Asian Textiles and the Grammar of Ornament
This exhibition mines the Museum’s permanent collection of Asian textiles from the perspective of the 19th-century British designer and educator, Owen Jones (1809–74), author of The Grammar of Ornament (London: 1856). On view are textiles whose patterns are paired with corresponding plates from his publication. His assessment of decorative “language” was compiled as a pattern book for all of the applied arts from architecture to textiles. His sources are the ornamental traditions from cultures across the globe, including India, Persia, Egypt, and China. Critical to his undertaking was London’s Great Exposition of 1851, the setting in which the technology and manufacturing processes of the Industrial Revolution were displayed for all to see. The huge state-of-the-art glass-and- iron Crystal Palace constructed in Hyde Park for the event was the architectural stage upon which nations from around the world—but most importantly, England—displayed their accomplishments. Among the great number of Western visitors to the show, a vast majority were viewing the applied arts of other cultures for the very first time.
The single most powerful influence on the applied arts during the 19th century was the reexamining of design education and practice. Reform therein was motivated by what some saw as the negative side of the Industrial Revolution. In challenge to the popular notion that new, fast, and cheap were the progressive ideals of a modern society, Jones and others started to rethink the effect this was having on design. The reform movement gave birth to the first teaching collection at The South Kensington Museum, London, founded in 1852 and now called The Victoria and Albert Museum. Setting a precedent, on several days of the week the South Kensington Museum offered free admission to the public, including those engaged in industrial trades such as ceramics, metalwork, and textile manufacturing.
Fittingly, Rhode Island School of Design (established 1877) was founded with a similar sentiment, as the original bylaws of the School state: that the “principles of art [be applied] to the requirements of trade and manufacture.” Many of the objects on display here are gifts from Miss Lucy Truman Aldrich, one of the Museum’s most prolific collectors, who traveled extensively through Asia and for whom this gallery is named. She and other benefactors of RISD, including its founders, have created a lasting testament to the School’s original and continuing mission to deliver innovative design education.