The Victoria Psalter, Designed and Illuminated by Owen Jones

[Ed. Note: This article is from Books and Vines contributor Dlphcoracl.]

Owen Jones (1809-1874) was a seminal figure in the evolution of design and the decorative arts in 19th century Great Britain.  Trained as an architect, he embarked upon his Grand Tour at the age of 23.  In contrast to other upper class young men and women in the UK whose Grand Tours took them to the capitals and cultural centers of Europe, Jones traveled to Greece, Egypt and Turkey to pursue his interest in Islamic design, culminating in his visit to Spain and the Alhambra.  Along with French architect Jules Goury he spent the next six months meticulously studying, drawing and documenting Islamic architecture, decorative designs and patterns, and coloration.  Unfortunately, Goury would die from cholera shortly thereafter but Jones would subsequently publish their work and studies in a landmark book entitled:  Plans, Elevations, Sections and Details of the Alhambra between 1841 and 1845.

The rise of mass production in the first part of the 19th century and the resulting “sameness” and lack of innovation triggered discussion regarding a new design idiom in the 1830’s and 1840’s.  Jone’s theories regarding Islamic design and decorative art and how they could be introduced and applied in the UK, especially with regard to flat patterning, color and ornamentation, became an important part of this discussion.   Specifically, Jones’ interest in taking the tile work from the Alhambra and creating new designs for mosaic work and tile patterns in the UK made him an important part of the discussion regarding Victorian design reform and he subsequently became an instrumental figure in the Great Exhibition of 1851 and its reincarnation at Sydenham in 1854 as the Crystal Palace.  This was the first international exposition devoted to the decorative arts and their manufacturing and Jones was asked to decorate the interior of the Great Exhibition building, introducing his theories regarding decorative patterns and use of primary colors derived from Islamic art to the general public.  Initially, the design was controversial amongst his peers and the public but it attracted the attention and support of Prince Albert. Jones would eventually become a pivotal figure in the founding of the South Kensington Museum between 1852 to 1854, later to become the Victoria & Albert Museum.

In addition to the attention and prominence he attained in the field of decorative arts through his work at the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the Crystal Palace in 1854, Jones’ publications were also instrumental in addressing design education and introducing a new decorative idiom in the UK.  In preparation for publication of his ground-breaking work on the Alhambra, Jones realized that the color printing technology at that time was incapable of reproducing the elaborate designs and color schemes of the mosaics and tile work of the Alhambra he had patiently recorded and documented.  Jones did original research into the fledgling field of chromolithography invented by Alois Senefelder in Germany in 1798, establishing his own workshop and refining the technique to produce intricate full-color printed plates which utilized gold and silver inks in addition to the usual range of colors.  His mastery of chromolithography would become the state of the art for high quality color reproduction in the UK for most of the 19th century until photographic processes replaced them at the beginning of the twentieth century.  Subsequently, Jones used his workshop and mastery of chromolithography to begin a career publishing illuminated and illustrated books, some of which simulated Medieval prayer books, which were becoming increasingly popular in Victorian England as gift books

Through his association and friendship with Henry Cole (1808-1882), the first director of the South Kensington Museum (later to become the V&A), Jones gave a series of lectures at the Government School of Design (founded in 1837) to promote and elaborate upon his theories of ornamentation and color.  He also selected objects from the Great Exhibition to include in the School of Design’s teaching collections and helped develop the School’s new curricula.  However, Jones realized that his theories would only reach a small audience, students at the School of Design and residents of London who could visit his exhibits.  To reach a wider audience he incorporated these theories and designs in his seminal publication, The Grammar of Ornament (1856).  This book would serve as an important design sourcebook for the remainder of the 19th & 20th centuries and it is the work through which Owen Jones is best known today.  The book remains in print to this day.  It had an immediate influence in the design of British fabrics, wallpapers, tapestries, and carpets and was in some aspects the forerunner of the British Arts and Crafts movement and for some of William Morris’ designs and interior decorative work prior to his founding the Kelmscott Press in 1891.

The books produced with chromolithography were extremely expensive and Jones’ books were often sold as subscriptions, enabling a purchaser to buy the book in sections as they were published, spreading the cost out over a period of time. When all sections had been obtained the owner could then have them bound together in one reference volume.  One such subscriber to the Grammar of Ornament was William Morris.  The book contained 20 chapters with the first 19 chapters containing examples of Islamic-influenced ornament from both Middle Eastern, Turkish and Moorish (Alhambra) sources.  The final chapter entitled ‘Leaves and Flowers From Nature’ may, however, be the most interesting and far-reaching for Books and Vines readers, discussing the relationship between ornament and forms which occurred in nature, stating that “true art consists of idealizing and not copying the forms of nature”.  Many of the wood-engravings and border decorations produced in Kelmscott Press publications by Morris’ lifelong friend and colleague, Edward Burne-Jones, embraced this relationship between nature and ornament.  The concept crossed the Atlantic and was adapted by Louis Sullivan in his architectural design work and ornament in the early days of the Prairie School of Design in Chicago, eventually finding its highest expression in the work of Frank Lloyd Wright who promoted the idea of “organic architecture”.

