The Grammar of Ornament by Owen Jones

Original cover design of Grammar of Ornament

Some time ago I happened upon a venerable 1865 edition of Owen Jones’ Grammar of Ornament in an antiquarian bookshop, and after a month or so of obsessing about it, I decided to buy it. It is pretty much intact, with some restoration work, and it had obviously been well used in its time. That’s how I like old books – I am no ‘collector’ , requiring them to be in mint condition before I will consider them – I like old things to have a history, to bear the marks of previous  places and owners – faded spines, annotations, watercolour splashes, smudged corners and personal inscriptions. I love its scent – that ‘old book’ smell of paper and printing ink with a hint of damp; I love its ponderous weight with its sumptuously edge-gilded block, its heavy purple covers with the unique gold-tooled design; I love its archaic typeface on soft creamy paper, and above all, I love the magnificently crafted chromo-litho plates. It is so redolent with design history, on so many levels, that it is almost sentient.

Owen Jones (1809 – 1874) was trained as an architect, and became one of the most influential authorities on design practice and training in nineteenth century Britain. He pioneered a new style of design publication, using the then state-of-the art technique of chromolithography to produce lavish full-colour printed plates at a workshop he set up himself. His first publication using this technique was Plans, Elevations, Sections and Details of the Alhambra in two volumes, 1841 and 1845, written in collaboration with architect Jules Goury. This was based on extensive studies he had made during his grand tour of Europe and the Middle East between 1831 and 1834, which also informed much of his theory propounded in Grammar of Ornament.

Plate XXXIV Arabian No 4, 1865 edition

The first edition of Grammar of Ornament was published in 1856, and it is from this edition that most of the facsimiles published today are taken. There are slight differences in colour between the first edition plates and the 1865 (second) edition that I have: for example where you see a pale aqua shade in the plate above, the 1856 version had a bright lapis blue.  What you don’t see in facsimiles are the lustrous bronze powders used for areas of gold and silver in the designs.

These books were extremely expensive when they were first produced, selling at over £50 at the time – a huge amount in 19th century terms. Owen Jones sold the books through the publisher Day and Son, Limited, as subscriptions, a common practice in the 19th century, where a purchaser could buy the book in sections, as they were produced, and have all the sections bound together upon completion. This helped to spread the cost of the book to the buyer, and also provided revenue for the workshop during production. One subscriber was the artist and designer William Morris, who was influenced by Owen Jones’ theories about colour and design.

Inking up a lithographic stone

The process of chromolithography was time-consuming and required an awesome degree of skill. Monochrome lithography is complicated enough, as I discovered from learning about it at the wonderful print studio in Byam Shaw School of Art (part of Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts).

The lithographic stone going through a fine old printing press

A large heavy slab of  limestone is carefully smoothed, and then an image is drawn on it using greasy inks or special crayon called ‘touche’. This is then coated with a solution of gum arabic and nitric acid to fix the image, which is then wiped off, before the stone is flooded with water and rolled with printing ink. The ink adheres to the previously drawn image, but not to the wet stone around the image. It can take hours to prepare one stone ready for printing – for a chromolithography plate, a separate stone was prepared for each colour, and the tricky bit was getting them all to register!

In the preface to Grammar of Ornament Owen Joned included the following acknowledgement to the master craftsman: “My special thanks are due to Mr. Bedford for the care and anxiety which he has evinced, quite regardless of all personal consideration, to render this work as perfect as the advanced state of chromolithography demanded; and I feel persuaded that his valuable services will be fully recognised by all in any way acquainted with the difficulties and uncertainties of this process.”

One of the most beautiful aspects of 19th century chromolithography is the dense quality of the pigments they used – they have a velvety richness that you do not get in modern printing methods. Below is a closer image of the page in the featured image. I hope it shows something of the luscious texture of the print and the fine detail, all perfectly registered; and let us marvel at the thought of just how many slabs of limestone needed to be prepared to make this plate (I counted at least seven different colours including the gold).

Plate LIV Indian No 6

For more information and images for Owen Jones and the Grammar of ornament, I have found two excellent resources; a publication: Owen Jones, design, ornament, architecture and theory in an age of transition by Carol A. Hrvol Flores, Rizzoli International Publications Inc. 2006, and a website: – “Illuminated Books: A free access digital library of illustrated and illuminated books.”