Friday, February 26, 2010

Owen Jones and Mexican Ornament

Illustration: Mexican Ornament from Owen Jones The Grammar of Ornament, 1856.

Perhaps one of the seemingly oddest incorporations in Owen Jones The Grammar of Ornament published in 1856 was that of Mexican ornament. Interestingly, but perhaps puzzlingly, Jones placed his illustrations towards what he called Mexican ornament within the chapter dealing with Greek ornament. It seems as if Jones had little or no real concrete information regarding Mexican decorative effects and techniques and had trouble finding a fitting place in his book for the subject. That he felt the need to include any information at all on the subject is credit to Jones.

The illustrations which only take up one black and white page in Jones The Grammar of Ornament, where all other decorative cultural work was produced in glorious and luxurious colour, was derived from illustrations seen on various ceramic works found at the British Museum. Jones placed this page within the chapter dealing with Greek ornamentation because he felt that there were certain similarities between the patternwork of the two cultures. 

This in no way implies that Jones at any time dealt with the possibility that Mexican or Greek cultures were ever in contact with each other. Theories such as this and many more that were even less conceivable were rife throughout the Victorian era and were indeed still being put forward as viable explanations well into the twentieth century. Jones found it interesting that different cultures could arrive at some similar forms of decoration and ornamentation. That he thought it was either purely coincidence or perhaps even part of a more basic human understanding of the rules of pattern and decoration, was the position that Jones took towards the origins of most of the forms of decoration that he came across around the planet, admittedly mostly seen within the confines of London museums.

It would appear that Jones would have been keen to have explored and expanded a section on Mexican ornament, even though at the time there was some confusion in Europe as to what was actually meant by Mexican. Work was still very much in progress towards the disentangling of all the numerous peoples, history and empires of Central America. Jones would have been aware of the American explorer John Stephens and the British illustrator Frederick Catherwood and the books published in the early 1840s concerning their explorations in Mexico. Why Jones did not include and incorporate some of the illustrations and elements of these books is unclear. It may well have been a simple matter of copyright, or the fact that there was clearly so little information available in which Jones felt that he could place any critical trust. Perhaps Jones felt he was on potentially unsure ground concerning a culture, and indeed more a patchwork of cultures, that Europe at the time still knew little if anything of substance concerning this area of the planet and the history of its decoration and ornament.

Whatever the reason, by including at least an element concerning the decorative and ornamental history of Central America, Jones was placing an emphasis, however small, on an area of the world that was to eventually significantly expand the vocabulary of human decorative arts.


The Dreamstress said...

What a fabulous post! And it ties in so nicely which all of the posts I have been doing on the Greek Key design!

John hopper said...

Thanks very much for your comment, and I see what you mean by Greek key pattern. What great blogs you have. I shall definitely be following both The Dreamstress and Threads of History!

pansypoo said...

wonder how he'd feel about more recent tonalas or oaxacan patterns.

John hopper said...

Exactly. It would be interesting to see how Jones would have reacted and interpreted the cultures that have been rediscovered since The Grammar of Ornament was published.