Ancient Spanish Ballads: Historical and Romantic

Lockhart’s Ancient Spanish Ballads: Historical and Romantic (published 1842) has many interesting and beautiful design features. The book is large and rather heavy, but not so heavy that it is difficult to handle. Its front cover is bound in dark green leather embossed with golden floral designs that frame the title, set in all caps in a bold modern typeface. These golden designs are repeated on a smaller scale on the inside edges of the cover and are visible when the book is closed. Professor Flinchum described the cover’s overall design as “Neo-Grec” in style. The cover’s design is very different from that of the pages, leading me to believe that the book has been recovered.

I first saw the Ancient Spanish Ballads when its pages were open and was immediately interested in the detailed typographic and illustrative elements inside. Ornamental type is used frequently, beginning on the first page of the Table of Contents, where the titles “Contents” and “List of Illustrations” are printed. These words appear to be hand-lettered and are surrounded by drawings of curling leaves and vines, which look more organic than the designs on the front cover. A variety of typefaces are used. The names of each ballad are printed in red blackletter type, while their subtitles are printed in a light blue serif. The text is arranged symmetrically in a single column format and is framed by a simple linear border. Throughout the book, general arrangement of the text remains the same, but the ornamental elements vary widely in style, color, and placement.

Flipping through the pages reveals a wide variety of design elements that feel unified by their quality of line and intensity of color, even though the designs themselves are all different. Almost every ballad is framed by a unique ornamental border. Some of these borders are simple and linear like those in the Table of Contents, while others are richly ornamented with scrolling floral elements, and still others combine these approaches to create asymmetrical compositions. A few ballads don’t have borders at all, so the ornamentation sits beside the text instead. Each border is printed in either one or two colors, varying from ballad to ballad in their combination and ratio to one another. Some ballads also have ornamental titles, initial caps, or extra illustrations. There is no immediately apparent reason why some pages have more ornamentation than others; perhaps it has to do with the content or cultural importance of the different ballads.

The most detailed and beautiful illustrations in the book are found on the section pages that separate the different types of ballads from one another. These illustrations integrate type and image well, are printed in bright colors, and are embellished with what appears to be gold ink.

The illustrations accompanying many of the individual ballads also caught my attention. Some involved just one or two characters, while others were whole scenes that decorated the margins between the ornamental borders and the edge of the page. I was especially interested in the small inscriptions accompanying the illustrations. By comparing this text to information in the Table of Contents, I determined that these inscriptions were the names of the various illustrators who worked on the book. I was impressed with the different illustrators’ overall consistency of line weight, visual style, and level of detail from drawing to drawing.

These and other formal qualities of Lockhart’s Ancient Spanish Ballads are largely responsible for its importance to the design world. Its ornamental style helped enhance the character of the text itself and showed that modern printed books could be just as beautiful as hand-illuminated medieval manuscripts.

During the early Victorian era, the debate over the value of high representation versus that of abstraction in art was just beginning to emerge. One school of thought argued that all art should be as true to the nature as possible, while the other believed that decorative art was different from fine art and should allow for more ornamental interpretations. When the Ancient Spanish Ballads was first published in 1823, it featured no ornamental elements whatsoever. But by the early 1840’s, the work had attracted the attention of publisher John Murray, who thought that Lockhart’s translation of the ballads deserved more decoration and attention from the public.

Around this time, many publishers and printers began to take interest in several new theories of color harmony and their application to the printing trade. Architect Owen Jones was one of the first printers to experiment with chromolithography, a new technique in color printing, and used this method to print his illustrations of the Alhambra, the ancient Moorish fortress in Granada, Spain. Jones’ prints introduced the ornamental details of Moorish architecture to the British public and showed off his skills as an illustrator, for which he quickly became famous.

The publication of these prints stimulated the British public’s growing interest in Spanish culture. The Romantic period in literature often fixated on idealized versions of Spain, and the publication of other works, such as the Conquest of Granada and Tales from the Alhambra by Washington Irving, paved the way for Lockhart’s initial translation of the ballads. Other books featured picturesque views of Spanish landscapes. These and other finely crafted books were often printed for high-class people to give as gifts, creating a market for Jones’ skill with ornamentation.

Jones’ knowledge of chromolithograpic techniques, Moorish architecture, and ornamentation made him the perfect candidate to ornament Murray’s new edition of the Ancient Spanish Ballads. These talents brought him even greater fame in 1851, when he became a Superintendent of the Great Exhibition, and in 1856, when he published The Grammar of Ornament, the work for which he is best known. However, he was not skilled at representational art, so Murray commissioned six artists to draw the illustrations instead.

The combination of Jones’ skill with that of these artists produced a book more heavily ornamented and finely detailed than had ever been seen before in Britain. Before this period, the design of English books’ front matter was not considered important, but the Ancient Spanish Ballads celebrated these pages with rich color, ornamentation, and exciting typographic combinations. Jones’ border designs were inspired by Moorish decorative elements that connected the text to its surrounding ornament, creating a new type of reading experience that was both textual and visual. The book is also the first modern English trade book to credit its designer as a “designer” by referring to Jones as an architect, indicating that he was responsible for the design of the book as a whole.

Jones’ theories about the value of ornament continued to influence book designers for many years after the publication of the Ancient Spanish Ballads. The most notable of these publishers was Arts and Crafts movement leader William Morris, who incorporated Jones’ ideas into the books produced at his Kelmscott Press decades later.

Overall, Lockhart’s Ancient Spanish Ballads is a beautiful example of high-quality Victorian book design. Its subject matter is reflected in its ornamental elements, later codified by famous architect and illustrator Owen Jones in The Grammar of Ornament. Jones’ contributions to both the technical and artistic aspects of printed book design and the work he helped create have had a lasting influence over the field of graphic design.




“Alhambra.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 4 Feb. 2018,

“Ancient Spanish Ballads” illuminated by Owen Jones, 1809-1874,

“BibliOdyssey.” Ancient Spanish Ballads,

Frankel, Nicholas. “The Designer’s Eye: Ancient Spanish Ballads, Poetry, and the Rise of Decorative Design – Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net.” Érudit, 15 Dec. 2009,

Discussion — One Response

  • Krithika Sathyamurthy 02/11/2018 on 11:51 AM

    I find that this book is a very important benchmark in the history of color printing. I admire Jones’ persistence and determination in seeing this work through during a time when print establishments refused to employ the unfamiliar printing techniques that Jones envisioned for this book. Truly a beautiful experimentation in chromolithography and ornamentation.

    On a side note, great addition of images that supplement your descriptions of formal elements within the book.

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