Spotlight on the collection: Grammar of Ornament

This stunningly illustrated book is The grammar of ornament, by Welsh-born architect and designer Owen Jones (1809-1874). It is one of several books published by Jones during his lifetime, and is the best known of his works.

Dating from 1865, this second edition contains a total of 112 full colour plates. The book is divided into twenty chapters, and illustrates ornamental designs from a variety of cultures and historical periods. The illustrations are drawn from architecture, textiles, rare books, stained glass, metal- and wood-work, tiles, paintings, wall paintings; some, such as the Moorish designs, were originally sketched by Jones in situ, others were copied from examples in various museums, including the British Museum and the Louvre, or from examples shown at the Great Exhibition in 1851, with which Jones was intimately involved.

The colour plates were produced using chromo- (colour) lithography. Lithography involves the drawing of an image onto a limestone block with a greasy substance. For chromolithography, one stone is prepared for each colour; an image consisting of five colours will be printed using five stones. Water is applied to the block, and adheres to the portions not covered with grease. Next, the stone is covered with an oil based ink, which adheres to the greasy portions but is repelled by the water. A print is then taken. The paper must be lined up exactly each time a different colour is printed, or the design will not reproduce clearly.

Up to eight colours were used for some plates in The grammar. Blocks prepared for the first edition, published in 1856, could not be reused for this later edition; the first was issued as a folio-sized edition, whereas the second was issued as a smaller quarto-sized edition. The lithographers therefore had to prepare new blocks for every plate, in addition to preparing blocks for new illustrations, as the second edition was expanded to include examples of Chinese ornament, amongst others.

The grammar of ornament has been translated into various languages, and has been fairly consistently in print since the first edition, with new editions continuing to be published today. It remains important as a sourcebook of ornamental design, as well as an example of chromolithographic printing at its best.

Last updated:
18 January 2017