Born in Paris, the son of a lithographic printer, the illustrator, lecturer and polymath Albert Charles Auguste Racinet (1825-1893) compiled many scholarly books on the decorative arts, including a monumental ten-volume history of clothing, Le costume historique (1876-1888). First published in 1869 by the eminent Parisian firm of Lemercier, his Polychromatic ornament is a compendium of decorative patterns from many different cultures and historical periods. It contains one hundred state-of-the-art colour plates, showing (to quote the title page) ‘upwards of two thousand specimens of the various styles of ancient, oriental and medieval art, and including the Renaissance and the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries’.
Racinet intended the book as a tool from which contemporary designers might learn. In the opening paragraph of his introduction he writes: ‘This book is meant to be chiefly practical, being less a treatise than a collection, and teaching more by example than by precept. By the adoption of this method we have avoided the discussion of dangerous theories, which, however correct they may be, remain too vague and general when presented in an abstract manner. Nothing can be more eloquent than the sight of the masterpieces themselves...’
The Library's copy of the 1873 English translation comes, like The grammar of ornament, from the estate of the art collector James Tannock Mackelvie (1824-1885). The library also has a copy of the 1877 English edition, donated by Henry Shaw in 1891.