Monday, April 05, 2010

Owen Jones and Roman Ornament

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

The chapter dedicated to Roman Ornament in Owen Jones The Grammar of Ornament published in 1856, is purposely short both in text and illustrative plates. Compared to the corresponding chapter on Greek Ornament, which has eight plates to the Roman three, it would appear that Jones was trying to underline a point. He was in fact being purposeful in drawing out the inadequacies, as he saw them, between the cultures of Greece and Rome.

Jones, along with many other critics in mid-Victorian Britain, saw Rome as an all but pale imitation of Greece, in all aspects whether that be cultural, political or decorative. Jones takes no time at all in referring to Roman ornamentation as crude and full of woeful attempts at self-glorification and gratification.

Illustration: Fragment in white marble from the Mattei Palace, Rome from Examples of Ornamental Sculpture in Architecture by Lewis Vulliamy.

This is an interesting stand to take in Britain at the time. Britain was a nation that in many respects was beginning to see itself and its empire as the natural successor to that of Rome. Many imperialists saw a definite link between Britain the former colony and province of Rome, and Rome itself. Many believed that the baton of imperialism was being handed enthusiastically to the British by the old classical empire. However, it must be remembered that the French, German and Russian empires equally saw themselves as the rightful inheritors of Rome, with the United States taking a slightly different position in being handed the baton of continuity from Republican Rome. It could be said that there were so many batons being metaphorically handed out that it must have been confusing to know who was deemed the legitimate heir, if any, of the classical empire.

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

Jones was in no doubt as to the intellectual and cultural gulf between Greece and Rome. He must have been well aware of the jingoistic speeches of imperialists and their general kidnapping of past cultures in order to give their present course legitimacy. It would be interesting to wonder whether Jones references to the Roman bankruptcy of ideas and crude and blatant attempts at self-glorification, was purely scholarly on Jones part, or were perhaps, at least on some level, critical of some of the excessive analogies drawn by some of the more excitable imperialists and their supporters.

As far as Roman decoration itself is concerned, Jones spends most of the chapter dealing with the famous acanthus leaf and its widescale use in Roman ornament and decoration. He felt that Romans used the popular leaf as a means of disguising their crude attempts at 'improving' on Greek definitions of decoration. Of course, as far as Jones was concerned, all attempts failed miserably. However, he has given us a large full sized illustration of an acanthus leaf from nature. It appears very much like a large cabbage leaf, which could also be taken as a largely unsubtle slur at Rome's expense.

Illustration: Corinthian and Composite Capitals from The Architectural Antiquities of Rome by G L Taylor & Crecy, 1821.

Nothing of course is that simple and the differences and similarities between the cultures of Greece and Rome are much more complex than many mid-Victorians were willing to admit. To many scholarly critics Greece was to be identified with the intellectual pursuit of perfection, while Rome was to be seen as a crude, aggressive and profit motivated culture. Analogies could easily be drawn between the mid-Victorian hallowed and insular environment of university life and that of the free-market economy that was driving Britain towards economic and political domination.

Perhaps in the end Jones drew a conscious or unconscious analogy between the Roman and British Empire, with Rome handing down the legacy of a large cabbage leaf.

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

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