Monday, 23 May 2005

Fine art: painting that keeps up with the Joneses

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Thomas Jones Italian view
By Christopher Proudlove©

One day, I'll write about the fortunes of a forgotten artist who will suddenly be rediscovered and lauded by art historians far cleverer than I'll ever be. I'm not holding my breath!

Longstanding readers will know how keen I am. In these pages I've already reminded both them and myself about Liverpool's Herdman family of watercolourists; Birkenhead artist Harry B. Neilson, (1861-1941); Liverpudlian artist, George Haydock Dodgson (1811 - 1880) and Wallasey-born Frances Macdonald.

I thought I was on to something when the respected dealer and fine art agent in Old Master and British paintings, Ben Elwes, contacted me to tell me about a rare picture by a previously little known Welsh artist which he has for sale.

Clearly the work is important. Not only was the picture, illustrated here, the star piece in his new gallery at 45 Maddox Street, but Elwes also unveiled it at the International Fine Art Fair in New York last week at an asking price of £70,000. It went down well and sold shortly after the fair opened.

It was painted by Thomas Jones of Pencerrrig (1742-1803) of whom few had heard until major exhibitions were mounted at the National Museum and Gallery, Cardiff, the Whitworth Gallery, Manchester, and the National Gallery in London, marking the bicentenary of his death.

If that wasn't enough, a beautiful book titled "An Artist Rediscovered" was published to coincide with the exhibitions, co-edited by Ann Sumner, the curator of fine art at the National Museums and Galleries of Wales, and Greg Smith.

Although Jones was a talented landscape artist, until then little had been written about his life and work and many of his paintings had never before been published.

That was quickly resolved. In addition to essays by leading Jones scholars the book was illustrated by more than 150 paintings from throughout the artist's career, many of which were being seen by a wider audience for the first time. Curses - beaten to it again!

Actually, I was 50 years too late. It was about then that Jones' memoirs were rediscovered and published (by the Walpole Society), leading eventually to him being recognised as a major artistic personality where previously he had been all but forgotten.

The memoirs were never written for publication. They were, as he wrote at the time, "from short hints and Memoranda of a Diary, which for many years I had been in the habit of keeping, the original Intention only for the Amusement of vacant hours and the Perusal of a Few".

Most comprehensive memoirs

But they are the most comprehensive memoirs of any artist of the time and they make fascinating reading.

Jones was a "gentleman artist". He was the second of 16 children (seven of whom died in childhood) whose parents, Thomas and Hannah Jones, were landowners in Trefonnen, Radnorshire.

His mother inherited a house and estate in Pencerrig, near Builth Wells, and he was educated at Christ College, Brecon, and Jesus College, Oxford, destined for a career in the Church.

However, the death of his wealthy uncle, John Hope, who had been financing the young man's education put paid to that ambition and rejecting the idea of going to sea -- the other career for the younger sons of the landed gentry -- he managed to persuade his parents to let him train to be an artist.

At the age of 19, he enrolled at William Shipley's Drawing School in London, where he became a pupil of fellow Welsh artist Richard Wilson, but "copying drawings of Ears, Eyes, mouths & Noses" among "little boys of half my age" was humiliating for Jones.

But he was a quick learner. By 1766, he had been elected to the Society of Artists, the year after Gainsborough.

Although not really needing to make a living from painting, Jones became a professional artist, returning to Wales 10 years later.

However, like many other young artists of the period, he was desperate to travel abroad and like Wilson, Jones was determined to tour Italy. In those days it took a month to get there and he arrived in Rome towards the end of 1776.

In his memoirs Jones calls the city a "magickal land" and he remained there for almost two years before visiting Naples, socialising all the time with an expat British community of artists and patrons.

A series of small oil-sketches, painted during this time have been described as masterpieces of observation but after six years, Jones became homesick for his native land and returned in 1782 having heard that his father had died.

He took with him his lover, a Danish widow named Maria Moncke, and their two young daughters, a situation which must have caused raised eyebrows, despite her passing herself off as his housekeeper. They later married and settled in London with Jones receiving an annual income from his inheritance.

His elder brother, Major John Jones, a bachelor, died in 1787 and the artist found himself required to return to and take over the running of the family estate at Penkerigg near Builth Wells.

In addition to tracts of land, the family also owned Llandrindod Hall in Llandrindod Wells, which was let out as a hotel, as was his father's family home, Trefonnen, all of which provided an annual income of £4,000 and a comfortable lifestyle for Jones and his family.

His anger at discovering that drawings he had left in London during his visit to Italy had been ruined was eventually forgotten and he busied himself making oil and watercolour sketches of the surrounding Radnorshire countryside.

Entering fully into the local society, he was appointed High Sheriff of Radnorshire in 1791 and a magistrate the following year. Maria died after a long illness in 1799, a loss which deeply affected Jones, who died at Pencerrig in 1803.

It is interesting to add that when 50 watercolours and oil views in both Wales and Italy by Jones were offered in an auction at Christie's in London in 1954, they were described as "The property of a lady who had whose husband was a descendant of Thomas Jones, a pupil of Richard Wilson, RA".

The sale excited the attention of two of London's most important dealers -- Colnaghi and Agnews -- the most expensive lot selling for £33.12s (£33.60)! The National Museum of Wales was another buyer in the sale and their purchases can be seen there today.

Colnaghi was quickly able to find buyers for its purchases, their customers including the Ashmolean Museum, the Fitzwilliam Museum and the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. They were no doubt somewhat cheaper than the work sold in New York last week!

Pictures show, top:
Thomas Jones (British, 1742-1803) A Neapolitan Coastal View from Pozzuoli, painted in 1781. The oil on canvas measures 38.5 X 29 inches (97.8 X 73.6 cm) and is signed and dated lower left: THO:JONES · Ft MDCCCLXXXI A NAPOLI. In a period Italian carved and gilded frame, the work is priced at £70,000

Family life at Pencerrig was captured in this conversation piece by Jones' friend, the Italian artist Francesco Renaldi (1755-1798). The painting shows Jones with his palette and easel, his wife Maria spinning wool and their two daughters, one of whom is playing the harpsichord. The second man is as yet unidentified and could be one of Jones' brothers or Renaldi himself. In 1797, when the piece was painted, Maria was probably already suffering ill health and Jones was deeply affected by her death two years later. The painting can be seen in the collection of the National Museums and Galleries of Wales in Cardiff

Jones by Renaldi

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