In the past we’ve been able to determine, or at the very least speculate about, the origins of some of the Mesker Brothers motifs including the fish panels, sea shells, and clusters of columns, largely because of the evidence for such inspiration left behind by Bernard Mesker. What follows is an origins story about a motif used by George L. Mesker & Co.
This popular ornament—consisting of rippling lines formed of ropes scrolled into volutes and enclosing fleurons—used on pilasters of galvanized sheet-metal facades, is identical to an ornament described as a Greek border and published in “The Practical Decorator and Ornamentist for the use of Architects, Practical Painters, Decorators, and Designers,” an 1892 publication by George Ashdown Audsley (1838-1925) and his son, Maurice Ashdown Audsley (1865-1958). George Audsley was an architect and a designer during the Victorian period, as well as a prolific author on secular and religious architecture, decoration, illuminated manuscripts, women’s apparel, Japanese art, color printing, ornament and craftsmanship.
It is interesting that the designs published in The Practical Decorator and Ornamentist were intended primarily for interior painting of flat surfaces. It is also ironic that Mesker employed one of Audsley’s designs, due to the latter’s Ruskinian views; he despised imitative architecture, of which Mesker mass-produced facades are an epitome.
Although it appears that George Mesker derived the “Greek border” either directly or indirectly from the Audsleys, who ostensibly developed it from ancient Greek ornaments, the motif has perhaps even earlier and documented incarnations.
The French author, artist, and scholar Achille-Constant-Théodore-Émile Prisse d’Avennes (1807–1879) is famed as one of the most influential Egyptologists. He first embarked on his explorations in 1836, documenting sites throughout the Nile Valley, often under his Egyptian pseudonym, Edris Effendi. Prisse’s first publication of notes and drawings was Les Monuments égyptiens, a modest collection of 51 plates, but one met with considerable acclaim and whose success encouraged Prisse to return to Egypt in the late 1850s to expand his work. His subsequent publications, L’Histoire de l’art égyptien and L’Art arabe, offer a truly complete survey of Egyptian art. The albums cover architecture, drawing, sculpture, painting and industrial or minor arts, with sections, plans, architectural details and surface decoration all documented with utmost sensitivity and accuracy. It is unknown to me, though perhaps not to a scholar of Victorian decoration, whether Prisse’s works had any influence on the Audsleys.
One of Prisse’s plates (#31), showcases ceiling patterns from the necropolis of Thebes, including variations of the “Mesker/Greek border,” which Prisse found in the hypogeum [underground tomb] of Imiseba, chief of temple archives and overseer of works of all the monuments of the Estate of Amun at Karnak. The tomb was first completed for Nebamum under pharaoh Hatshepsut, 18th Dynasty of Egypt, who ruled 1507–1458 BC. Imiseba died under Ramesses IX of the 20th Dynasty, who ruled 1129–1111 BC. While the tomb was updated for Imiseba, it is possible that the motif was a holdover from the original tomb’s decoration or that it was derived yet from other, royal tombs and which Imiseba wanted his tomb to imitate. Four our purposes, however, is a difference of a few hundred years BC really relevant?
Its unlikely Mesker knew of Prisse’s albums and likely impossible to determine if and how the Greek border of the Audsleys relates to Prisse’s ceiling pattern of a Theban tomb. But the mere idea that this ancient motif found its way onto commercial building fronts in the United States, is fascinating. At least to me. On the other hand, the pharaohs are likely turning in their graves—pun most definitely intended—at the thought of their sacred art being used to market cheap building fronts. We’ll never know the true origins of this motif and how exactly it found its way onto our Main Streets, but whether Egyptian or Greek, it’s all Mesker to me.