Owen Jones and the Ornament of Nineveh and Persia

11/29/2009 9:19:00 PM
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 and their misreading and misunderstanding of the often complex relationship of the many different ancient cultures that made up the Middle East at that period. There was also a certain biblical prejudice against the Assyrians that as Christians the Victorians would have possessed as part of their own cultural makeup.

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 totally wrong does not negate the interesting, but unproven chapter listing.

Nineveh and Persian Ornament from Owen Jones The Grammar of Ornament (1856)

Interestingly Jones also ties 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.

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 culture that we recognise today, is disappointing as 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.

Nineveh and Persian Ornament from Owen Jones The Grammar of Ornament (1856)

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 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 claim domination of identity over another.


Owen Jones:- The Grammar of Ornament (1856)