Racinet's Le Costume Historique and L'ornement polychrome

It is most important for us to know what are the publications which are giving zest and new ideas to the designers in all branches of Art and in all parts of the world.

The Fryer Library holds two beautifully illustrated works by Augustus Racinet, Le costume historique1 and  L'ornement polychrome2, both of which were published  in Paris by Librairie de Firmin-Didot Freres between 1873 and 1888. Born in Paris, Auguste Racinet, (1825-1893), an artist of considerable merit is highly acclaimed as one of the leading art and costume historians of the period.

Detail from Racinet's Le Costume Historique

In an article written by Herbert Batsford, well-known bookseller and publisher, in 1897 for The Library, he elaborated on the importance of Decoration and Ornament and the role of  libraries purchasing such material for their readers:

Perhaps at some other time you may like to hear my views on making additions to the collection I have here set before you. One thing must be remembered, that new works are continually being issued, particularly on the Continent, and in view of the great industrial competition now existing it is most important for us to know what are the publications which are giving zest and new ideas to the designers in all branches of Art and in all parts of the world.3

Le costume historique demands special mention and praise:

I will here mention the extraordinary glossary of Historic Costume, by M. Racinet. Its six volumes contain 500 plates, more than half of which are printed in colours, illustrating not only the costume but house interiors, furniture, armour, and jewellery of all nations, and throughout all ages, so that it really forms a work of wider extent than it is implied by its title. It is a most fascinating book to look over, and to show the careful manner in which it is has been compiled.4

Batsford  also discusses the importance of both Owen Jones' Grammar of Ornament5 and Racinet's L'ornement polychrome. He writes:

In a prominent position I must place that beautiful and invaluable book, Owen Jones' Grammar of Ornamentwhich, first published in its original large folio form in 1856, served for more than a generation to enlighten our decorators and manufacturers in the principles and adaptability of Design and Colour, and it is now difficult to imagine how they and hosts of others managed before the epoch-marking Grammar of Ornament6

Frontispiece detail from Owen Jones'
The Grammar of Ornament

He refers to the impact of chromolithography on other publications on Historic Ornament following Jones' monumental work:

.... extraordinarily as that publication was for its time, so much has since been learnt concerning Historic Ornament .... and such improvements made in the art of chromolithography that I think it indispensable the two magnificent volumes by M. Racinet, issued under the title of  L'ornement polychrome should be added to the library7

Detail from Racinet's L'ornement polychrome

The ceaseless plethora of images of Decoration and Ornament, now instantly available online, would have been overwhelming for Herbert Batsford as a publisher and bookseller of these exquisite publications in the late 19th century.

He could be forgiven for thinking if he was with us today:

The more things change, the more things remain the same.

Fryer Library welcomes researchers, academics, students of the history of costume, architecture, design and drama, and the community at large to view these exquisite publications in the Fryer Library's FW Robinson Reading Room.

1. Racinet, A. Le costume historique. Paris:Firmin-Didot et cie, 1888

2. Racinet, A, L'ornement polychromeParis:Librairie de Firmin-Didot Freres, 1873-1888

3. Batsford, H. Some Suggestions on the Formation of a Small Library of Reference Books on Ornament and the Decorative ArtsThe Library, 1(1), 1897, p.269

4. ibid,p.254

5. Jones, Owen. Grammar of ornament. London: Day, 1865

6. Batsford,op cit. p.253

7. ibid


Last updated:
24 January 2017