Introduction: diversity and invention

Owen Jones (1808–74), an artist of Welsh descent, was ‘one of the most influential, prolific, and well-known designers of the mid-nineteenth century’ who ‘made a major contribution to the development of design theory’ and had a huge impact on the appearance of ‘consumer goods’. So writes Lesley Hoskins in her assessment of his work (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography). Resistant to categorization and a natural polymath, Jones’s activities extended across architecture and architectural design, fabrics, furniture, tiles, wall-paper and metalwork; engaged in the organization of the Great Exhibition, he was subsequently involved in the development of schools of design and related projects. He also designed books, creating ornamental papers and borders through the pioneering application or chromolithography, as well as producing some of the most distinctive bindings of the first half of Victoria’s reign. There is no monograph dealing purely with his book-art; some aspects of these works are considered here.

Ball and King have listed his covers and each has provided a bibliography: Ball identifies 34 titles (pp. 151–55) and King 14 (pp. 25–9). The disparity in the numbers immediately identifies one of the problems of dealing with Jones’s bindings: their lack of a monogram. Unlike his near-contemporaries Albert Henry Warren (with whom he collaborated), or Robert Dudley, Jones only signed one of his works, for Gray’s Elegy (1846). With a few exceptions most of his bindings have to be attributed stylistically, although some are named in contemporary advertisements and reviews.

Identification of Jones’s authorship can usually be made, as Ball remarks, on the basis of his practice of designing the book as a whole (p.151). Where he illuminated or embellished the pages, it is usually the case that he created the binding as well, a development prefiguring the procedures of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Aubrey Beardsley. Yet Jones’s elaborate liveries are remarkably disparate and (unlike the work of Rossetti and Beardsley) it is not always the case that the binding projects the visual or written content of the books’ interiors. The covers themselves are figured in diverse styles and made of materials as different as cloth and leather, wood and papier mâché, chromolithographed glazed boards and brocaded silk. Intended for elite markets and for a wider general public, his bindings are heterogenous creations, eclectically shifting between Orientalism, Gothic, the visual conventions of Renaissance art, naturalism, and a sort of super-refined Classicism.

This ranging across styles closely reflects the designer’s practice in other fields, pursuing a restless experimentation which he embodied in his Ornament of Design (1856). A proponent of what some critic have called the ‘promiscuity’ of early Victorian design, Jones borrowed freely from whatever source he deemed the most interesting – if not necessarily the most appropriate – to create his books’ exteriors. His emphasis on variety was important, an attitude shared by contemporaries; as Simon Jervis remarks:

Richness … became a goal in itself. Standards of execution and elaboration of detail reached a pitch [by the middle of the century] which put the most refined and luxurious products of the eighteenth century to shame [p.9].

This approach can be traced in a number of key bindings. They are best understood firstly by reading them in their cultural contexts and then by exploring their styles.

Bindings for elite publications: culture and commodity

Active from 1841 to 1867, Jones published a series of high quality publications which were sold at unusually high prices. Foremost among these were The Preacher (1849), The Book of Common Prayer (1845), The Sermon on the Mount (1844), Paradise and the Peri (1860) and what is widely considered to be his masterwork The Psalms of David, known as The Victoria Psalter in recognition of its dedication to the Queen (1861).

Each of these combines chromolithographic designs with elaborate bindings. The Preacher (1849) is an intricate Gothic device, apparently carved in wood. Others, described as ‘relievo’, were similarly embossed, producing a bas-relief, sculptural surface in leather. The Song of Songs(1849) is complicated design impressed on a variety of leathers, and the same technique is applied to The Victoria Psalter (1861) and Gray’s Elegy (1846).

Three bindings by Owen Jones. Left: The Victoria Psalter. 1861-62. Middle: The Preacher. 1849. Heat-stamped and chromolithographed wood Right: . [Click on images to enlarge them.]

These were essentially album books, to be looked at rather than read; the emphasis is entirely on visual impact and Jones’s intention was to present them as ornaments rather than literary texts. His choice of styles and materials asserts the notion of preciousness, of value through association, and his publications were carefully calculated to cater for and express the social aspirations of the upper-end of a wealthy bourgeois market.