The Victorian Psalter (1861) is undoubtedly Owen Jones’ masterpiece in the 1860’s, a tour de force of illumination, Jones’ color & design theories and chromolithography   It was originally entitled ’The Book of Psalms’ but was renamed after Jones requested and was granted permission to dedicate the book to “Her Most Gracious Majesty Queen Victoria”.   The text is from the Miles Coverdale translation as used in the Book of Common Prayer.  The one-hundred fifty psalms are divided into thirty groups to be recited over a 30-day period, with a morning and evening psalm for each day.  Both the binding and the illuminated pages are intended to recreate a medieval prayer book.  The binding is a creation of Owen Jones, a technique he called “relievo-leather”.  In this particular instance the binding covers are made of full heavily molded and embossed brown calf leather (left to its natural color) applied over wooden boards, to give the appearance of massive boards made of carved wood.  The front board has a sunken oval-shaped central panel with the title: The Victoria Psalter, surrounded by a intricate design of trellis with acanthus scrolls and leaves.  The board edges are bevelled with intricate carving.  The rear board has a similar motif with the queen’s monogram – V and R for Victoria Regina – contained within the central sunken oval panel.

The book consists of 104 illuminated pages including a frontispiece, title page, dedication to Queen Victoria on two opposing leaves plus 100 chromolithographed plates on 50 sheets of thick cream card with all page edges gilt with each page stubbed onto a cloth hinge.  The illumination is a mini-encyclopedia of Jones’ decorative design patterns and employs the primary color schemes he introduced at the Great Exhibition of 1851, chromolithographed in three reds, three blues, gold and black, each page featuring a different border. The book is folio-sized measuring 42 x 31 cm, published by Day & Son with binding created by Leighton Son and Hodge.  There is no colophon although the book is known to have been published in 1861 in an unknown number of copies.

Pictures of the Edition

(All pictures on Books and Vines are exclusively provided, under fair use, to highlight and visualize the review/criticism of the work being reviewed. A side benefit, hopefully, is providing education on the historical and cultural benefits of having a healthy fine press industry and in educating people on the richness that this ‘old school approach’ of book publishing brings to the reading process. Books and Vines has no commercial stake or financial interest in any publisher, retailer or work reviewed on this site and receives no commercial interest or compensation for Books and Vines. Please note that works photographed are copyrighted by the publisher, author and/or illustrator as indicated in the articles. Permission to use contents from these works for anything outside of fair use purposes must come directly from the copyright owner and no permission is granted or implied to use photo’s or material found on Books and Vines for any purpose that would infringe on the rights of the copyright owner.)

The Victoria Psalter, Day and Son, Front board with superimposed fountain pen to illustrate folio size of book
The Victoria Psalter, Day and Son, Front board with superimposed fountain pen to illustrate folio size of book
The Victoria Psalter, Day and Son, Rear board with Queen Victoria’s V/R monogram
The Victoria Psalter, Day and Son, Rear board with Queen Victoria’s V/R monogram
The Victoria Psalter, Day and Son, Patterned paper for pastedowns and free end plates with cloth hinge for chromolithographed plates
The Victoria Psalter, Day and Son, Patterned paper for pastedowns and free end plates with cloth hinge for chromolithographed plates
Frontispiece
The Victoria Psalter, Day and Son, Frontispiece
The Victoria Psalter, Day and Son, Title Page
The Victoria Psalter, Day and Son, Title Page
The Victoria Psalter, Day and Son, Dedication to Queen Victoria - verso page
The Victoria Psalter, Day and Son, Dedication to Queen Victoria – verso page
Dedication to Queen Victoria - recto page
The Victoria Psalter, Day and Son, Dedication to Queen Victoria – recto page
The Victoria Psalter, Day and Son, Sample Page #1
The Victoria Psalter, Day and Son, Sample Page #1
The Victoria Psalter, Day and Son, Sample Page #2
The Victoria Psalter, Day and Son, Sample Page #2
The Victoria Psalter, Day and Son, Sample Page #3
The Victoria Psalter, Day and Son, Sample Page #3
The Victoria Psalter, Day and Son, Sample Page #4
The Victoria Psalter, Day and Son, Sample Page #4
The Victoria Psalter, Day and Son, Sample Page #5
The Victoria Psalter, Day and Son, Sample Page #5
The Victoria Psalter, Day and Son, Sample Page #6
The Victoria Psalter, Day and Son, Sample Page #6
The Victoria Psalter, Day and Son, Sample Page #7
The Victoria Psalter, Day and Son, Sample Page #7
The Victoria Psalter, Day and Son, Sample Page #8
The Victoria Psalter, Day and Son, Sample Page #8
The Victoria Psalter, Day and Son, Sample Page #8
The Victoria Psalter, Day and Son, Sample Page #9
The Victoria Psalter, Day and Son, Sample Page #10
The Victoria Psalter, Day and Son, Sample Page #10
The Victoria Psalter, Day and Son, Sample Page #11
The Victoria Psalter, Day and Son, Sample Page #11
The Victoria Psalter, Day and Son, Sample Page #12
The Victoria Psalter, Day and Son, Sample Page #12

Leave a Reply