In The Grammar of Ornament (1856), his highly influential sourcebook that defined decoration as a universal human impulse, the architect Owen Jones had nothing kind to say about Chinese art and ornament. This diatribe catches the present-day reader slightly off-guard, coming as it does after a series of surprisingly cosmopolitan claims: claims that Moorish ornamentation achieved a level of perfection that Christian artisans would only begin to approximate centuries later; that Mexican decoration leaves a viewer “astonished” by its “high state” of execution; that in all of Indian art, “we find nothing that has been added without purpose, nor that could be removed without disadvantage.” When Jones reaches China, however, he immediately lapses into a cultural chauvinism born from ignorance, making claims that the millennia of civilizations in the region have been “totally unimaginative”, “wholly devoid of either architectural design or ornament”, and that the Chinese ceramics tradition is surpassed by “the rude water-bottles of porous clay which the untutored Arabian potter fashions daily on the banks of the Nile, assisted only by the instincts of his gentle race.”
What then led Jones to write an entire book on Chinese ornament a decade later? Well, it turns out he was wrong, and he admits as much . . . in a way. “I was led, from my then knowledge, to express the opinion that the Chinese had not the power of dealing with conventional ornamental form: but it now appears that there has been a period in which a School of Art existed in China of a very important kind.” He describes how the Second Opium War and Taiping Rebellion — waged between the publication of his two books — led to “the destruction and sacking of many public buildings” and a sudden influx of “truly magnificent works” to private collections in Europe and to the holdings of the National Collection at South Kensington (now the V&A). Spoils, in other words: such as the estimated million objects looted by British and French troops during October 1860 from the Yuanmingyuan palace complex that was subsequently razed in Beijing. Despite his reversal in taste, Jones’ first loves remain palpable in Examples of Chinese Ornament. During a grand tour of Europe and North Africa in his youth, he developed his interest in geometry and polychrome patterning while gazing up, awestruck, at the Alhambra in Andalusia, Spain. Finding a similar level of complexity in Chinese ornament, he suspects that the entire tradition derives from a “foreign origin”: “There is of course, in all these works, something essentially Chinese in the mode of rendering the idea, but the original idea is evidently Mohammedan.”
Below you can browse a selection of chromolithograph patterns from Jones’ book of examples. The plates are reproductions of ornamentation found on painted vases, cloisonné enamel incense burners, lacquer boxes, and many more objects. Unfortunately, the descriptions given by Jones are far from scholarly: he provided no means of linking a pattern back to its museum holding; made no attempt to date or locate where the object came from; and to an almost comical degree, he found the need to note, again and again, how these Chinese designs seem derivative of Persian and Indian motifs. Kate Hill has helped fill in some of the blanks here. The chromolithographs feature patterns from falangcai vessels with Daoguang marks, Qianlong-era vases, and Yongzheng bowls. Instead of offering a comprehensive view of Chinese ornament, Jones seems to have suppressed decorative schemes and flattened designs that did not fit with the principles outlined in his earlier Grammar.
Despite these shortcomings, Examples of Chinese Ornament continues to prove of interest for its depth of captured color, ornamental complexity, and influence on European chinoiserie. In her 2001 artwork Identity — a porcelain vase that purposefully resembles Chinese ceramics made for export to Europe — Hong Kong–born artist Sin-ying Ho reproduced patterns compiled by Jones. “Each motif is several times removed from its origin”, writes Alex Burchmore, “blurring authenticity and fabrication while resisting identification with a ‘pure’ cultural essence.” Perhaps this is the best way to view the plates below: designs that must be viewed through the eyes of an English architect, marveling at the foreign influence he sees in possibly looted treasures, trying to imagine what China might be.
Nov 21, 2012