This approach was achieved through cultural reference, linking the tastes of the new middle-classes with those of the aristocracy and gentry. The use of leather is especially resonant, linking Jones’s books to the luxurious liveries found in the collections of the upper-classes; the Gothic embossing implies that the books are incunabula or treasures from time immemorial. Using various styles, Jones makes his books appear to be the products of wealth, privilege, and, most of all, tradition, creating an explicit connection between bourgeois readers in a suburban parlour and those perusing their ancestors’ volumes as they sat in the great old houses of England. Indeed, by giving his middle-classes what are apparently the types of possessions owned by their putative betters, Jones and all of those working in the same medium are purveyors of self-improvement, empowering the aspirational to express their wealth, education and new-found status. Though presented as a sort of moral crusade to improve taste among the masses, Jones was essentially selling an idea, endowing the purchasers of the forties and fifties with the cultural capital they were looking for. This practice rhymed with the acquisition of other (seemingly) fine objects: paintings (which mimicked the effects of the Old Masters); silverware and furniture (based on eighteenth century prototypes); faux Turkish carpets; and Parian ornaments (in imitation of Greek statuary).

Like these objects, Jones’s books imitated the styles of the past as signs of good taste while also pretending to be fine artefacts made out of expensive materials under the hand of a craftsman. In reality, of course, they were almost entirely produced by industrial techniques; for example, The Preacher’s binding looks like it is hand-carved in the manner of some imagined tome from a generic past, but was made out of a soft wood and stamped using a brass die under a steam-press. What appears to be hand-tooling on his other volumes is similarly bogus. Jones’s books in leather, wood and satin are the faux products of an age in which aesthetics are commodified through a mass market; but the products themselves could only be imitations of an older, greater library, invoking an imagined past just as the Pre-Raphaelites revived the aesthetics of a ‘purer’, more spiritual medievalism.

This showiness engaged its clientele, but it was not without its critics. Jones was the subject of harsh though accurate commentary by Joseph Cundall, a publisher who endeavoured to produce fine books within a commercial context. Writing in Ancient and Modern Bookbinding in 1847, Cundall notes how Jones’s books are a matter of display, with the appropriateness of the covers being sacrificed for the sake of effect. ‘To Mr Jones’, he says, we are indebted for several ornamental designs in embossed leather,’ although

the peculiar treatment which that gentleman has given them [means that some] are more beautiful than appropriate. For instance, Gray’s Elegy, one of the finest and most English of English poems appeared, dressed …externally in an old fashioned, monkish garb [p.11].

Others were sharper still, seeing no point in presenting the public with a neo-medieval (or ‘monkish’) binding which was fundamentally at odds with the values of modern, Protestant Britain of the 1840s, when Catholicism was still regarded by many with suspicion. Some observers described his publications as ‘furniture books’, useless ornaments that had the same dark colour as the fashionable mahogany and rosewood of the period, and literally indistinguishable from the fittings of a well-appointed middle-class home. This observation was at least a fair assessment, but John Ruskin, who focused on the interconnectedness of taste and morality, found iniquity in the idea that a bourgeois audience would express its identity by purchasing the ‘untrue’ and ‘deceptive’.

Left: The Victoria Psalter. Owen Jones. 1861-62. Right: The Awakening Conscience. W. Holman Hunt. 1851-53. Tate Britain. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

Ruskin’s take on books like Owen’s is obliquely expressed in his famous Times critique of William Holman-Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience(1856). Writing in defence of the artist’s emphasis on symbolic detail, he comments on the gaudiness of the room, which he reads as an indication of the seducer’s bad taste – and is simultaneously a sign of his low moral character. The objects in the room are fake, and so is the girl’s deceiver: the furniture has a ‘terrible lustre’ of ‘fatal newness’ while the ‘embossed books’ are ‘vain and useless’, marked with no ‘happy wearing of beloved leaves’ (Ruskin, p.399). This seems like a generic condemnation but close examination of the table in Hunt’s picture shows a foreshortened volume which looks very much like one of Jones’s embossed creations. Intended as signs of aspiration and affluence, Jones’s books become from Ruskin’s point of view just another indication of moral decline.

Publications for a more general audience: style and (the lack of) functionality

As noted earlier, Jones’s elite publications would always be directed at the wealthier echelons of the bourgeoisie. Publishers’ outlays were considerable and as in the case of Humphreys the work was limited by economics: its costs were too high. For example, The Alhambra (1845) was self-published by Jones in a series of editions, the most expensive of which was sold for a colossal £21. In a period when elaborate gift books cost a guinea (£1 and a shilling), and the average middle-class income was around £900 per annum, prices that ran into pounds rather than shillings were prohibitive. The Alhambra, with its wonderful colour plates, was a financial disaster (McLean, pp.79–80), and almost all of Jones’s most precious works ended up being sold off at reduced prices or reprinted in inferior editions.

