The book featured in Book Club this month was brought to our attention by one of our lovely clients, and though it’s not the usual type of book we tend to include on the list, it’s a real thing of beauty! The Grammar of Ornament by Owen Jones is a detailed depiction of the history of decorative design and ornament. From Greek to Turkish to the Renaissance, the book is full to the brim of beautiful, traditional designs, and an interesting history on each origin. The collection of ornament designs are absolutely stunning, in fact this book is even worth buying to pull out and frame the images. I’ve selected a few of my favourites from some of the different eras to show off just how lovely they are.
‘Greek Plate No.6’
This design comes from Greek and Etruscan (the name of civilisation in ancient Italy) vases. Something Owen Jones, the author of The Grammar of Ornament, notes about Greek decoration is that unlike some of its predecessors or companions at the time, its designs lacked meaning. Beautiful though they were, they weren’t representative or symbolic in any way, and were purely for decorative purposes. However, what is important to note is that there is an overwhelming amount of Greek ornament that still remains today, this indicates that at the time the style of Greek ornament would have been in popular demand and considered high on the taste scale. Jones comments that “the lands would have been overflowing with artists, whose hands and minds were so trained as to enable them to execute these beautiful ornaments with unerring truth”. Below the Greek plate shows off ornament from the Temples and Tombs in Greece and Sicily.
‘Greek Plate No.8’
Ornamentation from Pompeii takes its influence from its surrounding areas, from Greek to Roman styles, the design below is a rather fantastic geometric ornament, taken from Mosaics from Pompeii. The rich dark colours mixed with the almost neon bright tones creates a somewhat contemporary design.
‘Pompeian Plate No.3’
There is a certain vagueness that comes with the discussion of Byzantine ornament, it appears that historians are often unable to track down, or confirm authentic Byzantine pieces of design and therefore are unable to make a true, viable comment on the history of the ornament. Jones calls the Byzantine style “peculiar” but I think it’s rather wonderful, and the combination of various schools of design compile together to create a gorgeous style.
‘Byzantine Plate No.3’
Of course, if you’re talking about decorative ornament, you can hardly leave out Turkish designs. From mosques, tombs and fountains in Constantinople, or modern day Istanbul, these intricate designs are truly something special, perhaps because they take influence from other styles of ornament, as Jones says, “on the same building side by side with ornaments derived from Arabian and Persian floral ornaments, we find debased Roman and Renaissance details”.
‘Turkish Plate No.1’
The Alhambra is a palace located in Granada, Andalusia, Spain, and is home to some wonderful examples of Moresque ornament. As Jones tells the reader, “we find in the Alhambra the speaking art of the Egyptians, the natural grace and refinement of the Greeks, the geometrical combinations of the Romans, the Byzantines, and the Arabs”. It’s this wonderful collection of influences that creates such glorious patterns and designs. The example below shows a diaper ornament, which is a repetitive geometric surface, usually composed of lozenges or squares, which this pattern uses.
‘Moresque Plate No. 4’
‘Persian Plate No.1’
Above is Persian ornament taken from manuscripts that belong to the British Museum.
Jones describes medieval ornament as being in “perfect harmony” with the structural features of a building. Although little remains of medieval decorative interiors, the decoration of some manuscripts gives some indication as to what would have been the common and popular styles of the interiors. The design below shows off the conventional leaves and flowers from medieval style.
‘Medieval Plate No.1’
And finally, I thought I’d squeeze in a few more designs from the Renaissance and Italy. The Renaissance design comes from pottery ornamentation at the South Kensington Museum, which we now know as The V&A.
‘Renaissance Plate No.5’
The Italian plate is pilasters and ornament from none other than the Vatican, specifically from the loggia, which were corridors, open on one side to the outside and covered in frescos, such as the one below.
‘Italian Plate No.1’
Whether you want to learn about the history and stories of ornament, or just take a look at the glorious imagery The Grammar of Ornament is truly a fantastic book!