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An ornamental education

The Grammar of Ornament
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Rupert Bickersteth reviews a glossy new edition of a classic Victorian design book

The Grammar of Ornament by Owen Jones has been treated to a glossy new hardback edition by Ivy Press for 2016. The seminal Victorian book has been in continuous print since it was first published in 1856. Featuring more than 2,350 colour engravings in a range of ornamental styles, from Ancient Egypt and Greece to Imperial China and Elizabethan England, it served as a huge inspiration to designers from William Morris to Frank Lloyd Wright.

As Jones explained in his original preface, the book was his attempt to ‘aid in arresting that unfortunate tendency of our time to be content with copying the forms peculiar to any bygone age without attempting to ascertain the circumstances which rendered an ornament beautiful and, thus transplanted, entirely fails’.

There is an earnest tone in his preface that hopes to regiment the use of ornament and maintain accurate appropriation of given ‘peculiar forms’. Conversely the compiling of a compendium of, mostly Eastern, ornament arguably acts to facilitate a picking and choosing of different designs. As you leaf through the richly illustrated pages, the relationship of styles and cultures and the possibility of new conjunctions and creative interpretations jumps out at you. 

Jones himself was aware of this risk. ‘It is more than probable that the sending forth to the world this collection will be seriously to increase this dangerous tendency,’ he wrote, ’and that many will be content to borrow from the past those forms of beauty which have already not been used up ad nauseum.’

But it’s not fair to assess The Grammar of Ornament as only a castigation of Victorian designers and architects who were misappropriating cultural ornamental details. The work also served, in the mid-19th century, to educate those who simply would not have known the full declension of Greek frets and Italian arabesques, having been in no position to travel and see them in the flesh.

The work also served to educate those who  would not have known the full declension of Greek frets and Italian arabesques

On some level even today, the book is invaluable reading for those seeking an initial visual education in the form and colour of architecture and the decorative arts. Jones’s lofty intentions are transparent to a modern audience – ‘we should regard as our inheritance all the successful labours of the past … employing them simply as guides to find the true path.’ What, then, will this current age leave as a successful labour for future generations to employ, if not lifeless copies of former glories?

So Jones must be taken with a pinch of salt and understood in his time and the political context of colonisation and the Middle East. For example, talking about the Turks at the beginning of the Turkish Ornament chapter, he writes: ‘When the art of one people [Arabian] is adopted by another [Turkish] having the same religion, but differing in natural character and instincts, we should expect to find a deficiency in all those qualities in which the borrowing people are inferior to their predecessors’. And he goes on to criticise the Turks for commissioning the arts from others, rather than designing, creating and producing such art themselves. According to Jones, this resulted in an undesirably ‘mixed style’. Thankfully it is not all scorn for the Turkish artistic legacy and the author concedes that ‘perfect ornamentation’ is found in Turkish carpets.

The one sentiment in his preface that has exercised this reviewer afresh is the notion that ‘to attempt to build theories of art, or to form a style, independently of the past, would be an act of supreme folly’. While instantly suspicious of the superlative language, it’s interesting to ask whether we can know anything of current art theory and practice without some understanding of what has come before?

The Grammar of Ornament

The Grammar of Ornament

The Grammar of Ornament is published by Ivy Press. RRP: £24.99


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