On first encountering the paintings of Thomas Jones, I probably walked right past them after only the most cursory of glances. I surely must have seen them in one of my many visits to the National Museum of Wales when I lived just around the corner from it in a dingy and cold shared house on Colum Road. At that time though, ’93/’94, my interest in art was still at an awkward and an early stage, when I would relegate most anything pre-1880 to a generic boring old stuff category.
Then, on a visit to the Palazzo delle Esposizioni in Rome, in February or March ’97, to see an exhibition entitled Grand Tour: il fascino dell’Italia nel XVIII secolo, I met them again, but saw them as though for the first time. Amongst all the cluttered interiors, the periwigged portraits and serenely classical landscapes, ‘improved’ from Nature, Jones’ little Neapolitan cityscapes leapt off the wall, with their bright simplicity and deep calm.
Jones, 1742-1803, came from a landowning family in Radnorshire, Wales. As a second son, a career in the clergy was expected of him, but, feeling art to be his true vocation, he rebelled. He succeeded in persuading the successful and well-connected landscape painter Richard Wilson, a fellow Welshman, to accept him as a student. Many of the works produced in Wilson’s studio at that time were derived from, or were strongly influenced by the painter’s recent travels through Italy. Jones was struck by the beauty of the landscapes he saw take shape around him, and formed a determination to see their originals for himself.
In the years that followed, Jones achieved some fitful success as a landscape artist in his own right. Almost from the beginning, there is a sharp distinction in style between the stiff formality of his public work, and the much freer and more relaxed manner of his preparatory sketches and other pieces painted for his own amusement. Of the latter, the landscape above, painted near his family home at Pencerrig, is a vibrant early example. By 1776, after suffering several setbacks, Jones was finally ready to prepare for his long-anticipated journey to Italy.
Jones went first to Rome, and made a modest name for himself in that city’s busily cosmopolitan art-scene. Despite winning a few substantial commissions, and making many friends, he was, at length, unable to draw in a steady income from his painting. Then, after inadvertently alienating an important middleman, he decided to cut his losses and relocate to Naples, still capital, at that time, of the Kingdom of the two Sicilies.
Once again, however, after a few initial successes, the commissioned work dried up. Jones reckoned that his remaining funds were sufficient to support himself, his Danish lover (who masqueraded for propriety’s sake as his housekeeper) and their two children, for another couple of years. Thus freed from the obligation to please or impress, Jones continued to paint, but now almost exclusively for his own satisfaction. The carefree sketches that resulted are exactly the paintings for which Jones is chiefly admired today.
In Naples, Jones found lodgings with a roof terrace in a house near the harbour. It is from this vantage-point, or from that of his studio window, that he made his highly finished oil studies of the neighbouring buildings, which are remarkable for their freshness and immediacy.
Jones was the first British painter to make outdoor oil sketching a significant part of his practice as an artist. His most original work of this kind was done in Italy in the years 1776-83, and particularly in Naples in 1782. Combining acuity of observation with a genius for selection and abstraction, such oil sketches foreshadow much that occurred in the plein-air movements of the following century - (Tate Gallery caption).
In 1783, Jones returned to London with high hopes of continuing his artistic career. During his absence, however, fashions had changed, and he struggled once more in vain for recognition. The death of his older brother in 1789 obliged him to return to his family’s estates in Wales, whereupon he assumed the mantle of country squire, with, by all accounts, good-natured and forward-thinking enthusiasm. He still painted sporadically, and found the time to write an breezily anecdotal volume of memoirs, much valued today by art-historians.
My occasion for writing all this is the current exhibition of Jones’ work in Cardiff, which will move on later this year to Manchester and London: sadly, I shall probably not have the opportunity to visit it. As a consolation, I ordered a copy of the exhibition catalogue, which also serves as a comprehensive biography of the artist and monograph of his work. I read it a few weeks ago, and more recently scanned from it the images presented here: click on each one to see an enlarged version of the same.