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A Look at the Grammar of Ornament

By: Dominique Luster

This world famous book, The Grammar of Ornament, was written by Welsh architect Owen Jones and was published in 1865. (Frick Fine Arts Library has the two-volume 1868 edition and the 1972 edition.) This book features 112 plates which display hundreds of examples of architectural and decorative arts. Jones takes scholars around the world and introduces them to the artistic sensibilities of cultures from around the world from Greek to Egyptian and from Arabic to Chinese. 

Many of the Renaissance features discussed are visible around us here at Frick Fine Arts, which was built in memory of Henry Clay Frick by his daughter Helen. As her father was a devoted connoisseur of art, Helen wanted the building itself to reflect that love. In response, this building was designed in the style of Pope Julius III’s Villa Giulia in Rome, Italy

In the Renaissance section of Jones’ text, the author touches on the foundations and developments that makes this section of art culture different from others. One element he talks about is the mathematical beauty the Romans found in geometry. As you can see from the picture below, the Frick Fine Arts Building has attempted to incorporate much of that style into its more functional features. Here we have an example of geometric semblance between circles and half circles; but should not fail to note that the doorway as a whole is trimmed in gold as an example of papal opulence.

Probably the most well-known features of the Frick Fine Arts Library is the open cloister and its beautiful archways. Jones offers his readers some truly elaborate details and thoughts about archways. (Like what?!)  We encourage you to experience the physical book as well as explore the book’s digitized version. How would you describe each experience?

In total, the book discusses and provides decorative examples from the following cultures:     

Savage Tribes / Egyptian / Assyrian and Persian / Greek / Pompeian / Roman Byzantine / Arabian / Turkish / Moresque Ornament from the Alhambra / Indian Hindu / Chinese / Celtic / Medieval / Renaissance / Elizabethan / Italian

River view of Art Building, the University of Iowa, October 1936

Photographer: Frederick W. Kent


The Iowa City Press Citizen (@presscitizen) has a story “After demolition, original UI Art Building revealed” about the original building, which includes the following:

The old Art Building, built in the middle of the Great Depression, was the first of its kind to bring together the study of art history with studio practice — a model called the Iowa Idea. Scott said the building itself — designed by then-campus architect George Horner, who drew inspiration from a 16th-century Italian villa — is one of the most important pieces of architecture on campus beyond the Pentacrest.

Grant Wood taught and worked in a pavilion on the north end of the building from the time it opened until the early 1940s, Scott said. Wood died in 1942 in Iowa City.

See more images of the 1930s Art Building in Iowa Digital Library