The Grammar of Ornament – Inspiring a Taste for the Exotic

The Grammar of Ornament was a truly remarkable folio of designs, symbols and motifs from all sorts of amazing places. When London-born architect and designer of Welsh descent Owen Jones (1809 – 1868) produced his opus in 1856, it quickly became the best-known bible of visual culture for over half a century.

The ancient cities of Mesopotamia, Byzantium, Greece, Egypt, along with other exotic climes, became particularly alluring overnight through their art forms. It provided inspiration and motivation to designers and craftsmen in the new industrial age culture of Victorian Britain.

Owen Jones’s grand folio was illustrated with elements from the design styles he had encountered on his travels in Europe and the Middle East after completing his studies at the Royal Academy schools in 1832.  The route to publication was not easy, because the standard of colour printing available at that time was of poor quality.

Jones didn’t believe it would do his work justice and so he spent a decade first patiently researching, investigating and improving the colour print process before publishing his first labour of love.

View of AlhambraBased solely on his personal observations of the architecture and ornamental style of the ‘red fortress’, the amazing Alhambra palace and fortress complex at Granada in Southern Spain his Plans, Elevations Sections and Details of the Alhambra was produced in twelve parts from 1836-1845.

It established his reputation as a design theorist and pioneer of modern colour theory. He had observed that the harmony of classical ornament from ancient Greece and Rome, as well as that of pre and post Islamic decoration from the Middle East had been especially enhanced by the use of primary colours, with secondary and tertiary colours disposed in the background.

Appointed Superintendent of Works for Prince Albert’s Great Exhibition of 1851 Jones was able to put his theories about the use of colour as an important aspect of design to the test.

English gardener and architect Joseph Paxton (1803-1865 built his amazing and revolutionary Crystal Palace in Hyde Park at London.

It was to house 14,000 + trade exhibits from all over the world. It was prefabricated and at the time an amazing construction achievement, an astonishing illuminating palatial edifice made of plate glass and cast iron for the new age.

Owen Jones was given overall responsibility for everything that happened on its interior, including each exhibitor’s display of goods. Jones chose a simple palette of red, yellow and blue for the interior ironwork, testing his colour theories and a scheme that created much debate and negative publicity.

Prince Albert after inspecting his efforts however maintained his support, and Jones ploughed on despite the early criticism.

He was forced to defend his choice before the ‘Institute of British Architects’ on 16th December 1850 and was so convincing that they gave him the go ahead to proceed.

All the hoohah dissipated when Queen Victoria opened the exhibition to much critical acclaim. Jones had taken a great risk on the rare chance he had been given to put his theories on polychromy into practice.

Over six million people would bear witness to his ‘colourful’ and exotic vision, which was roughly three times the population of London at that time and so his impact would indeed be profound. Some people commented that Jones had used colour in a way that was similar to their favourite English artist the legendary Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), so all was well.

When Jones published his groundbreaking work about ‘exotic’ ornament five years later, he was able to cover all bases and reach out to a wide audience who knew who he was, inspiring creatives all over the world. In England they included architects George Aitchison (1825-1910) and Halsey Ricardo (1854-1928).

They would both put Owen Jones’s exotic themes and theories about colour and ornament into practice, albeit on a ‘grand’ domestic scale. They both had clients who were certainly not afraid of colour, or of stepping outside the conservative square.

George Aitchison was Leighton House’s first architect and from 1865 he built it from honest red English brick with a detailing of French Caen Stone in a restrained classical style. His client was of the best-loved artists of the 19th century.

Sir Frederick, 1st Baron Leighton was an English painter and sculptor who was regaled with honours and awards in his lifetime, as if they were going out of style.

He moved in elite circles in both his personal and professional life and, to his parent’s satisfaction at least, became ‘eminent in art’.

Queen Victoria bought his first painting in 1855 and within two decades he reached the high point of his profession when he became President of the Royal Academy of Arts.

Located on the edge of Holland Park, London Leighton House was extended and embellished over a period of 30 years until its grand owners death in 1896.

Alma-Tadema, Lawrence, 1836-1912; Professor George Aitchison (1825-1910), RA, RGM, PRIBA

Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912, Portrait of Professor George Aitchison (1825-1910), RA, RGM, PRIBA, courtesy The Royal Institute of British Architects

Its architect George Aitchison in many ways is still a shadowy figure, who is known to have designed for wealthy discerning clients.

