Friday, November 27, 2009

Owen Jones and the Ornament of Nineveh and Persia

Illustration: Nineveh and Persian Ornament, from Owen Jones The Grammar of Ornament, (1856).

In his 1856 book entitled The Grammar of Ornament, Owen Jones produced a chapter on the ornamentation of the ancient Assyrians and Persians. The fact that he placed this particular design style at chapter three, sandwiched between that of Egyptian decoration and Greek, says much about where Jones saw these two particular cultures in the grand history of decoration.

Jones made the assumption that Assyrian art and design work was somewhere between a copy and a degeneration of the Egyptian original. The fact that it didn't occur to him that the two styles were independent and bore no real relationship to each other, can be partly explained by an examination of the early days of Victorian archaeology. Information was not as profuse as it is today and it is perhaps understandable that wrong assumptions were drawn in the nineteenth century, as no doubt future generations will be understanding as to our own assumptions and conclusions concerning the ancient history of the Middle East. There was also a certain biblical prejudice against the Assyrians in particular that as Christians the Victorians would have possessed as part of their own cultural makeup. This would have perhaps been reflected within their overall view of Assyria, even if unconsciously.

Illustration: Nineveh and Persian Ornament, from Owen Jones The Grammar of Ornament, (1856).

Jones in some respects purposely sandwiched Assyrian decoration between what he saw, and many of his fellow Victorians fervently believed, as the innovative and individual cultures of Egypt and Greece, both of which produced their own styles of decoration and ornamentation. Placing the derivative style of the Assyrians between the two was perhaps an opportunity to give us a lesson in creativity versus the uninventive. The fact that Jones was fundamentally wrong does not negate the interesting, but unproven chapter listing.

Interestingly Jones also tied ancient Persian decoration and ornament to that of the Assyrians, even though the cultures were separated by time, region and tradition. Because there were certain similarities in decorative motifs and colour does not necessarily tie them to the same cultural root, even though there was some reuse of decorative work between the cultures. Later on in the book, Jones gives Islamic Persian decoration a much higher profile.

Illustration: Nineveh and Persian Ornament, from Owen Jones The Grammar of Ornament, (1856).

The fact that Jones assumed that the Assyrian, and through association Persian, decorative styles were borrowed rather than indigenous and owed nothing to the dynamism of the Assyrian and Persian cultures that we recognise today, is disappointing. In so many other chapters of his book Jones shows a confidence in his belief in the indigenous genesis of many of the cultural styles he highlights, even where there was little or no evidence to prove his point.

To be fair this belief in certain cultures being pale imitations or degenerate offspring of other worthier cultures was rife in the Victorian world and was often seen as a standard and irrefutable truth. Admittedly there are some today who still have the same beliefs, but we are perhaps much more aware today, or should be, that every culture on the planet has a uniqueness and a legitimacy all of its own and while cross-fertilization of cultures is a rich part of the complex patchwork history of humanity, it is only a part of the story and no culture can or should claim domination of identity over another.


pansypoo said...

i want tis book. all his books.

John hopper said...

If you ever get this book, make sure that you get a good hardback version, not the cheaply made paperbacks and softbacks, they are not worth it.

Anonymous said...

Nice Work of Art

Nando said...

As an artist in ornament and decoration this is great thank you.

John hopper said...

Thanks for your comments. There is a whole range of articles on The Textile Blog concerning Jones 'Grammar of Ornament'and there will be more coming in the next few weeks.