Owen Jones’ The Grammar of Ornament

Grammar of Ornament

Next was Owen Jones’ “Grammar of Ornament” first published in 1856.

Owen Jones was an Architect and Designer who strove to define a unique style for the 19th Century.  He was against copying previous eras and instead pushed for new styles which may have their roots in the past but had a contemporary twist.

Owen Jones

After studying for some time in Egypt, he then relocated to the Alhambra, a 14th century Palace in Granada, Spain, where he research the Islamic decoration found within the Moorish fortress.  He appreciated the flatness and abstractness of the traditional Islamic geometric shapes found in Ornament.

When he returned to England, he developed a list of “Propositions” for decorative arts which he finalised in The Grammar of Ornament.

Jones’ first proposal was that he believed Ornament’s purpose was to serve Architecture. Proposal 01:

“The Decorative Arts arise from, and should properly be attendant upon, Architecture.”

However Jones states later (pp 154) that:

“Ornament is most properly only an accessory to architecture…. it is in all cases the very soul of an architectural monument.”

So this shows that Jones believes ornament to be the very essence of the form.

In his fifth proposal, Jones states that he believes Decoration should go hand-in-hand with Construction.  However, it is clear that Jones is saying that an object (Construction) should not be overly decorated to the point where the object is overwhelmed or overtaken by its decoration.  Proposal 05:

“Construction should be decorated.  Decoration should never be purposely constructed.

That which is beautiful is true ; that which is true must be beautiful.”

Jones provides insight into what he believed was the composition of beauty.  He believed that for the “mind” to be satisfied by an Ornament, the eyes had to be satisfied by what they viewed, the brain had to be intrigued, and an emotional aspect present and connected to the viewer.  Proposition 04:

“True beauty results from that repose which the mind feels when the eye, the intellect, and the affections, are satisfied from the absence of any want.”

Leaves and Flowers from Nature, 1856

Leaves and Flowers from Nature, 1856

Leaves and Flowers from Nature, 1856

Leaves and Flowers from Nature, 1856

Jones’ Proposition 06 states:

“Beauty of form is produced by lines On general growing out one from the other in gradual undulations : there are no excrescences; nothing could be removed and leave the design equally good or better.”

This speaks to Jones’ admiration of Nature as it is how leaves and branches grow. I believe the inclusion of the Female Maori head in the chapter 01 “Ornament of Savage Tribes” is a good example of this principle (pp 14).

Jones believed that geometry was a fundamental starting point for the design of Ornament.  This is something that can be seen in the abstract Islamic art that was a focus of his research.   Proposition 08:

“All ornament should be based upon a geometrical construction.”

Jones discusses the use of curved lines within design at Proposition 11:

“In surface decoration all lines should flow out of a parent stem. Every ornament, however distant, should be traced to its branch and root.”

Here Jones is referring to the balance of the lines on leaves that flow out of a branch or leaf’s root.  Both Arabic and Greek Ornament which Jones had studied in detail display this form.  This also ties in with Proposition 06 above.

Leaves and Flowers from Nature, Arabian Design, 1856

Leaves and Flowers from Nature, Arabian Design, 1856

Leaves and Flowers from Nature, Greek Ornament, 1856

Leaves and Flowers from Nature, Greek Ornament, 1856

At Proposition 13 Jones states that:

“Flowers or other natural objects should not be used as ornaments, but conventional representations founded upon them sufficiently suggestive to convey the intended image to the mind, without destroying the unity of the object they are employed to decorate.”

Here it is believed that he is speaking out against directly copying Nature, but rather that Nature should be used as inspiration for a contemporary interpretation.  This may be in an abstracted form.

Jones’ work contains many more insights into the use of colour, and pattern.  Concerning the importance of colour he is quoted as saying:

“Form without colour is like a body without a soul.”

It provides a comprehensive look at worldwide cultures.  The common thread that appears to connect each art form is their relationship to nature and how it inspired their Art.


Of all the material I have researched so far this has been the most enjoyable.  At first I found Jones’ 37 Propositions to be possibly too clinical and precise to an extreme.  I view nature as organic, free-form and original, so the idea of producing “formulas” that could decode nature was not something I was quick to accept.

However, reading through Jones’ material and further research and discussions online it is clear that a lot of Jones’ observations are true.  And also are still very much applicable today.

A key point I found was the high regard that Jones had for nature, which I found myself admiring.

Jones also appears to speak out against mass-production, when he says that Art should be a personal task, not a combined one.

“When Art is manufactured by combined effort, not originated by individual effort, we fail to recognise those true instincts which constitute its greatest charm.”

I believe that Jones is speaking about the Craftsmanship involved in the process of making a piece of Art.  The use of the words “greatest charm” are also a high compliment and show the high regard he placed on bespoke Artwork.  Also at (pp 155) Jones states that mass manufacturing of ornament has

” deadened the creative instinct in artists’ minds.”

I believe this is a book that I will return to many times for ideas.

A complete list of Jones’ propositions can be seen here.

Full colour text of The Grammar of Ornament, as PDF, is available here.

Illustrations from The Grammar of Ornament at the V&A are here.


Jones, O., 1809-1874. “The Grammar of Ornament“, Quaritch, 1910