President of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) between 1896 -1899, he is known for pioneering the use of iron in construction and for his work on just one house, that of his friend and client, artist Frederick, Lord Leighton (1830 – 1896) who was also well-known at the time for embracing the use of bold and brilliant colour.

Aitchison’s drawings in the Royal Institute of British Architects Library have been described as ‘amongst the most exquisite and colourful 19thcentury architectural drawings in existence.’

He became Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1881 and among his notable works is the hall of the Founders Company, the boardroom for the Thames Conservancy, and offices for the Royal Exchange Insurance Company.


Leighton House, The Arab Hall

The Arab Hall of 1877 is the incredible focal point and masterpiece of architecture at the centre of the house. It was meant to evoke the perceived splendours of the mysterious Orient.

It featured inlaid Egyptian style woodwork and Leighton’s amazing knock out connoisseur’s collection of over a thousand antique ceramic tiles. These he had brought back from Damascus in Syria, along with carved wooden latticework windows.

They were also complimented by the peacock blue tiles, which were laid in the passageway leading to the Arab Hall. These were designed and manufactured by William de Morgan (1839-1917) a local potter and designer, who was a friend of William Morris, the acclaimed designer and leader of the Arts and Crafts Movement.


William de Morgan, details of Tiles, Leighton House

William Morris (1834-1896) had wanted to return to living as the English did in his ‘romantic’ view of the medieval past. Morris surmised that life during that time had been a great deal simpler.

He especially admired that furniture and objects from the past were hand made right up until the latter years of the 18th century.

de Morgan produced tiles, furniture and stained glass for Morris & Co from 1863 – 1872.

However it is his glazed and beautifully designed tiles that have become indelibly associated with the lushness and luxury of the later ‘exotic’ style period of the Arts and Crafts.

William de Morgan, vase and cover

William De Morgan developed a groundbreaking technique to produce glazes for what we call lustre ware, whose reflective metallic surface was originally found in Hispano-Moresque pottery, as well as Italian majolica.

After 1875 he produced a ‘Persian’ palette; consisting of dark blue, turquoise, manganese purple, green, Indian red and a lemon yellow, which was borrowed from the fabulous ceramic wares produced in the town of Iznik in Western Anatolia during the 15th and 16th centuries.

All designs prior to 1520 in Iznik were blue, but after that and by 1540 they had layered in other colours, turquoise being the first, followed by purple, red, green, grey and black. At the same time the designs themselves also underwent a transition from being symmetrical to reflecting the rhythms and forms of nature.

Turkish potters created their own glazed pottery, inspired by the lucrative trade in Chinese porcelain through Turkey, which the ruling Ottomans had been fascinated with. Chinese glazes and designs had an enormous impact on the designs produced by the potters of Iznik, although like in other centres, they developed their own defining characteristics.

The first phase of Leighton House designed by Aitchison was inspired by the palace of La Zisa in Palermo, according to letters and notes by Leighton and Walter Crane, another artist, who together with his cohorts architect Richard Norman Shaw and designer William Lethaby set up the Art Workers’ Guild at London during the 1880’s.

Its member artists all contributed work to ‘the Firm’ as it became known and is still in operation today. Its aims were ‘to advance education in all the visual arts and crafts and to foster and maintain high standards of design and craftsmanship’.

Leighton House was a private palace to art that became a museum in 1900 after the death of its famous owner. It had been ‘the apartment of a virtuoso’, where the eye perpetually feasted upon beauty.

Halsey Ricardo in his architectural career alternated between classical and vernacular idioms that built gabled houses in brick, stone or stucco with wooden casement windows.

He was also a passionate follower of the Arts and Crafts style movement, which reflected a reaction to the horrors being perpetrated by that mighty force the Industrial revolution. As machines took over every aspect of what people used to do the prospect of life in the future looked very bleak indeed.

However Ricardo didn’t enjoy bleak prospects and there was one commission looming that would allow him to stretch his wings and truly fly.

William de Morgan TilesRicardo acquired a taste for works inspired by forms from other cultural traditions that showcased sensuous sinuous forms from nature. He was, as many others were, inspired by ‘Persian’ art and objects, which were actually produced during the 16th and 17th centuries in Turkey under the influence of the Ottoman Empire.

