Thomas Jones: A Wall in Naples

This remarkable painting appears in today’s Observer. Remarkable because it was painted in 1782, yet seems totally modern in its composition, concerned with recording shapes and texture rather than capturing a scene. That narrow sliver of blue sky seems totally radical for the 18th century, and the whole looks more like something a modern photographer might make.

This is what Laura Cumming has to say about it, in a review of the exhibition, Corot to Monet: A Fresh Look at Landscape, at the National Gallery in which it appears:

The smallest painting in the whole of the National Gallery is also one of the greatest. Thomas Jones’s A Wall in Naples is barely bigger than a postcard. There are other landscapes as tiny as this in British painting – think of Samuel Palmer’s snug valleys beneath a fingernail of harvest moon – but none quite as radical or strange.

Strange, because the painting shows nothing but a section of Neapolitan wall with a couple of windows tight shut in what appears to be the noonday heat; radical, to modern eyes at least, because of its extraordinarily stringent design. An array of rectangles that fit together – blue, white and buff – like an abstract painting (or a wall), the composition is reprised in miniature by the washing on the balcony: blue, white and buff. Even the trees are echoed in a swathe of green cloth.

Did it really look like this? Jones was on the roof of his lodgings looking straight at the building opposite. He paints soft plaster, water damage, friable brick. The sky is as blue as it should be. There is no reason to think he made anything up and yet this great Welsh artist made something unprecedented with this cropped, rectilinear geometry: a wall as beautiful, you might say, as a painting.

Who was Thomas Jones?  Born in 1742 in Trevonen, Gwent, from 1776 to 1783 Jones was in Italy, living first in Rome before moving to Naples, where he produced a number of oil studies of neighbouring buildings from the windows of his own apartment.

Jones later settled in London and continued to exhibit at the Royal Academy, although he had effectively given up professional painting; instead he lived off rents provided by a small estate given him by his father.  In 1789 he inherited the family home at Pencerrig and retired there, painting less in these final years, although he continued to exhibit at the Royal Academy until 1798. He died in 1803 in Pencerrig, Powys.

The Tate says:

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.

The two paintings below are in the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff.

Houses in Naples 1782
Buildings in Naples with the North-East side of the Castle Nuovo 1782

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 oil studies of the neighbouring buildings, which are remarkable for their freshness and immediacy.

Great Works: A Wall in Naples circa 1782 by Michael Glover

Good poems, it has often been said, transfigure the ordinary. They rinse the eyes so that we see the familiar anew, rendered wonderfully revitalised. The same thing could be said of a great oil sketch, such as this one by Thomas Jones. There could be few things more humdrum and insignificant from a thematic point of view than this woebegone and decrepit stretch of late-18th-century Neapolitan house-wall, with its meagre display of attention-grabbing smalls.

It almost seems to exist in order to be overlooked – or to be hurried past in the company of a snarly, scurvacious dog. It looks like the aggressive anti-type of a fashionable history painting. Which is precisely, of course, why Jones found it so fascinating.

Jones finds it so enthralling that he is clearly urging us to contemplate it for itself alone, as if it were not so much a wall as a segment of abstract patterning. There are no other considerations here. The wall practically blocks out the entire view. (Well, there is a tidy rectangle of blue sky and, beyond our wall, what looks like yet another example of its kind, sun-splashed, fairly smooth, and of a smudgy, creamy hue.) This work has no evident audience appeal. It is not destined for the august, soaring walls of the Royal Academy. Jones is making it for its own sake, and, as with Constable’s cloud studies over Hampstead Heath, it is so fresh and so good precisely because it looks snatched, impromptu, unpremeditated, uncalculated to please any potential purchaser. It reminds us that the oil sketch – which was usually a small-scale preparatory work (though seldom as small as this) – often possessed a vitality that its worked-up finished version has often seemed to lack. This is especially so in the case of Rubens.

