Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Books at Lunchtime: Thomas Ambler and the Alhambra

Books at Lunchtime: Plans, Elevations, Sections And Details Of The Alhambra: From Drawings Taken On The Spot In 1834, Tuesday 6th May 2014 (Andrew Morrison)

Thomas Ambler a Leeds-based architect was commissioned by John Barran in 1870's to design a new warehouse for his rapidly expanding and innovative mass-produced clothing company. The building was to be erected on a piece of land on Park Square, Leeds. His design for this new building, St. Paul’s House, was inspired by Hispano-Moorish architecture.

Ambler’s references for this design may well have come from a number of sources. Cuthbert Broderick’s Oriental and General Baths on Cookridge Street, Leeds which displayed a number of Near Eastern design elements, had recently opened in 1867. A more comprehensive resource, however, in Owen Jones’s work on the Alhambra in Granada, published around 20 years earlier, lay on the shelves of the Leeds Library - of which Ambler and Barran were both members.

In 1842 Jones had published his study of the Alhambra in Granada – the great Moorish fortress and series of palaces begun by 
Ibn al-Ahmar, the first Sultan of the Nasrid dynasty, in 1238. Jones and, a French architect, Jules Goury spent six months in the detailed and scientific recording of the buildings and decoration of the Alhambra before Goury died of Cholera. Armed with their notes and drawings Jones returned to London. He became committed to producing a printed work that matched the detail, colour and 
precision of both the buildings and their decoration. 

Representing the balance of colours that they had seen proved the hardest to achieve. Jones researched and developed an existing process known as Chromolithography to print the colour plates he needed. It took him nine years in total to complete his project.  The Alhambra publication launched Jones’s career. His scientific approach to decoration and design were in great demand from playing card manufacturers like La Rue and Lawrence and Cohen to the Government School of Design. In 1851, he was appointed Superintendent of Works for Great Exhibition at Chrystal Palace taking on responsibility for the arrangement and decoration of the building. In 1856 he published what is still today an important work of reference for designers -The Grammar of Ornament.

The Leeds Library held the only copy of Jones’s Alhambra in West Yorkshire and its copy of Grammar of Ornament was the most easily accessible for Ambler.  The scientific nature of Jones’s work may well have appealed to Barran and Ambler when planning the new building reflecting Barran’s approach to the manufacturing. In the true nature of the romanticism of Jones and his contemporary writers it would be apt to imagine Amber and Barran discussing the design of the new building within the Leeds Library poring over the pages of the Owen Jones’s labour of love.