However, his talents were more generally applied to a range of cheaper imprints which could be afforded by a larger audience. Although his bindings usually accompanied his colour decorations, publishers exploited his versatility purely as a designer of covers, a livery to encase the work of others. At the lower end of the market were his bindings for children’s books. In the 1850s he designed wrappers for a sixpenny series published by Grant and Griffith (McLean, pp. 62–3) and he did other work for Thomas Moore’s Irish Melodies (1846), English Hexameter Translations (1847) and Pictures of English Landscape (1862). In contrast to the expensive materials used for the elite publications, these mass-market bindings were mounted on card, paper and cloth; the designs were created using lithographic and chromolithographic techniques, or printed using brass dies to impress the gilt composition into the surface of cloth supported by cardboard. These were conventional methods and for at least some of his work Jones was part of an ensemble of jobbing designers.

However, his approach to the style of his covers was unchanged: he made his expensive bindings seem like bespoke pieces of handicraft, and he transferred the same luxuriousness to his commercial editions. The styles of the cheaper covers are essentially the same as those at the top. Straightforward production did not lead to any simplification in the complexity of the designs or their author’s attempt to create as great an impact as he could manage. Jones’s approach to his popular bindings is epitomized by three publications.

For Lockhart’s Spanish Ballads (1842) Jones created a concentric design on cloth, with an oblong title-panel enclosed by a gilt foliate border. As in the leather-clad Victorian Psalter(1862) and Paradise and the Peri (1860), there is a calculated balance between simplified lines and radiating patterns; the overall effect is one of equipoise. More extravagant is the cover for Birket Foster’s Pictures of English Landscape(1862). Decorated in gilt on a navy blue field, this design recreates the bold linearity of the patterns appearing on the boards of Gray’s Elegyand especially The Preacher; in these works the lines are created in relief while on the binding of Pictures the contrast between the golden lines and the dark background re-asserts the effects of relievo. Though produced for a fraction of the cost of The Preacher, the casing for Pictures creates the same impression of monumentality as its more luxurious companion.

Three cloth bindings designed by Owen Jones. Left: A Jar of Honey from Mount Hyblas. 1848. Laminated paper with a chromolithographic pattern pasted on board. Middle: Pictures of English Landscape. 1863. Right: Lockhart’s Spanish Ballads. 1842. Olive green cloth with a gilt design. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

However, the most celebrated of Jones’s commercial works is his polychromatic cover for A Jar of Honey from Mount Hybla (1848), a gift book with a text by Leigh Hunt and illustrations by Richard Doyle. This casing is made of ‘glazed cream boards printed [using chromolithography] in gold, green [and] blue’ (Ball, p.152), presenting a series of linear foliate patterns, in the manner of Classicism, which enclose the eponymous jar. As usual, the effect is both bold and delicate: the blue urn stands out against the cream background – in practice, more often faded to a light yellow – while the formal geometry of the border is enlivened by delicate sprigs and green leaves. The floral pattern-making that is found on several of the relievo bindings is revisited using colour to impose the design and here, as in the sculptural works, Jones suggests a subtle balance of depth and flatness, dynamic movement and stillness. With its flickering sprigs and leaves – which are suggestive of laurel – the covers form a good match with the delicate rusticity of Doyle’s illustrations and Leigh’s tex,t and is one of the few occasions when Jones harmonizes the book’s outside with its interior. As one reviewer noted in The Art Union in 1848, the binding is ‘spangled all over with … leaves upon a pale yellow primrose ground … the most appropriate that could be conceived for this charming volume (p. 36).

This is mass-market book-making at its most sensitive, projecting good taste to its buyers. Jones wanted to create beautiful works, and he never discriminates between different readerships; his quality as a designer was at the service of all of his audiences. Yet in sharing his strengths he also shared his weaknesses. In pursuing his aesthetic effects he repeatedly displays a lack of understanding of practicalities: for example, his album books, such as Thomas Moore’s Paradise and the Peri, are far too large to be held together in cloth casing glued together by gutta-percha while the leather-bound version of the same book bends and falls apart. Of course, it could be argued that Jones was bound by the publishers’ requirements to produce the work in as cheap a format as possible, but there is wider evidence to suggest that he did not seem to understand that books needed to be held and read. A Jar of Honey is another example of this failing; the laminated boards chipped too easily and the spine almost always collapsed, tearing away from the boards when they were repeatedly opened. Few copies have survived with their original back-strip or with the corners intact. His papier-mâché bindings were similarly prone to falling apart, chipping and fading. His publications are rarely found in good condition and fine copies command high prices in the antiquarian book-trade.

