Owen Jones – The Grammar of Ornament

Owen Jones (15 February 1809 – 19 April 1874) was an English-born Welsh architect. A versatile architect and designer, he was also one of the most influential design theorists of the nineteenth century. He helped pioneer modern colour theory, and his theories on flat patterning and ornament still resonate with contemporary designers today.

He rose to prominence with his studies of Islamic decoration at the Alhambra, and the associated publication of his drawings, which pioneered new standards in chromolithography. Jones was a pivotal figure in the formation of the South Kensington Museum (later to become the Victoria and Albert Museum) through his close association with Henry Cole, the museum’s first director, and another key figure in 19th century design reform. Jones was also responsible for the interior decoration and layout of exhibits for the Great Exhibition building of 1851, and for its later incarnation at Sydenham. Jones advised on the foundation collections for the South Kensington museum, and formulated decorative arts principles which became teaching frameworks for the Government School of Design, then at Marlborough House. These design propositions also formed the basis for his seminal publication, The Grammar of Ornament, the global and historical design sourcebook for which Jones is perhaps best known today.

Jones believed in the search for a modern style unique to the nineteenth century, radically different from the prevailing aesthetics of Neo-Classicism and the Gothic Revival. He looked towards the Islamic world for much of this inspiration, using his studies of Islamic decoration at the Alhambra to develop theories on flat patterning, geometry and abstraction in ornament.

Printing Plans, Elevations, Sections and Details of the Alhambra had been a significant financial strain for Jones, but the publication had gained Jones a huge profile due to its pioneering standards of chromolithography. After, and possibly during, the long gestation period for Alhambra, Jones used his printing press to enter the lucrative market for illustrated and illuminated gift books which were becoming increasingly popular with the Victorian middle class.

Jones designed both secular and religious books (collaborating most notably with the publishers Day & Son and Longman & Co.) and developed innovative new binding techniques using materials such as embossed leather, papier-mâché and terracotta – all in an attempt to do justice to the luxurious contents, much of which could trace its aesthetic lineage back to sumptuous medieval illuminated manuscripts and religious bindings. Apart from these books, Jones’s most significant (and most widely consumed) printing output was through his long-standing relationship with the firm of De La Rue. From the mid-1840s until the end of his life, some 30 years later, Jones designed a wide variety of products for De La Rue including playing cards, menus, biscuit-tin wrappers, postage stamps, chessboards, endpapers, scrap albums and diaries.

Through his articles and lectures, Jones had been formulating what he considered to be key principles for the decorative arts, and indeed these principles provided the new educational framework for the Government School of Design at Marlborough House. Jones expanded his propositions to create 37 “general principles in the arrangement of form and colour in architecture and the decorative arts” which became the preface to the 20 chapters of The Grammar of Ornament.

The first 19 chapters of the Grammar present key examples of ornament from a number of sources which were diverse both historically and geographically – examining the Middle East in the chapters on Arabian, Turkish, Moresque (Alhambra) and Persian ornament. The final chapter, titled ‘Leaves and Flowers from Nature’ acknowledges the underlying principle that dictates the design of ornament around the world, which is the form found in nature: “in the best periods of art, all ornament was based upon an observation of the principles which regulate the arrangement of form in nature” and that “true art consists of idealising, and not copying, the forms of nature”.

Christopher Dresser, Jones’s best known protégé, contributed one of the plates in this final chapter, and he was concurrently presenting theories on natural-form ornament in his famous botanical lectures at the Government School of Design in the mid-1850s. This last chapter raises some critics about the inability to produce new ornamental design since repetition is a common factor among nature, and Jones describes this as “going back to nature like the ancients did” but his own response to this issue evolves around the fact that nature has a great variety of line and form, and is based in geometry which gives an enormous amount of freedom to the designer to follow and idealize the form of nature as a basic element while creating something that society has never seen before.

Jones gathered together all these samples of ornament as ‘best’ examples of decoration in an attempt to encourage designers to follow his lead in examining the underlying principles contained within the broad history of ornament and polychromy. The Grammar was influential in design schools in the latter half of the nineteenth century, and is still in print today.

Jones was able to disseminate his theories on pattern and ornament through his work for several of the key manufacturers of the period, thus facilitating public consumption of his decorative visions in a number of diverse contexts. During the 1840s, having been inspired by the tilework at the Alhambra, Jones became known for his designs for mosaics and tessellated pavements, working for firms such as Maw & Co., Blashfield and Minton.

He designed wallpapers for several firms from the 1840s until the 1870s including Townsend and Parker, Trumble & Sons and Jeffrey & Co. Jones was also prolific in the field of textiles – designing silks for Warner, Sillett & Ramm and carpets for Brinton and James Templeton & Co. Jones also immersed himself in a number of decorative schemes for domestic interiors, most notably working in collaboration with the London firm Jackson & Graham to produce furniture and other fittings.

Digitized version of the Grammar of Ornament (in German)