in serial form between 1836 and 1842 that he titled Plans, Elevations, Sections, and Details of the Alhambra. More than likely he had been inspired by Semper’s 1834 publication, Preliminary Remarks on Polychrome Architecture and Sculpture in Antiquity. Having spent six months studying and analyzing the palace’s ornament and use of color, Jones wanted to accurately portray the building’s colors. However, he was dissatisfied with the lack of contemporary British printers’ ability to reproduce color in their publications, and so was forced to personally develop a new process of printing colored drawings, chromolithography, in order to be able to reproduce the building’s colors. 

Owen Jones, Plans, Sections, Elevations, and Details of the Alhambraa, “Detail of Mosaic in the Divan, Court of the Fish-pond,” 1841. (Flores, Jones)

This involved a process where he employed seven stones, one for each color.  Their flat surface had been smoothed onto which he then acid etched the pattern for each of the color, rolled the color ink on it, and then placed the paper on it, so each piece of paper took seven different rocks in order to get these colors.  Through such efforts, he established a reputation as an expert in color in Britain.  He also had distilled Islamic ornamental patterns into three rules that these typically conformed to: rectilinear order, diagonal order, and a curvilinear order. 

Owen Jones, The Grammar of Ornament, 1856. “Proposition Ten.” Jones recommended achieving harmony in a new ornamental system by “the propering balancing , and contrast of, the straight, the angular, and the curved.” (Flores, Jones)

Through these efforts Jones came to the attention of Henry Cole, a self-made designer who had risen through the ranks of Britain’s public service such that his abilities had caught the attention of Prince Albert, who employed Cole to manage his campaign of improving Britain’s industrial production that had culminated with the 1851 World’s Fair and its Crystal Palace, for which Cole had named Jones the “Superintendent of the Works” for the fair who was in charge of the color scheme for the interior of the Crystal Palace (as described in the previous section). 

10.13. OWEN JONES’ THE GRAMMAR OF ORNAMENT

The re-erected Crystal Palace, Sydenham Hill, S. London, 1852-4. The building was extensively enlarged, including raising the vault over the Central nave, and the addition of a barrel vault and cross transcepts to the Grand gallery. The tower at each end was added as a water tower to generate sufficient pressure to power Paxton’s fountains in the new gardens he designed. (Online)

Following the closing of the 1851 Fair, Parliament had required the Crystal Palace to be completely dismantled and its site in Hyde Park restored to its original pristine setting.  A group of private investors, working in concert with Albert and Cole, had purchased the building with the objective to re-erect its pieces at Sydenham Hill, some eight miles to the southeast.  Completed in 1854, the redesigned building hosted a myriad of functions, including a series of courtyards designed on historic architectural styles that would be part of Cole’s campaign to educate the public’s aesthetic tastes.  

Owen Jones, The Alhambra Court, Crystal Palace, Sydenham, 1854. Photo by Philip Delamotte. (Online)

Jones responded to the the building’s change in function from an exhibition hall to more of a green house, that required the elimination of the calico awning with the corresponding change in light from diffused to direct daylight, by changing the color of the columns to red with yellow and blue highlights as he no longer had to “paint” depth/shadow on the columns. Meanwhile, he kept the original palette for the rest of the horizontal structure above.

Owen Jones, Two different color palettes for the interior of the Crystal Palace, London. Left: 1854; Right: 1851. (Flores, Jones)

Meanwhile, the Fair was such a monetary success that its profit was used to start the South Kensington “project,” a series of schools and museums to foster British art and science.  Prince Albert saw to it that Cole was put in overall charge of the campus, including the South Kensington School of Design and Museum. Cole proposed that the Schools be programmed to train designers for Britain’s industries that up until then had been producing rather uninspired products that sometimes verged on pure ugliness.  He tasked his colleague Jones to write a textbook for its design students, thus The Grammar of Ornament had been conceived.

Jones first published The Grammar of Ornament in 1856. In it he argued for a style of architecture that reflected contemporary Great Britain, and against architecture that copied the forms of the past, be they Classical or Medieval, thereby directly challenging Pugin’s and Ruskin’s call to resurrect Gothic architecture as the solution to the problem of finding an appropriate style of architecture for nineteenth century Great Britain, for which he had laid out 37 propositions of good design that would influence a number of American architects of this period.  I have already discussed these in great detail in Sec. 4.10.  

In addition to comprising a complete encyclopedia of the world’s ornamental systems, Jones also restated, first published in his 1836-42 publication on the Alhambra, his system of how to design a modern (non-historical) ornamental pattern by employing the use of three geometric systems. The following year, 1857, he was awarded the Royal Institute of British Architects’ gold medal.

FURTHER READING:

Flores, Carol A. Hrvol. Owen Jones. New York: Rizzoli, 2006.

(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: thearchitectureprofessor@gmail.com)

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