Designing Antiquity: Owen Jones, Ancient Egypt and the Crystal Palace

September 20, 2012

The 19th century saw widespread education of the public in all manner of fields, not least architecture, history and art, and one of the most extraordinarily lavish attempts to present the past to the public was inside the reconstructed and enlarged Crystal Palace, which was moved to Penge Park, Sydenham (1852-54) after the Great Exhibition of 1851. In particular, the question of how colour was applied to exteriors and interiors was addressed in a series of permanent exhibitions in "courts", one of the most lavish of which was the Egyptian Court, designed by the architect, printer and designer Owen Jones and the sculptor and Egyptologist Joseph Bonomi.

From the 1830s until his death in 1874, Jones pioneered the study of ancient ornament (particularly colour) and its important role in historical art and architecture: his marvellous Grammar of Ornament, first published in 1856, went into several editions, and had a profound influence on taste. With the landscape-gardener and architect Sir Joseph Paxton, the contractors Sir Charles Fox and John Henderson, and Matthew Digby Wyatt, he was part of the team responsible for the realisation of the new Crystal Palace.

Stephanie Moser, professor of archaeology at the University of Southampton, has given us a splendid book, profusely illustrated, which focuses on the Egyptian Court (although other courts are illustrated and described as well): as she observes, the display prompted "a fundamental shift in the way Egyptian art was understood in the second half of the nineteenth century". It should be remembered that until the determined efforts (by the French, in particular) to record with accuracy Egyptian artefacts and buildings, ancient Egypt was imperfectly understood, not least because hieroglyphs could not be read until Jean-François Champollion published his pioneering work in 1821. So only just over half a century after Baron Dominique Vivant Denon published his Voyage dans la Basse et la Haute egypte pendant les campagnes du general Bonaparte in 1802, scholarly reconstructions of ancient Egyptian architecture for popular consumption were possible, although certain critics, notably Lady Elizabeth Eastlake in the Quarterly Review, who sniffily denounced a "gingerbread toy for the wonderment, not even the delight, of the vulgar" and sneered at "ridiculous...polychromy" for "investing Egypt and Nineveh in the gaudiest hues of Manchester cottons", clearly thought that such exhibits suggested fairgrounds, canal barges and circuses.

Indeed, the fact that strong colours were applied to the buildings of Egypt and Greece (not to mention medieval church interiors) could still shock, and many found it difficult to reconcile colour with "tasteful" art and architecture such as that of ancient Greece, which was still regarded in certain quarters, inaccurately, as pure, chaste and gleaming white.

The wealth of fascinating illustrations, the brilliant colours and the didactic intents of high-minded Victorians are all admirably demonstrated in this useful and handsome production. Jones, in particular, is well served in both text and plates. The book is intelligently put together and well written, but one could wish that greater care had been taken over names in the references and bibliography: some of these (hardly obscure names at that) are misspelled, and this creates an impression of lack of attention to detail that should not be apparent at all in a work of scholarship. To spell the last name of Antoine-Chrysostôme Quatremère de Quincy in the same way as the author of On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts (18) is but one example.

Nevertheless, this is an important and fascinating book, covering an aspect of culture not fully described elsewhere, and its author has succeeded in drawing together a great deal of valuable material, presented with clarity and understanding.

Designing Antiquity: Owen Jones, Ancient Egypt and the Crystal Palace

By Stephanie Moser. Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art/Yale University Press. 320pp, £40.00. ISBN 9780300187076. Published 18 September 2012

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