Owen Jones and the Alhambra

    Owen Jones (1809-1874) played a central role in the great aesthetic debates of the second half of the 19th century that were triggered by the uncertainties surrounding the advent of the Machine Age. Meanwhile, as we know, the Alhambra had a crucial impact on the artistic and architectural culture of that century, instigating two of the most fascinating processes of critical reflection in the visual arts world. One of these processes was represented by the cultural constructs, inspired by the Nasrid palaces, which found their way into the Romantic imagination and literature; the other stemmed from the analytical vision which the architects Owen Jones and Jules Goury brought to their studies of the Alhambra as a decorative model. 
    Jones and the French architect Goury met in Athens, where they examined in situ the use of colour in Greek architecture. From there they travelled to Granada, experiencing their life-altering encounter with the Alhambra in March 1834. As they embarked on their study of the Nasrid decorative repertoire, they could not have imagined the repercussions that their new approach to the Arab monument would have. Six months of feverish study and the production of hundreds of drawings, tracings and casts—tragically culminating in the death of Goury, a victim of the cholera epidemic raging in the city at the time—convinced Jones that the Alhambra contained a hidden paradigm, the model for the most perfect ornamental and chromatic system that had ever existed in all the historical styles that had gone before and from which, without falling into the trap of mere imitation, universal principles could be extracted that had practical applications for contemporary architects.
    Following his return to London and a second journey to Granada in 1837, Jones resumed his professional activities and, at the same time, set about writing a book to present his findings. The fruit of these efforts was Plans, Elevations, Sections and Details of the Alhambra, published in two volumes in 1842 and 1845. This seminal work not only opened up a new path in oriental studies but also turned the Alhambra into a key reference in the architectural debates of the 19th century.
    A few years later, in 1856, Jones took the next step: condensing his experience into a veritable treatise on decoration, The Grammar of Ornament, which attempted to summarise the scientific principles of ornamentation in a “stylistic grammar”. This book was widely read at schools of architecture and design throughout Europe and became a seminal text for several generations of architects and artists.
    The Patronato de la Alhambra y Generalife is delighted to dedicate this publication to the study of Owen Jones’s fascination with the Alhambra, where he developed the ambition that he would pursue throughout his lengthy career as an architect and decorator: to integrate the Islamic legacy with contemporary culture. This publication also aims to highlight the enormous influence that Jones’s work and theories had on his contemporaries in the field of architectural decoration and particularly in the field of design, where the “Alhambra-esque” style became one of the most popular orientalising historicisms of the 19th and early 20th centuries. 
    We are particularly grateful to Juan Calatrava, who has coordinated this publication and whose dedication to the study of the history of architecture is amply demonstrated here. We would also like to thank the authors for their insights into Jones’s different facets and the impact of his work and theories. Rémi Labrusse explores an increasingly evident reality—the unquestionable suggestive allure of the Orient; Mariam Rosser-Owen and Abraham Thomas analyse aspects such as the British architect’s passion for collecting objects related to the Alhambra and the influence of his work on other British designers of the 19th century.
    We hope that this publication will also draw attention to the great cultural legacy that this British architect helped to create as a vehicle for disseminating the cultural values enshrined in the old city-palace of the Nasrid kings.
    María del Mar Villafranca, general director of Patronato de la Alhambra y Generalife.

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