On ‘The Grammar of Ornament’

Lindsey Howald Patton —  January 11, 2012 — Leave a comment

The Grammar of Ornament is a book of patterns by Owen Jones; it was published in 1856 in London. In its pages nearly 100 illustrations represent decorative motifs used by cultures around the world. The original book also contained 37 principles of design plus essays preceding each chapter (with titles like “Roman Ornament” and “Medieval Ornament” and the unfortunate “Ornament of Savage Tribes,” which my 1987 edition has delicately changed to “Ornament from Oceania”).

Americans building new houses or redecorating old ones could flip through the book for inspiration and incorporation into their own homes. (“Oh, Mr. Fiedler, can we add this Greek motif—look here, this one, on page 12—to the woodwork in the guest bedroom? I think that will add just the right touch of classicism,” or so I imagine the conversations between the leisure classes and their designers went).

During the Gilded Age people were addicted to eclecticism, especially when it came to mixing designs evoking different cultures. So in the same way I would probably not want to put together an outfit that is blue-on-blue-on-blue, one also did not want to put together a room that was French-on-French-on-French. Too matchy-matchy, as my mother would say. William August Fiedler, who assisted in the interior design of the Nickerson Mansion, strongly advocated “the use of different styles in different rooms, to avoid the monotonous effect invariably produced…”(for the rest of his thoughts on that subject, taken from Artistic Furniture and House Decoration, see our History page).

Jones’s book made cultural styles, both exotic and classic, easily accessible to a popular audience. For research Jones scoured private collections of art and artifacts, spent plenty of time sketching in the British Museum, and did some traveling of his own (to Alhambra especially; all of his Moorish designs reportedly come from his own direct experience).  He left nothing out; textiles, wood carvings, sculptures, ceramics all contributed to the designs.

My copy of the book omits all of Jones’s essays and his propositions, but they can be found online (thanks to the University of Wisconsin’s Digital Library for the Decorative Art and Material Culture). The propositions are simply a number of (specific to the point of slightly fussy) principles dictating form and color. Proposition number eight, for example, says “all ornament should be based on geometrical construction.” Number one is that “the Decorative Arts arise from, and should properly be attendant upon, Architecture.” Propositions 14 through 34 have solely to do with color (“When ornaments in a colour are on a ground of contrasting colour, the ornament should be separated from the ground by an edging of lighter colour; as a red flower on a green ground should have an edging of lighter red.” Except when the ornament is gold, in which case you should edge it in a darker color).

These and the essays are fascinating to read, but the publishers of my wordless 1987 edition explain their choice: Jones, while “knowledgeable,” does espouse some ideas that have gone out of date. To modern eyes, some of these even come off as slightly offensive (though I doubt Jones was interpreted so back in the 19th century). Prime example from the Chinese Ornament chapter: “The Chinese are totally unimaginative, and all their works are accordingly wanting in the highest grace of art—the ideal.” He also calls the Oceanic works “rude” and compares them to the attempts of children (although at the same time calling them full of “grace,” so not disparaging what they create, just falling into a vernacular and set of beliefs about Oceanic cultures that were common at the time).

It’s a book worth keeping around. Not only because it’s an exciting treasure hunt to find an exact replica of Jones’s Plate XV from “Greek Ornament” on the parquet floor border in the Nickerson Dining Room, but because it’s like flipping through a museum. There’s something anthropological as well as artistic about it. Take the arrow-shaped brackets you see all throughout the Oceanic chapter. Every page shows half or full triangles arranged together in cross-weaves or rows, and until you had it all in one place you never realized just how quintessentially Pacific the triangle can be.


All images and quotations (excluding Fiedler quote, see link within text above) come from The Grammar of Ornament by Owen Jones. Original publication: Original publication: London: Day and Sons, 1856. My copy: Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1987.
Lindsey Howald Patton

Lindsey Howald Patton

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