Friday, September 09, 2011

Floored by John Quincy Adams and his Quilt Designs

Earlier this year I visited the house in Massachusetts that was once lived in by the second President of the United States, John Adams and his son, the sixth President, John Quincy Adams.

I was interested to see the garden (described here) but having paid the entrance fee accepted the offer of a guided tour of the house. There is a separate library, built by the grandson, Charles Francis Adams. The tiled floor was interesting. It had a geometric design that look as though it was based upon Romanesque or gothic church floor designs. The floor looked was reminiscent of those I had seen in a Victorian churches and houses in England inspired by earlier gothic designs. As the tour guide described it had echoes of the medieval: he explained how there were deliberate deviations from strict repetition of the pattern, to highlight the fact that ‘only the work of God is perfect and the work of man is always imperfect’. This was straight out of a history textbook describing the working practices of monks illuminating manuscripts.

Where had the inspiration for this come from, I asked? I expected to be told that this was part of the American neo-gothic inspired first by figures such as Pugin in England. To my surprise I was told that the inspiration came from American quilt patterns. I had been told before (though hadn’t really bothered to investigate further) that what I was looking at was similar to many traditional quilt patterns. I don’t know much about the history of these quilt patterns, but it has occurred to me that just as with Islam, a protestant society that has iconoclastic instincts is going develops its artistic expression in geometric non-fugurative areas. So perhaps we have here another source inspiration for us in trying to reestablish geometric patterned art as part of the Catholic tradition. As with all these things, it should be done (with discernment - I wouldn't always retain the colour schemes used!) but there do seem to me to be possibilities here.

From the top: the Adams Stone Library, Massachusetts; the next four are quilt designs; and the final two are 19th-century, Pugin-designed tiles based on gothic floor patterns.

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