The Grammar of Ornament

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Title Page of The Grammar of Ornament, Owen Jones and Day and Son, 1856

One of the most common motifs in British Orientalist art is the depiction of the interior. Soaring domes, complex lattices, and colorful mosaics are often found in nineteenth-century painting.[1] Similarly, British decoration and interior design began to appropriate aspects of Islamic architecture. Artists and fashionable members of society alike began to collect and display Islamic decorative arts in their homes.[2] By appropriating these oriental objects, artists could adopt some of the allure of the East. This allure enhanced their ability to present themselves as both enigmatic members of Bohemia and fashionable Victorian gentlemen.

In the 1830’s, the architect and designer Owen Jones (1809-1874) traveled in Egypt, Turkey, and Spain. During his journeys, he developed an appreciation for Islamic art and polychromy. He was especially taken by the Alhambra in Spain and created the most comprehensive publication on the building to date, which included hand-colored engravings and block prints. In 1851, Jones was given the opportunity to apply the theories on color that he developed in his travels when he was appointed a superintendent of the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace. After the Crystal Palace was moved to Kent in 1854, Jones remained in charge of its decoration and oversaw the design of the Greek, Egyptian, Roman, and Alhambra courts.[3]

International exhibitions such at the one at the Crystal Palace made it abundantly clear that compared to other cultures, England did not have a cohesive cultural style. In 1856, Jones attempted to remedy this with his seminal work The Grammar of Ornament.[4]  Nineteen of the twenty chapters draw on different cultures, and the final chapter on nature itself. Over half the cultures Jones focuses on in this text are associated with the abstract “Orient,” including Moresque, Arabian, and Persian ornament.  In The Grammar of the Ornament, he admires the way “the Moors ever regarded what we hold to be the first principle in architecture—to decorate construction, never to construct decoration.”[5] This mentality is reflected in works like the Arab Hall, where decoration and architecture are seamlessly knit together. Jones systematically studied formal qualities of art and decoration instead of focusing on the cultures themselves. In doing this, his approach differed from that of the Orientalists who were interested in the exotic implications of foreign design.

Jones’s motivation to draw on non-Western cultures in his work may have been influenced by his upbringing. His father was a wealthy Welshman who actively worked to preserve the Welsh language in a time when the British were trying to suppress it. Jones’s mentor, Lewis Vulliamy (1791-1871), was among the first British architects to visit the Middle East. Jones, like many others of his time, believed that British architecture and design suffered because it had lost touch with religion. To him, the answer was a synthesis of industrial culture, organic forms, and foreign design.[6] The Grammar of Ornament became a required text for the Government School of Design, encouraging architects and designers to put Jones’s theories to practice.

[1] Nicholas Tromans, ed., The Lure of the East (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), 127.

[2] Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, s.v. “Exoticism in Decorative Arts,” By Sarah J. Oshinsky, October 2004 (accessed November 16 2016).

[3] Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, s.v. “Jones, Owen,” by Leslie Hoskins (accessed November 16 2016).

[4] Stacey Sloboda, “‘The Grammar of Ornament’: Cosmopolitanism and Reform in British Design,” Journal of Design 21, no. 3 (autumn 2008): 223.

[5] Owen Jones, The Grammar of Ornament (London: Day and Son, 1856) 67.

[6] Sloboda, “‘The Grammar of Ornament,’” 225.

The Grammar of Ornament