A higher ambition: Owen Jones (1809–74)

Owen Jones, 'Decoration for the Alhambra Court, South Kensington Museum', 1863. Museum no. E.3608-1931

Owen Jones, 'Decoration for the Alhambra Court, South Kensington Museum', 1863. Museum no. E.3608-1931

'Form without colour is like a body without a soul'

Owen Jones was a versatile architect and designer, and one of the most influential design theorists of the 19th century. Through his work at the 1851 Great Exhibition, he was also a key figure in the foundation of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Two hundred years after his birth, Jones's theories on flat patterning and ornament continue to resonate. In his search for a modern style, unique to the 19th century, he looked to the Islamic world for inspiration. The courageous new principles that he devised became the teaching frameworks for the Government School of Design.

These bold theories on the use of colour, geometry and abstraction formed the basis for Jones's seminal publication, 'The Grammar of Ornament', a design sourcebook that is still in print 150 years later.

Early travel 1832-4

Owen Jones grew up in a world dominated by the austere 'whiteness' of Neo-classical architecture. However, recent discoveries had suggested that ancient Greek buildings were originally coloured. The prospect of studying these examples of architectural 'polychromy' would have been irresistible to a young, ambitious architect such as Jones. He embarked on his Grand Tour at the age of 23, visiting Italy, Greece, Egypt and Turkey before arriving in Spain to carry out the studies of the Alhambra Palace that were to cement his reputation.

Owen Jones, 'Tomb near Cairo', 1833. Museum no. SD.532

Owen Jones, 'Tomb near Cairo', 1833. Museum no. SD.532

Owen Jones, 'Tomb near Cairo', 1833. Museum no. SD.533

Owen Jones, 'Tomb near Cairo', 1833. Museum no. SD.533

The Alhambra Palace

Jones and Goury continued their travels in Spain, hitching a ride from Istanbul on French military ships. Entranced by the beauty of Spanish Islamic design, they spent six months meticulous studying the Alhambra, producing hundreds of drawings and plaster casts. But tragically, Goury then died of cholera. Jones brought his body back home to France and returned to London determined to publish their work. The resulting book became one of the most influential publications on Islamic architecture of all time.

Charles Clifford, 'Court of the Lions, Alhambra Palace, Granada', about 1860. Museum no. 47:790

Charles Clifford, 'Court of the Lions, Alhambra Palace, Granada', about 1860. Museum no. 47:790

Charles Clifford, 'Court of the Lions, Alhambra Palace, Granada', about 1860. Museum no. 35:508

Charles Clifford, 'Court of the Lions, Alhambra Palace, Granada', about 1860. Museum no. 35:508

Designs for tiles & mosaics

The publication of Jones's Alhambra studies firmly established architectural polychromy as an issue for debate and discussion. Inspired by the tilework at the Alhambra, Jones became interested in contemporary developments in mosaics and tessellated pavements. His designs for tiles attracted the attention of key figures associated with Victorian design reform, including Prince Albert, and led to his involvement in the Great Exhibition of 1851.

The Great Exhibition & The Crystal Palaces

Jones finally introduced his colour theories to the wider public when he was asked to decorate the interior of the 1851 Great Exhibition building. His simple yet radical paint scheme utilised only the primary colours: blue, red and yellow. The design generated much criticism and debate, yet Jones never lost confidence in his vision. The building eventually opened to much great acclaim. Six million people - three times the population of London at that time - visited the colossal iron and glass palace.

The Government School of Design

The first School of Design was founded in 1837, with the aim of raising the standard of British manufactures by improving design. The same spirit of reform underpinned the 1851 Great Exhibition, which included what were seen as some of the world's finest manufactures. Owen Jones helped select objects from the Great Exhibition to be included in the School of Design's teaching collections. He then used these 'best examples' to develop key principles for the School's teaching programme.

The Grammar of Ornament, 1856

Owen Jones finessed his theories on decorative design through various articles and lectures. He had helped organise the School of Design's teaching collections but was aware that many designers had limited access to these objects and to his teaching. His Fine Arts Courts at the Sydenham Crystal Palace were intended as a source for architecture and design education for the wider public, but access was also restricted to those people who could physically visit them. He therefore decided to publish 'The Grammar of Ornament' as a summary of his design theories. It would act as a collection of the 'best' examples of ornament and decoration from other cultures and other periods.


The South Kensington Museum

The School of Design collections, collectively known as the Museum of Ornamental Art, were eventually moved to a site in South Kensington that had been bought through profits from the Great Exhibition. This museum later became the V&A. Henry Cole, another key figure in design reform, had helped Jones publish 'The Grammar of Ornament'. Cole was also the first director of the South Kensington Museum, and he asked Jones to design a series of galleries known as the 'Oriental Courts'. The Oriental Courts comprised of two galleries: an Indian Court and a Chinese & Japanese Court. These galleries showcased the museum's growing collection of objects from India, China and Japan. Christopher Dresser, one of Jones's most famous protégés, was an assistant on the project.

The Oriental Courts had closed to the public by the end of the 19th century and unfortunately Jones's designs were later painted over. The rooms were used as the kitchens for the V&A restaurant for many years. However, conservation work carried out in the 1980s has shown that much of the original decoration still remains intact beneath the whitewash.

Decorative design

19th-century Britain was dominated by historical revivals such as Neo-classicism and the Gothic Revival. These design movements were riddled with religious and social connotations. Instead, Owen Jones sought a modern style with none of this cultural baggage. Setting out to identify the common principles behind the best examples of historical ornament, he formulated a design language that was suitable for the modern world. He applied this equally to wallpapers, textiles, furniture, metalwork and interiors.

Architectural projects

Such were the impact and influence of 'The Grammar of Ornament' that is easy to forget that Jones was, first and foremost, an architect. Sadly, many of his built projects have long since been demolished. They included St James's Hall, London's principle concert venue for almost fifty years, and two shopping emporiums: the Crystal Palace Bazaar and a showroom for Osler's, the glassware manufacturer. Their sumptuous interiors were breathtaking monuments to leisure and consumption.

Experiments in printing

The Influence of Medieval Illumination

The Medal Cabinet Appeal

We urgently need your help to raise £534,000 to save this rare and remarkable medal cabinet from export. We only have until July 2014 to acquire it and ensure its place in the national collections.

Help us buy The Medal Cabinet

Shop online

V&A Pattern: Owen Jones

V&A Pattern: Owen Jones

Beautiful and practical, the booksare visual summaries of the most sumptuous parts of the V&A collections'Royal Academy MagazineThis attractive se…

Buy now

Event - The Islamic Mediterranean:1000-1500

Wed 30 April 2014 11:00

6 WEEK SHORT COURSE: Between 1000 and 1500 AD, the Mediterranean was encircled by Islamic states. Explore the wealth of artistic production and how it circulated across the Islamic Mediterranean.

Book online