Robert E. Harrist, Jr. Reading Jessica Rawson
Spread across the great oaken door of the Hall at Merton College, Oxford is a magnificent piece of mediaeval ironwork. The scrolling bands of metal suggest vegetal growth but represent no plant in the real world. Animated by subtle visual rhymes and unexpected asymmetries, the ornament transforms what otherwise would be the heavy, undifferentiated surface of the door into an unforgettable display of craftsmanship and imagination. As far as I know, Jessica Rawson has not written about the door, which opens into one of the grand spaces of the college she guided as Warden for sixteen years. But any visitor to Merton who has read her many books and articles will pause to study the door with care, for what her writings teach is how to pay attention, not only to ornamental designs, but to all manner of artefacts and their settings through which people – in ancient China and far beyond – have attempted to give meaning and order to the world.