The conclusion to be drawn is that Jones’s more populist works were as much ‘furniture books’, inert commodities, as their more expensive equivalents. A decorator concerned with the beauties of ornament, Jones never seems to have grasped the idea of books as moveable objects. Show always triumphed over functionality.

Jones’s book bindings and The Grammar of Ornament

Jones’s styles were primarily motivated by the pursuit of diversity and richness, a discourse that he helped to shape and found its greatest expression in the artefacts displayed at the Great Exhibition (1851). His ornamental bindings are typical products of their time; they seemed monstrously over-worked and congested to designers such as Dante Rossetti and many critics have argued that Jones confused embellishment with art (Jervis, p. 10). A glance at his bindings certainly suggests that he believed in the virtue of excess as an end in itself: the greater and more elaborate the decoration, the greater, and more beautiful, he seems to have believed, would be the effect. There is some justification for this view but Jones’s styles are far from an arbitrary catalogue of over-elaborate forms. He borrowed, as we have seen, from a variety of idioms such as Gothic and Classicism, but his designs for bindings, like all of his designs, were underpinned by a series of aesthetic theories which he formulated in his lecture ‘Principles in Decorative Art’ (1852) and in his pattern-book, The Grammar of Ornament (1856).

The Grammar is prefaced with a series of 37 ‘General principles in the arrangement of form and colour in architecture and the decorative art’, and these ‘Propositions’ can be traced in the styles of his bindings, which are in many ways their embodiment. Several of these principles are enshrined in his binding for Pictures of English Landscape (1862), which acts as a case-study of theory at work.

Left: The Grammar of Ornament. 1865. Right: Pictures of English Landscape. 1863. Elaborate gilt blocking on blue cloth. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

Proposition 8 stipulates that ‘all ornament should be based on a geometrical construction’, and Jones realizes this idea in the cover for English Landscape by outlining the book’s rectangular board in five concentric gilt lines. The first, placed next to the bevelled edge, is a chevron; next to this is a simple narrow line; next to this a slightly wider line; next to this a line containing a chain motif, followed by a broader band of blue unornamented cloth; and next to this a repetition of the chain motif. Within these outlines we have a further rectangle which contains a concentric mandorla enclosing the authors’ names (Birket Foster and Tom Taylor), with the innermost form containing the book’s title.

Jones thus arranges his design in terms of a strict geometry, essentially a series of rectangles with an ovoid form placed centrally within them. The result is one of contrast in which he embodies Proposition 9, creating a ‘proper balance of the straight … and the curved’ (Grammar, p.4). The structure is further overlaid with floral ornament, and this once again can be read in terms of the Propositions. Though the book is an album or rural poems and pictures, Jones avoids the literal and presents his flowers as abstracted forms, as specified in Proposition 13:

Flowers or other natural objects should not be used as ornaments, but conventional representations founded upon them sufficiently suggestive to convey the natural image to the mind [Grammar, p. 5].

Jones’s design encapsulates this idea: the foliage within the inner rectangle suggests the acanthus, but is not quite like it, while the tendrils swirling around the title convey the idea of delicate plant-life without being identifiable as a specific type. It is interesting at this point to compare Warren’s entirely literal approach in his binding for Common Wayside Flowers (1860) with Jones’s elegant simplifications; one is a piece of verisimilitude, the other purely decorative.

Jones’s cover further enshrines his principles of compositional arrangement. Two propositions are of central importance. In 9 he claims that ‘each particular member should be a multiple of some simple unit’ and in 11 he notes that ‘all lines should flow out of a parent stem’ (Grammar, p.4). Both principles are figured in the plant that appears to grow out of the two bottom corners of the binding. In the Propositions, Jones argues that the designer’s task is to capture the essence of nature without resorting to what he sees as the more superficial task of copying appearance, and this is the effect created by the organic flow and movement of the front cover presented here.

