From Pattern to Theory

Jones’ Grammar of Ornament

In 1856, Owen Jones published The Grammar of Ornament, a spectacular and hybrid volume aimed at the student, architect, designer, and practitioner, which offered a collection of historical patterns illustrated by one hundred chromolithographic plates (Fig. 1). More than half of the plates featured non-Western styles, and most of them illustrate Islamic ornamentation (Fig. 2) Jones’ aim was to establish the principles common to all ornamental styles, regardless of historical or cultural differences, in order to open the path for the creation of a new style. He summarized his general grammar of formal composition in a list of thirty-seven “general principles in the arrangement of form and colour, in architecture and the decorative arts”. These principles, based on geometrical rules, own much to his study of the Alhambra, which he considered the Parthenon of Moorish art (Fig. 3). – AVB

Jones 1856: 5-8. Jespersen 2008. Varela Braga 2013. Labrusse 2011.

The Perfect Ornament

Jones considered Nasrid ornament to be the most perfect of all. He believed that the Alhambra “every ornament contains a grammar in itself”: Its ornamentation obeyed to all the rules of nature, while its composition and syntactic organization could be determined with mathematical precision. Anti-Naturalist, this ornament was grounded on geometry, key to its visual multiplicity, as Jones had well understood from his study of the muqarnas domes. Based on these observations, he defined ornamental art as an art of stylisation. Ornament must always be conventional. It must never engage in a direct copy of nature, but instead always follow “the laws which regulate the distribution of form in nature”. This is what is illustrated by the Grammar of Ornaments’ plates: flat, regular and geometrical patterns, ideally composed and ready for serial reproduction (Figs. 4-6). – AVB

Jones 1856: 66-70. Labrusse 2011. Varela Braga 2013.
Fig.1 (en)

Fig. 1. Title page from "The Grammar of Ornament" (Jones 1856).

Fig.2 (en)

Fig. 2. Arabian ornaments (Jones 1856, Pl. 31).

Fig.3 (en)

Fig. 3. Interlaced ornaments from the Alhambra (Jones 1856, Pl. 39).