The Alhambra: its visitors and its influence

We recently added to our catalogue Escher & schatten uit de islam, a catalogue of an exhibition held a few years ago at the Escher in Het Paleis museum in The Hague. This demonstrates well the influence of Islamic art on M.C. Escher. He was undoubtedly inspired by two visits he made in 1922 and 1936 to the Alhambra, the palace complex built at Granada by Spain’s last Muslim rulers. The images below show detailed sketches he made during his trips. Escher was not the first person to be impressed by the wonders of the Alhambra; this post looks at some earlier travellers to the fortress and their related work.

The Alhambra palace buildings so admired today were constructed during the 14th century. After the Christian reconquest of Granada they became the royal residence of Ferdinand and Isabella but by the 18th century had been abandoned and were falling into disrepair. Several Spanish artists and architects were commissioned by the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando to record the state of the buildings in detailed plans and drawings which were then published in Antigüedades arabes de España in 1785 and 1804. This publication was celebrated in an exhibition held in 2015 – the catalogue, El legado de al-Ándalus: las antigüedades árabes en los dibujos de la Academia contains beautiful reproductions of the original drawings.

Recent view of the Alhambra by Slaunger via Wikimedia Commons

While Spain was not generally on the standard “Grand Tour” itinerary, the Alhambra was visited in the first half of the 19th century by several key figures whose works we hold in our Special Collections. The first of these is James Cavanah Murphy, an Irish architect who spent several years in southern Spain studying Moorish architecture. His Arabian antiquities of Spain was published posthumously in 1815. Richard Ford, the travel writer, who himself gave a comprehensive description of the Alhambra in his 1845 Handbook for travellers in Spain, was most dismissive of Murphy’s work, describing it as a bad copy of Antigüedades arabes and stating that it was “a mere book-making job, and it is difficult to believe that Murphy was even ever on the spot.”

Title page and details from Murphy’s Arabian antiquities of Spain

The American writer, Washington Irving, was influential in making the Alhambra better known to the wider public when his The Alhambra (written under the name Geoffrey Crayon) was published in 1832. He had spent several months in 1829 living in the fortress, soaking up its atmosphere. The work was translated into Spanish and both versions were bestsellers for the rest of the century.

One page of details from Girault de Prangey’s Souvenirs

During the 1830s more interest was shown in detailed study and analysis of the buildings. In 1832 and 1833, Girault de Prangey (a later pioneer of daguerreotype photography) visited – the plans and drawings he made were reproduced using the relatively new medium of lithography in his 1837 Souvenirs de Grenade et de l’Alhambra. We also have a facsimile of this work from 1996 with English translation of his text.

Another visitor to the Alhambra at around the same time was the painter, John Frederick Lewis. He was less interested in detail but painted many views with figures which were published, again using lithography, in his Sketches and drawings of the Alhambra: made during a residence in Granada, in the years 1833-4. The picture below is typical.

Also visiting the Alhambra in 1834 was Owen Jones, an architect who is now not really as well-known as he should be. Jones had met another young architect, Jules Goury, in Greece, and they had already been to Cairo to study Islamic architecture before arriving in Spain. They stayed at the Alhambra for six months but sadly Jules Goury died of cholera there. Jones’s thorough investigations culminated in his monumental large-format work Plans, elevations, sections, and details of the Alhambra. It was difficult for printing methods of the time to do justice to the complexities of the colours and decoration so Jones committed to printing the work himself, exploring the very new chromolithography and raising his profile hugely through this endeavour. Richard Ford again, writing in his Handbook for travellers in Spain shortly after the completion of Jones’s publication, declared that “the scrupulous architectural and artistical accuracy is rivalled by the gorgeous execution. This new style of printing in gold and colours on stone, this ‘Lithochrysography and Lithocromatography’, although the names are formidable, seems invented to do justice to the Alhambra.” You can see what Ford meant in the images below:

Seeing the elaborate tilework in the Alhambra inspired Jones to design mosaics and tessellated pavements for firms such as Maw & Co. and Minton. His 1842 book Designs for mosaic and tessellated pavements, from which one page is shown below, would presumably have acted as a useful promotional tool.

Owen Jones was appointed one of the Superintendents of Works for the construction of the Crystal Palace to house the 1851 Great Exhibition and was in fact responsible for the interior decoration. When the Crystal Palace was subsequently moved from Hyde Park to Sydenham it was reworked and featured a history of fine art depicted by a number of courts including the Alhambra Court. This was described by Jones himself in one of several guides to the new installations: The Alhambra court in the Crystal Palace (also available in a modern facsimile).

The idea for the South Kensington Museum (first incarnation of the Victoria & Albert Museum) grew out of the Great Exhibition, and Owen Jones was closely linked with this and the associated schools of design. Indeed, his most influential work, The grammar of ornament in which he put forward his theories of design, was intended to be a handbook for students at the schools of design. The material was organised chronologically within geographical and national schools and included a chapter entitled “Moresque ornament from the Alhambra”, clearly showing the lasting impression of his earlier visit to the Alhambra. The grammar of ornament continues to be an important work in the field of design as evidenced by the number of 21st century copies the library holds including an ebook available online. To find out more about Owen Jones and his associates I would recommend The Islamic perspective, catalogue of an exhibition held at Leighton House in the 1980s and written by Michael Darby whose Ph.D. thesis was devoted to the work of Owen Jones.

Katharine Dicks

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