Unlike some of the other paintings of equally modest dimensions (this is scarcely bigger than a seaside postcard; in fact, it is almost engulfed by its gilt frame) which flank it in Room 42 of the National Gallery by the likes of Corot, Eckersberg and Fleury, this wall does not form part of a landscape tricked out with tragically grandiose and sweetly poignant classical ruins. It has no such pretensions. What age is this wall? Goodness knows. It could either be newish or fairly old. Its age is beside the point. What excites Jones is the status of its objecthood, its oddly various textures, its singular decrepitude, the fact that the elements have punished it so badly, that various house beams have been punched into it and then, later on, rotted or fallen away. All this is evidence of what it may once have been, which is somewhat greater than it now happens to be. And yet, for all that it seems haunted by its past, here it still stands, like those thistles once written about by Ted Hughes which, year on year, came fighting back over the same ground.

It is a wall which is wholly rebarbative and without pity. It does not invite us in. It is nothing but the pockings and pittings of its surface, and that surface somewhat reminds us of work by the Boyle Family – those slices of reality (manhole covers, edges of pavements) that they have often chosen to replicate as free-standing, wall-hung artworks in order to prove to us quite how extraordinary these things that we habitually walk over can prove to be when we bother to look at them at all.

This wall exists to exclude us, to turn away our prurience. There are windows of a kind set into it, but it is not quite clear to us whether they are shuttered against the sunlight or not. The left-hand window may be glazed, but even if that were to be true – and it is by no means certain – we are not being permitted to see through it. No window opens into a picturesque interior scene. This wall offers us nothing but an unbudgeable, unshakeable blank stare.

The wall itself is not in good condition. It needs re-rendering. We see it in the company of nothing other than a rather lame and skeletal display of vegetation, which looks like a sickly, pale-green silhouette of itself. Part of us wants this wall to be more than it is, to be more than mere context, but the wall itself, soldiering gamely on, shouts back at us: “I am that I am. Love me for the fact that I have endured at all. Admire my wounds. Who needs the slick, sad, characterless smoothness of the new?” And then there is the no-holds-barred comedy of that washing, of course. What other artist has pushed such washing to the centre in this way? Who has made equal claims for such sad, wind-thrashed fripperies?

Houses In Naples
Houses in Naples 1782 (British Museum)

Ralph Edwards, in a catalogue for ‘the first exhibition of the artist’s recently discovered oil sketches’ held at the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff in 1970, wrote:

But it is by the studies of buildings done in Naples that Jones has made his best and most original contribution to British art. In it they have no close parallel, and are his strongest, his irresistible, claim to be accepted as a ‘little master’, proving him to have possessed rare sensibility and a delicacy of perception which he had not hitherto revealed. In these little pictures humanity is excluded and there is nothing to break the enchanted calm, while in the best examples the tone and colour are exquisite, casting potent spell on dwellings of the poor. It may seem surprising that this hardy extrovert, given to hazardous adventures and consorting with boisterous companions, should be gifted with such sensitive feeling, a power to transfigure the ordinary buildings that met his eye.

Like those of his Roman period, the studies of houses are in oil on paper, a technique employed before his time, which he first mentions when at Pencerrig in 1776. He resorted to it soon after  his arrival in Italy, and practiced it mainly in Naples for the last three years of his stay.  Jones tells us that in the April of 1781 he made several studies of  this kind, and a year later, having hired for a studio ‘a large commodious room’  in a convent near the palace of Sir William Hamilton, the British Minister, he made finished studies of a number of Neapolitan landmarks and historic buildings ‘in oil upon primed paper’. Within a month or so he moved to the third floor ‘in Naples reckoned the genteelest and consequently the dearest’ of a newly built house in the Vicolo del Canale. Here he had a superb view ‘over a great part of the city with the Bay, Mountains of Sorrento and island of Capraea – on the other side rocks, buildings and vineyards about Capo de Monte’.  In this house he spent the most pleasant part of his stay in Naples, and from the lastricia, or flat roof, doubtless many of his studies were made.

In 1954 a score or so of these beautiful little studies came on the market and were speedily absorbed by museums and private collectors, two of the best architectural studies being appropriately acquired by the National Museum of Wales (below).

The studies of  buildings in Naples are remarkable for the idiosyncratic, fastidious, colour – dusty blue, silvery grey, touches of ochre and dark green foliage; for the subtlety of the tonal relations and the telling contrasts of voids, salient angles and plain surfaces; enhanced perhaps by linen drying in the gentle breeze (Cat. No. 64). They are notably uniform in quality, and, so far as his surviving works allow us to judge, suggest that Jones, with rare exceptions, is seen at his best on a small scale.

Ruined Buildings in Naples 1782


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