Behold A Grammar of Japanese Ornament and Design: The 19th Century Book That Introduced Western Audiences to Japanese Art (1880)

In 1880, archi­tect Thomas W. Cut­ler endeav­ored to intro­duce his fel­low Brits to Japan­ese art and design, a sub­ject that remained nov­el for many West­ern­ers of the time, giv­en how recent­ly the Toku­gawa shogu­nate had “kept them­selves aloof from all for­eign inter­course, and their coun­try jeal­ous­ly closed against strangers.”

Hav­ing writ­ten pos­i­tive­ly of China’s influ­ence on Japan­ese artists, Cut­ler hoped that access to West­ern art would not prove a cor­rupt­ing fac­tor:

The fear that a bas­tard art of a very debased kind may arise in Japan, is not with­out foundation…The Euro­pean artist, who will study the dec­o­ra­tive art of Japan care­ful­ly and rev­er­ent­ly, will not be in any haste to dis­turb, still less to uproot, the thought and feel­ing from which it has sprung; it is per­haps the ripest and rich­est fruit of a tree cul­ti­vat­ed for many ages with the utmost solic­i­tude and skill, under con­di­tions of soci­ety pecu­liar­ly favor­able to its growth.

Hav­ing nev­er vis­it­ed Japan him­self, Cut­ler relied on pre­vi­ous­ly pub­lished works, as well as numer­ous friends who were able to fur­nish him with “reli­able infor­ma­tion upon many sub­jects,” giv­en their “long res­i­dence in the coun­try.”

Accord­ing­ly, expect a bit of bias in A Gram­mar of Japan­ese Orna­ment and Design (1880).

That said, Cut­ler emerges as a robust admir­er of Japan’s paint­ing, lac­quer­ware, ceram­ics, cal­lig­ra­phy, tex­tiles, met­al­work, enam­el­work and net­suke carv­ings, the lat­ter of which are “are often mar­velous in their humor, detail, and even dig­ni­ty.”

Only Japan’s wood­en archi­tec­ture, which he con­fi­dent­ly pooh poohed as lit­tle more than “artis­tic car­pen­try, dec­o­ra­tion, and gar­den­ing”, clev­er­ly designed to with­stand earth­quakes, get shown less respect.

Cutler’s ren­der­ings of Japan­ese design motifs, under­tak­en in his free time, are the last­ing lega­cy of his book, par­tic­u­lar­ly for those on the prowl for copy­right-free graph­ics.


Cut­ler observed that the “most char­ac­ter­is­tic” ele­ment of Japan­ese dec­o­ra­tion was its close ties to the nat­ur­al world, adding that unlike West­ern design­ers, a Japan­ese artist “would throw his design a lit­tle out of the cen­ter, and clev­er­ly bal­ance the com­po­si­tion by a but­ter­fly, a leaf, or even a spot of col­or.”

The below plant stud­ies are drawn from the work  of the great ukiyo‑e mas­ter Hoku­sai, a “man of the peo­ple” who ush­ered in a peri­od of “vital­i­ty and fresh­ness” in Japan­ese art.

A sam­pler of curved lines made with sin­gle brush strokes can be used to cre­ate clouds or the intri­cate scroll­work that inspired West­ern artists and design­ers of the Aes­thet­ic Move­ment.

While Cut­ler might not have thought much of Japan­ese archi­tec­ture, it’s worth not­ing that his book shows up in the foot­notes of Frank Lloyd Wright and Japan: The Role of Tra­di­tion­al Japan­ese Art and Archi­tec­ture in the Work of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Take a peek at some Japan­ese-inspired wall­pa­per of Cut­ler’s own design, then explore A Gram­mar of Japan­ese Orna­ment and Design by Thomas W. Cut­ler here.

Relat­ed Con­tent 

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

Down­load Clas­sic Japan­ese Wave and Rip­ple Designs: A Go-to Guide for Japan­ese Artists from 1903

Hun­dreds of Won­der­ful Japan­ese Fire­work Designs from the Ear­ly-1900s: Dig­i­tized and Free to Down­load

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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