In examining the use of Moorish design in the 1860's, Terry Reece Hackford points to Owen Jones' book The Grammar of Ornament (1856) as one "reason for the intensified interest" in styles from the East (Hackford). Jones' book, she notes, became "a crucial sourcebook of design motifs for craftsmen and commercial designers alike." Moorish design does in fact stand out in Jones' book as one that represents the best of design found in other cultures, for he argues, "We find in the Alhambra the speaking art of the Egyptians, the natural grace and refinement of the Greeks, the geometrical combinations of the Romans, the Byzantines, and the Arabs" (66). Moorish design lacks only, he asserts, symbolism (due to religious prohibition), which it then often makes up for with its inscriptions celebrating God, King, and the power of the buildings themselves (Jones 66).
Some of the designs Jones presents in his book appear quite straightforward. A square, with slanted lines jutting out at each of its corners encloses a circle, for example; this "proper balancing and contrast of the straight, the inclined and the curved" (Jones 68) is then repeated to form a simple but rich pattern. Other designs, such as those for arches, appear highly complex. Extensions from the inside curve of the arch use essentially the same straight, slanted and curved lines to form what looks like impossibly delicate icicles hanging both hanging from and creating the arch itself. Intricate swirls of gold vines dotted with red and white flowers form another highly intricate pattern within the decoration of the arch (Jones, "Moresque" plate No 2, design 2). These patterns, though infinitely variable, follow certain universal principles of beauty, present even in nature, according to Jones.
The common goal of Jones' principles for architecture seems to be that of producing harmony in a building's construction and decoration without superfluous elements. The "first principle of architecture is," he claims, "to decorate construction, never to construct decoration" (Jones 67). He further advocates gradual transitions between straight and curved lines, balance between straight, curved and slanted lines, and the presence of a "parent stem" or source from which the design radiates (Jones 67-69). Color, too, must conform to principles of balance and harmony. The Grammar of Ornament cites observations on the use of color, such as the importance of using an amount of red and yellow equal to the amount of blue, and importance of placing brighter shades in areas exposed to more light (Jones 72).
These principles guided Moorish design, Jones asserts, because they are rules one can find in nature; leaves display symmetry around a central stem and the differing colors of each part of the face help one distinguish its form (Jones 69, 71). Jones does not, however, advocate the type of strict adherence to faithful representation of natural objects that Ruskin proposed (or that Jones describes as a characteristic technique of the Victorian era). Instead he promotes a "conventional treatment" of nature," the use of natural principles abstracted into patterns (Jones 70). This recognition and abstraction of natural form may appear to be a highly scientific endeavor, but Jones links the Moorish use of such patterns to faith:
In all archaic styles of art, practised during periods of faith, the same true principles prevail; and although we find in all somewhat of a local or temporary character, we yet discern in all much that is eternal and immutable; the same grand ideas embodied in different forms, and expressed, so to speak, in a different language. [Jones 70]
Thus, Jones' admiration for Moorish design embraces also the universal quality of this style. Though markedly different than other design styles, Moorish design nonetheless embodies the principles at the core of beauty and architectural aesthetics.
One would expect that such high praise for Moorish design in a book as prominent as Jones' would promote a revival of Moorish style in Victorian buildings. Despite Jones' elevation of this style as an expression of faith, however, Moorish design more commonly held "pleasurable and often erotic associations" for the Victorian public in the 1850s and '60s and "this quality of association...limited the context within which an Eastern style was appropriate" (Hackford). The Crystal Palace from the 1851 Great Exhibition constituted a prominent example of Moorish architecture; this building, however, falls into the category of "exhibition architecture," rather than "Christian, civic, or commercial architecture," which may have made Moorish design seem more legitimate (Hackford).
Hackford points in particular to Ruskin and Pugin as thinkers who rejected Moorish design. One can see the differences between Jones and Ruskin's perceptions of Moorish architecture in Ruskin's The Seven Lamps of Architecture (as Paul L. Sawyer describes it). In this work, Ruskin looks toward architectural principles as "the actual expression of the some ultimate nerve or fibre of the mighty laws which govern the moral world" (Ruskin, as quoted by Sawyer). For Ruskin, then, moral principles underpin ideal architectural rules and practices. Similarly, Ruskin views the sacrifice of building a large structure as reflecting a desirable moral condition (Sawyer). Ruskin's focus on the moral elements of architecture would have clearly been in conflict with the perceived immorality of Moorish culture during this period; however, for scholars like Jones, Moorish design represents a glorification of those principles that make architecture an important expression of beauty and human creation.
The McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Art defines Moorish architecture as the Muslim architecture in Spain that developed in large part from the 8th century until 1492, during the Muslim occupation of that area. Several important examples of this style include the Alhambra in Granada and the Alcazar in Seville.
1. Do other types of design in the Victorian era use geometric forms in a similar way?
2. How does the renewed interest in Moorish design compare to revivals of other styles in the Victorian era, such as the Gothic revival?
3. How does the use of natural principles in Moorish design (as Jones describes it) compare to representations of nature in other design styles?
4. The interest in Moorish design and some thinkers' rejection of it obviously involves Western perceptions of the non-Western world at the time. Have other works we have studied this semester reflected Victorian attitudes toward other cultures?
Hackford, Terry Reece. "The Great Exhibition and Moorish Architecture and Design in Great Britain." www.victorianweb.org. Viewed 18 November 2004.
Jones, Owen. The Grammar of Ornament. London: Day & Son, Ltd, 1856
"Moorish Architecture (Spain)." McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Art 1969 ed., vol. 4
Nash, John. Views of the Royal Pavilion. London: Cross River Press, 1991.
Sawyer, Paul L. "The Meaning of Architecture." Ruskin's Poetic Argument: The Design of the Major Works. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1985. Pp. 84-89.
Last modified 21 November 2004