This position, with its advocacy of abstraction, is surprisingly at odds with the prevailing emphasis on verisimilitude, the capturing of the natural world that informs the art of the Pre-Raphaelites and the writing strategies of Victorian novelists such as George Eliot. All that concerns Jones, as he says in Proposition 3, is the production of ‘fitness, proportion [and] harmony, the result of which is repose’ (Grammar, p.4).

To a large extent his design of Pictures of English Landscape satisfies this criterion, although the same judgement cannot be made of his other designs. It would be misleading, for example, to claim that the covers for The Preacher are anything but overcomplicated. Jones was perpetually in pursuit of harmonious design and sometimes fails to meet his own, very specific requirements.

In the final assessment, however, his position is clear. He raised standards in the design and production of commercial bindings – whatever their shortcomings – and he demonstrated how the outer surfaces of a book could be beautiful in their own right and far more than a container in which to place the pages. Binding had always historically been treated in this way, but Jones, like many of his contemporaries, showed how works for the middle-classes could be fine objects and not cheap consumables. He set out to improve taste and to register the cultural importance of being in possession of the beautiful. Designing covers was part of this large and impressive endeavour.

Books designed by Jones

Note: fuller bibliographies are given in Ball, pp. 151–55 and King, pp.25–29; it is probable that neither is complete, and discoveries remain to be made.

The Alhambra, from drawings taken on the spot in 1834 by Jules Goury, and in 1834 and 1837 by Owen Jones. With a complete translation of the Arabic inscriptions, and an historical notice of the kings of Granada from the conquest of that city by the Arabs to the expulsion of the Moors, by Pasqual de Gayangos. 2 vols. Drawn on stone and a binding illustrated by Jones. London. O. Jones, 1842-45.

The Book of Common Prayer. London: Murray, 1846, 1850. Illuminations and binding by Owen Jones.

English Hexameter Translations. Chromolithographic designs on paper binding by Owen Jones. London: Murray, 1847.

Gray’s Elegy.Illuminations and relieve leather binding by Owen Jones. London: Longman, 1846.

Hunt, Leigh. A Jar of Honey From Mount Hybla. Illustrated by Richard Doyle with chromolithographic designs on glazed paper and card covers designed by Owen Jones. London: Smith Elder, 1848.

Jones, Owen. The Grammar of Ornament. With chromolithographic plates and a binding designed by Jones. London: Day, 1856.

Lockhart, J. G. Ancient Spanish Ballads. With chromolithographic plates and a binding designed by Jones. London: Murray, 1842.

Moore, Thomas. Paradise and the Peri. Designed by Henry Warren and Owen Jones. Drawn on stone by A.H. Warren. London: Day [1860].

Moore, Thomas. Irish Melodies. Paper on board covers by Owen Jones. London: Longman, 1846.

The Psalms of David.[‘The Victoria Psalter’]. London: Day and Co [1861–62]. Illuminations and relievo binding by Owen Jones.

The Preacher. London: Longman & Co., 1849. Illuminations and binding by Owen Jones.

The Sermon on the Mount. London: Longman & Co., 1845. Illuminations and binding by Owen Jones.

Taylor, Tom and Birket Foster, Myles.Pictures of English Landscape. London: Routledge & Co., 1862. Cloth binding by Owen Jones.

Secondary material

Ball, Douglas. Victorian Publishers’ Bindings. London: The Library Association, 1985.

Lesley Hoskins, ‘Jones, Owen (1809–1874)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.<.span> Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, April 2016 [, accessed 12 Aug 2016].

‘A Jar of Honey.’The Art Union 10 (1848).

Cundall, Joseph. On Ornamental Art, Applied to Ancient and Modern Bookbindings. London: Society of Arts, 1848.

Jervis, Simon. High Victorian Design. London: The Boydell Press, 1983.

King, Edmund. Victorian Decorated Trade Bindings, 1830–1880. London: The British Library & Newcastle: The Oak Knoll Press, 2003.

Maclean, Ruari. Victorian Book Design and Colour Printing. London: Faber & Faber, 1963.

Miller, Thomas. Common Wayside Flowers. Illustrations by Birket Foster and cloth and paper binding designed by A. H. Warren. London: Routledge, 1860.

Ruskin, John. The Art Criticism of John Ruskin. Ed. Robert L. Herbert. New York: Da Capo, 1964.

Last modified 10 October 2016