Owen Jones and the Grammar of Ornament

Owen Jones (1809 – 74) was a versatile architect and designer, and one of the most influential design theorists of the 19th century. In his search for a unique modern style, Jones looked to the Islamic world for inspiration.

Jones developed key principles for the newly-established Government School of Design, which later became the Royal College of Art. Jones' bold theories on the use of colour, geometry and abstraction formed the basis for his seminal publication, The Grammar of Ornament, a design sourcebook that is still in print 150 years later.

"Form without colour is like a body without a soul".

Owen Jones, 19th century
Dish of earthenware, decorated with a portrait of Owen Jones, made by Torquato Castellani, about 1883, Italy. Museum no. C.9-1995. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Early travel 1832 – 34

Owen Jones grew up in a world dominated by the austere 'whiteness' of Neoclassical architecture. He was aware however that recent discoveries suggested ancient Greek buildings were in fact originally coloured. The prospect of studying these examples of architectural polychromy (architecture decorated in a variety of colours) would have been irresistible to a young, ambitious architect such as Jones. He embarked on his Grand Tour – the coming-of-age trip for (mainly) young, upper-class men – at the age of 23, visiting Italy, Greece, Egypt and Turkey before arriving in Granada, in Spain to carry out studies of the Alhambra Palace that were to cement his reputation.

(Left to right) Tombs near Cairo, watercolours by Owen Jones, 1832 – 33, Egypt. Museum nos. SD.530 & SD.533. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
(Left to right) Architectural drawings of columns from the Temple of Ramses the Great [Karnak] and the Temple of Sedingar [Dongola], Owen Jones, about 1853, London. Museum no. SD.544:1. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Architectural drawings of columns from the Temple of Luxor and the Temple of Amun, Owen Jones, about 1853, London. Museum no. SD.544:3. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Alhambra Palace

Jones and the French architect Jules Goury were the first to study the Alhambra as a masterpiece of Islamic design. They spent six months meticulously studying the breath-taking decoration at the Alhambra Palace, producing hundreds of drawings and plaster casts. Goury sadly died of cholera during their stay, and Jones returned to London determined to publish the results of their studies.

Drawing of wall decoration from the Alhambra Palace, Owen Jones, about 1883, Granada, Spain. Museum no. 9156F. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Drawing of wall decoration from the Alhambra Palace, Owen Jones, about 1883, Granada, Spain. Museum no. 9156K. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Jones didn't consider the standard of printing at this time sophisticated enough to do justice to the intricate and brightly coloured decoration of the Alhambra Palace, and so spent time researching the then new technique of chromolithography – a method of producing multi-colour prints using chemicals. The resulting book, Plans, Elevations, Sections and Details of the Alhambra (1842 – 45), became one of the most influential publications on Islamic architecture of all time.

(Left to right) Details of the Alhambra Palace taken from drawings by Jules Goury & Owen Jones, 1833 – 37, from Plans, Elevations, Sections & Details of The Alhambra. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Designs for tiles and 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 and its "infinite possibilities for invention of design", 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.

Designs for tiles in Islamic style, Owen Jones, about 1840 – 50, Britain. Museum no. 8115:5. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Great Exhibition and 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, a vast structure of iron and glass. The Great Exhibition, the first ever international exhibition of its kind, was a magnificent display of manufactured products – from steam engines to myriad exotic goods from Britain and its empire and beyond. A temporary 'Crystal Palace' was built in Hyde Park to house the displays and Queen Victoria and Prince Albert presided over the grand opening ceremony. Jones' simple yet radical paint scheme for the interior utilised only the primary colours: blue, red and yellow. These were applied in carefully prescribed proportions in order to distinguish between the iron columns, creating depth and perspective within the building. The design generated much criticism and debate, yet Jones never lost confidence in his vision. The building eventually opened to great acclaim. Six million people – three times the population of London at that time – visited the colossal iron and glass palace.

Watercolour, 'Interior of the Crystal Palace', by William Simpson, about 1851, Britain. Museum no. 546-1897. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

When the building was removed to Sydenham in south London a year later, Jones, in his new role as Joint Director of Decoration of the Crystal Palace, designed the Egyptian, Greek, Roman and Alhambra Courts.

The Alhambra Court at Crystal Palace, south London, designed by Owen Jones, photograph by Philip Henry Delamotte, 1854, London. Museum no. 39315. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Government School of Design

Established in 1837, the Government School of Design was the first design school in Britain. Its aim was to raise the standard of British manufactures by improving design – the same spirit of reform underpinned the 1851 Great Exhibition, which included what were regarded 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 – one which championed notions of proportion, harmony, utility and fitness, and which encouraged a unified approach to design for both buildings and objects.

Christopher Dresser was Owen Jones's most famous disciple, and the most successful graduate from the School of Design. An expert in botany, he contributed plant studies to Jones's seminal design sourcebook. Jones firmly believed that the best principles in design were derived from forms found in nature. When Dresser himself became a lecturer at the School of Design he promoted plant structures as rich sources of inspiration. The diagrams below illustrate how Dresser reduced botanical drawings to their core structural elements. He hunted within these basic arrangements of stems, leaves and flowers to discover new models for design. This scientific deconstruction of form and structure was similar in spirit to Owen Jones's methodical study of Islamic decoration at the Alhambra.

Botanical lecture drawing, Christopher Dresser, 1854 – 56, England. Museum no. 3969. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Diagram to illustrate design lectures, by Christopher Dresser, 1854 – 56, Britain. Museum no. 3981. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Grammar of Ornament, 1856

19th-century Britain was dominated by historical revivals such as Neoclassicism 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, one which could be applied equally to wallpapers, textiles, furniture, metalwork and interiors.

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. He therefore decided to publish his ground-breaking design manual 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 V&A holds in its collection many of Owen Jones' original drawings for The Grammar of Ornament – explore a selection in our slideshow below.

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, and in his capacity as first director of the South Kensington Museum, 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 and Japanese Court, which showcased the museum's growing collection of objects from these countries.

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 revealed that much of the original decoration still remains intact beneath the whitewash.

Design for arcade decoration for V&A Oriental Courts: 'Alhambra' scheme, Owen Jones, 1863, England. Museum no. E.3608-1931. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Architectural projects

Such was the impact and influence of The Grammar of Ornament that it's easy to forget that Jones was, first and foremost, an architect. Sadly, many of his built projects have long since been demolished. They include St James's Hall – London's principle concert venue for almost 50 years, and two shopping emporiums: the Crystal Palace Bazaar and a showroom for Osler's, the glassware manufacturer. Their sumptuous interiors were breath-taking monuments to leisure and consumption.

Design for the interior of Osler's Gallery, Oxford Street, London, Owen Jones, about 1858 – 60. Museum no. P.29-1976. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
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(Detail) Original drawings for Moresque Grammar of Ornament, No. 5. Plate XLIII, Owen Jones, 1856, England. Museum no. 1616. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London