Thanks to the monograph on Owen Jones written by historian Carol A. Hrvol Flores, Jones’ pioneering efforts in arguing for a modern architecture have finally come to light. As Jones was putting the finishing touches on The Grammar, he was commissioned to design what would become London’s premiere performance venue for the next 50 years, St. James’s Hall, located near Piccadilly Circus, probably the most important private building in London at the time, a testament to the prestige that Jones had earned as a designer following the successes of the two different color schemes for the Crystal Palace.
In St. James’s main hall that could seat approx. 2500 between the floor and its galleries, Cole employed his understanding of color to create an interior “daylighted atmosphere” at night. The first thing that immediately grabs your attention should be the diagonal lattice (or also known as a skewed grid) he used in the ceiling. One can see the influence of his study of Arabic geometry as well as his use of the three geometric systems (grid, diagonal, and curve) that he had stated was the basis for all ornamental patterns.
He achieved his “daylighted” feeling by painting the ceiling diamonds with a blue background while using white to outline the pattern within each diamond. He complemented this using his, by now, iconic color palette of primary colors and gilding to highlight the trim and ornament. The best surviving example of his designs that employed this type of ceiling is the “new” ceiling he designed for the restoration of the 14th century choir in Carlisle Cathedral in 1856 (see below).
The effect was completed in the auditorium by his choice not to use the conventional large chandeliers hung from the ceiling to light the space, but instead he suspended a number of star-shaped gasoliers whose light set-off the entire daylight effect in the ceiling.
In this close-up of his ornamental pattern you can compare it with his system of using three geometries to design a modern ornamental pattern that he included in The Grammar. Note in the longitudinal section how he had also cleverly worked in the pointed arch of the stylish Gothic revival while only employing the semicircular arch. Jones’ use of geometry in combination with his use of color and non-historical ornament spoke to his search for a new style of architecture. The hall opened on March 25, 1858, appropriately with Prince Albert in attendance. Jones’ younger colleague at the Kensington School, Christopher Dresser, may have best summed up the public’s response to Jones’ theater house: “When in St. James’s Hall we appear transported to some fairer world – art is here.”
Jones also did a number of interiors in London in which he followed his rules for a modern architecture. The task that he undertook in these projects and his ability to achieve it may have best been identified in 1862 in a review by The Building News of what many felt was his best project, a ceiling design for London’s Hancock’s of Bruton Street (Britain’s leading diamond and jewelry designers-they still make the Victoria Cross medal):
“It matters little what the style is because it is so thoroughly harmonious… there is not a feeble or false line in the whole work… the whole work Is linked most skillfully together, and it is only after attentive examination that one is enabled to detect the secret of its success, or to realize its full value as a work of art.”
My favorite building of his was a showroom in London for the Osler Crystal company. Jones took the multiple reflections of the glass pieces as his inspiration and created a spatial infinity in the narrow, 24’ wide space by lining the sidewalls with 14 pairs of full-length mirrors, in addition to placing a full-length mirror at the back of the 106’ long space. He extended the spacing of the mirrors into the barrel-vaulted skylight, and then further articulated each bay with a 4×4 grid of rectangular prisms of primary colors. Jones was responsible for a great number of buildings and interiors, and if interested I would direct you to Flores’ excellent monograph.
Flores, Carol A. Hrvol. Owen Jones. New York: Rizzoli, 2006.
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