The Grammar of Ornament

Picture : Jonathan Gawthorpe

The Grammar of Ornament – Book Review

We have lots of different pieces of original ornamentation in our house, fancy plasterwork, leaded glass, floor tiles, stonework, joinery and of course the occasional discovery of a fragment of wallpaper. All our plasterwork is white but originally it would have been painted.

Form Without Colour is like a body without a soul – Owen Jones

Home of Thea Mallett in Leeds. 25th August 2015. Picture : Jonathan Gawthorpe
Picture : Jonathan Gawthorpe courtesy of Yorkshire Post

As an Arts and Crafts house (built in 1880) our architects Chorley and Connon would have been very influenced by Owen Jones book The Grammar of Ornament. It is known that this book heavily influenced William Morris and continued to influence architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright. Owen Jones was an architect and designer, he was also 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.

The plasterwork in our house was produced by the Master Plasterer John Franks (who was normally known for working closely with the other great Victorian Architect of Leeds George Corson – Franks produced all the plasterwork at the Grand Theatre in Leeds.) He too was probably influenced by Jones.


The book has just been republished with a contemporary commentary alongside the original very Victorian text. The pattern designs laid out on beautiful colour plates are timeless and show how, despite being over 150 years old, the patterns look as fresh now.

The book is structured around a timeline of cultures and empires, starting with the Egyptians and working through to the mid 1800’s.  What we found amazing is that the freshness of both design and use of colour is such that many of the patterns look very modern and it’s impossible to just look at a pattern in isolation and judge either its age or geography.  I guess this shows the influence of these patterns through the ages and that they are still being referenced today.

We are going to use this book to inform and influence our design choices in the house. But also to help understand the pieces of original decoration we have found. When we stripped back the rooms we discovered the remains of stencilling on the walls. The stencils look Persian in design, where as the wallpaper is obviously influenced by the Far East. This shows that, just as now, people were willing to mix and match from different cultures and influences to decorate their homes.

Victorian Stencil
Victorian Stencil on the original lime plaster in the Drawing Room

stencilling victorian

victorian wallpaper

Original Wallpaper below the dado on the stairs

I was sent the book by the publisher* but since then it hasn’t left our living room, we keep referring to it and discussing ideas within it. Grab your copy from a bookshop or Amazon (here is a link to the book). It is available from March 2016 at rrp £24.99.

*This review is freely given and genuine – we received no payment other than a copy of the book.  The publisher did not request that we write a review.

the grammar of ornament

The principles in form and colour are very interesting. We particularly like

Proposition 4 – 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


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.