Discover The Grammar of Ornament, One of the Great Color Books & Design Masterpieces of the 19th Century

In the mid-17th cen­tu­ry, young Eng­lish­men of means began to mark their com­ing of age with a “Grand Tour” across the Con­ti­nent and even beyond. This allowed them to take in the ele­ments of their civ­i­liza­tion­al her­itage first-hand, espe­cial­ly the arti­facts of clas­si­cal antiq­ui­ty and the Renais­sance. After com­plet­ing his archi­tec­tur­al stud­ies, a Lon­don­er named Owen Jones embarked upon his own Grand Tour in 1832, rather late in the his­to­ry of the tra­di­tion, but ide­al tim­ing for the research that inspired the project that would become his lega­cy.

Accord­ing to the Vic­to­ria and Albert Muse­um, Jones vis­it­ed “Italy, Greece, Egypt and Turkey before arriv­ing in Grana­da, in Spain to car­ry out stud­ies of the Alham­bra Palace that were to cement his rep­u­ta­tion.”

He and French archi­tect Jules Goury, “the first to study the Alham­bra as a mas­ter­piece of Islam­ic design,” pro­duced “hun­dreds of draw­ings and plas­ter casts” of the his­tor­i­cal, cul­tur­al, and aes­thet­ic palimpsest of a build­ing com­plex. The fruit of their labors was the book Plans, Ele­va­tions, Sec­tions and Details of the Alham­bra, “one of the most influ­en­tial pub­li­ca­tions on Islam­ic archi­tec­ture of all time.”

Pub­lished in the 1840s, the book pushed the print­ing tech­nolo­gies of the day to their lim­its. In search of a way to do jus­tice to “the intri­cate and bright­ly col­ored dec­o­ra­tion of the Alham­bra Palace,” Jones had to put in more work research­ing “the then new tech­nique of chro­molith­o­g­ra­phy — a method of pro­duc­ing mul­ti-col­or prints using chem­i­cals.” In the fol­low­ing decade, he would make even more ambi­tious use of chro­molith­o­g­ra­phy — and draw from a much wider swath of world cul­ture — to cre­ate his print­ed mag­num opus, The Gram­mar of Orna­ment.

With this book, Jones “set out to reac­quaint his col­leagues with the under­ly­ing prin­ci­ples that made art beau­ti­ful,” write Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art cura­tor Femke Speel­berg and librar­i­an Robyn Flem­ing. “Instead of writ­ing an aca­d­e­m­ic trea­tise on the sub­ject, he chose to assem­ble a book of one hun­dred plates illus­trat­ing objects and pat­terns from around the world and across time, from which these prin­ci­ples could be dis­tilled.” To accom­plish this he drew on his own trav­el expe­ri­ences as well as resources clos­er at hand, includ­ing “the muse­o­log­i­cal and pri­vate col­lec­tions that were avail­able to him in Eng­land, and the objects that had been on dis­play dur­ing the Uni­ver­sal Exhi­bi­tions held in Lon­don in 1851 and 1855.”

The Gram­mar of Orna­ment was pub­lished in 1856, emerg­ing into a Britain “dom­i­nat­ed by his­tor­i­cal revivals such as Neo­clas­si­cism and the Goth­ic Revival,” says the V&A. “These design move­ments were rid­dled with reli­gious and social con­no­ta­tions. Instead, Owen Jones sought a mod­ern style with none of this cul­tur­al bag­gage. Set­ting out to iden­ti­fy the com­mon prin­ci­ples behind the best exam­ples of his­tor­i­cal orna­ment, he for­mu­lat­ed a design lan­guage that was suit­able for the mod­ern world, one which could be applied equal­ly to wall­pa­pers, tex­tiles, fur­ni­ture, met­al­work and inte­ri­ors.”

Indeed, the pat­terns so lav­ish­ly repro­duced in the book soon became trends in real-world design. They weren’t always employed with the intel­lec­tu­al under­stand­ing Jones sought to instill, but since The Gram­mar of Orna­ment has nev­er gone out of print (and can even be down­loaded free from the Inter­net Archive), his prin­ci­ples remain avail­able for all to learn — and his painstak­ing­ly artis­tic print­ing work remains avail­able for all to admire — even in the cor­ners of the world that lay beyond his imag­i­na­tion.

You can pur­chase a com­plete and unabridged col­or edi­tion of The Gram­mar of Orna­ment online.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Com­plex Geom­e­try of Islam­ic Art & Design: A Short Intro­duc­tion

Explore the Beau­ti­ful Pages of the 1902 Japan­ese Design Mag­a­zine Shin-Bijut­sukai: Euro­pean Mod­ernism Meets Tra­di­tion­al Japan­ese Design

A Beau­ti­ful 1897 Illus­trat­ed Book Shows How Flow­ers Become Art Nou­veau Designs

The Bauhaus Book­shelf: Down­load Orig­i­nal Bauhaus Books, Jour­nals, Man­i­festos & Ads That Still Inspire Design­ers World­wide

Every Page of Depero Futur­ista, the 1927 Futur­ist Mas­ter­piece of Graph­ic Design & Book­mak­ing, Is Now Online

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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