A number of houses incorporated his ‘exotic’ tiles and pottery produced in England during this period, including Wightwick Manor in Wolverhampton, Standen in East Grinstead and Blackwell at Windermere in the Lakes District.

Halsey Ricardo also produced his own range of ‘exotic’ eastern inspired designs for glazed tiles for the William de Morgan Workshop during the last decade of the 19th century when he entered into a partnership with William de Morgan.

The business struggled for years to achieve financial success and as de Morgan observed when it was near to closure ‘All my life I have been trying to make beautiful things, and now that I can make them nobody wants them.’

By the middle of the first decade of the 20th century everything in life was rapidly changing. The advent of the Edwardian era in England (1901 – 1910) had meant a great change in both society and style and its fashionable leaders were beginning to lean more towards classical, cleaner geometric forms.

When de Morgan’s factory closed in 1905 Halsey Ricardo took all the remaining stock of tiles, both plain and decorated, because he needed them to complete an extraordinary house he was building for Sir Ernest Debenham of Debenham and Freebody the Newcastle department store in Holland Park.

Completed in 1906 Debenham House is considered one of the zaniest, as well as perhaps one the finest arts and craft houses of the period, with its dash of neoclassical revival that has a heavy injection of the Byzantine style thrown in for good measure.

It is more generally known as Peacock House, because it has always been a place where the posh presided in palace like splendour.

Ricardo liked the ‘hard edged’ quality of impermeable materials and preferred smooth surfaces, to those that were moulded or carved. He had an innate sense of colour using those that contrast to achieve interesting effects and to assert his own statement of style.

Some of the finest ceramic tile panels the William De Morgan workshop ever created embellished its surfaces and today it still stands as it did then, in shocking contrast to the other surrounding stucco villas on the edge of Holland Park in West London.

The bottom half of the house is green reflecting the trees planned to surround it, the top half blue all the way to the top of its high chimney stacks dancing against the blue of the sky.

He wanted it to shine in London’s fog ridden wet climate of that time. It was set back from the street with a front formal garden, with the main entrance to one side.

A covered way lined with de Morgan’s tile ran parallel with the carriage drive.

It has become a legacy to all those Utopian artists, designers, guilds and groups of craftsmen, who in the last half of the twentieth century dared to invent Modernism and take the world back to the future.

When you arrive you step into a high domed very large architectural space, which reminds you instantly of the Haghia Sophia at Istanbul (Constantinople) the ancient Roman built cathedral that turned into a mosque and in the city where the Byzantine style had been born.

The interior has been since layered up by other designers and is lavishly decorated with all its glorious tiles mosaic walls and ceilings.

The tiles depict peacocks, eagles, Gaetano Meo added flowers, galleons and mythical beasts and mosaics later to a design. These include images of mythical and legendary figures and small portraits of the Debenham family.

Ricardo would not have been pleased. Tiles are also disposed in the huge kitchen located below stairs, although they are more restrained in their styling.

In an image of the blue tiled hall designed by Ricardo a cast iron hall stand by Christopher Dresser (1834-1904) and a chair by architect Charles Voysey (1857-1941) remind us of all those like-minded modernist protagonists who responded to Owen Jones and his theories of colour.

The first decade of the twentieth century had been an extraordinary period for domestic architecture development in England, which abruptly ended as World War I began.

As the sheer height of opulence Leighton House and ‘The Peacock House at Holland Park, London are both at the pinnacle of ‘exotic’ style.

Interestingly Halsey Ricardo was the architect called upon to add further gallery space to the Leighton House Museum, which he did in 1929.

After all he was most likely the last remaining practicing expert on the colourful ‘exotic’ style as inspired by Owen Jones’s Grammar of Ornament.

Both incredible houses are like giant ‘stage’ sets, which have been used a great deal for events and television and movie shoots in contemporary times.

They probably have more in common with the rich layering of textures inspired by Renaissance Italy that has been cleverly combined with the visual splendour of an Ottoman court to create something quite unique.

They certainly reflect their owners and architect’s ambitions, which were not really distracted by family life or the limitations of budget and remain as showy extravagant exotic and opulent statements of style.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2012-2013


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