The Naples Series by Thomas Jones

Buildings in Naples by Thomas Jones (1782)
Buildings in Naples by Thomas Jones (1782)

To start My Daily Art Display blog today I want to first look at the fascinating happening which occurred during the late seventeenth century to early eighteenth century and which was known as the Grand Tour.   It was a journey which would see travellers visit places such as Paris, Venice, Florence and culminate with the arrival at the cultural Mecca which was Rome, where they would visit the sites of ancient ruins such as the Forum and the Coliseum.  It was also to be a journey of artistic enlightenment.  The seasoned 18th century British traveller, Charles Thompson, put it succinctly when he extolled the virtue of the Grand Tour and the expectation of what would be savoured by the Grand Tourists:

 “…being impatiently desirous of viewing a country so famous in history, which once gave laws to the world; which is at present the greatest school of music and painting, contains the noblest productions of statuary and architecture, and abounds with cabinets of rarities, and collections of all kinds of antiquities…”

For some, such as artists and art scholars, it was a chance to revel in the art history of past times.  For others who were “art virgins” they would be accompanied by teachers who would give them an understanding of art and architecture.  For most it was a chance to return home with souvenirs and the ability to regale tales about their journey at fashionable dinner parties.   It was a sort of “gap year finishing school” for young gentlemen.  They would receive an all-round full cultural education.   There would be opportunities for them to hone their dancing and fencing skills and polish up on their foreign languages.  For the travellers on the Grand Tour, and it was usually young men who made the trip as the journey would be physically demanding, there were a few prerequisites.  They had to be wealthy as the Tour would last many months, even years, and the cost of their travel plus that of any accompanying teachers had to be paid for as well as the cost of the many souvenirs they would accumulate during the journey which would enhance the family’s collection back home.  By souvenirs, I am not talking about a plastic effigy of a famous building, but a landscape painting from a great artist of the time or a piece of antiquity that the dealer had probably pillaged from one of the many historical sites.  This then meant that most of the travellers came from the privileged classes.  It would have been expected that the traveller would also have a thorough grounding in Greek and Latin literature although they would often be accompanied by their tutors and have been taught the basics en route.

Like you and I, when we go on holiday we like to bring back mementos of our travels but more importantly we want to bring back photos of the places we visited and people we were with or whom we met.  Of course in the Grand Tour days of the 17th and 18th century there were no cameras to record the Tourists’ travels and so artists benefited from the patronage of Grand Tourists eager to procure mementos of their travels.   Some Grand Tourists even invited artists from home to accompany them throughout their travels, and by so doing, they could orchestrate exactly what scenes they wanted painting, whether it be ancient ruins or grand palaces, or people, who were part of their party, or just interesting people they met have met en route.

It is with this long preamble that I move closer to my featured artist.  I attended a talk at a small local museum last week which was all about a very rich and privileged young man, Sir Watkin Williams Wynn, 4th Baronet, who set forth at the age of 19, on his Grand Tour in 1768.  He returned home the following year and the total cost of his tour, including all the items he had purchased, came to £8643 and to put this into context a very good annual wage at the time was considered to be £100.  The year Sir Watkins Williams Wynn had his twenty-first birthday he asked the fashionable landscape painter, Richard Wilson, to become artist-in-residence at the Wynstay estate and Wynn had a large pavilion erected which overlooked the River Dee so as to allow Richard Wilson to paint the beautiful scenes featuring the Welsh hills which could be seen in the distance.

I am sorry to drag you through this sort of “seven degrees of separation” formula but trust me, I am getting closer to my featured artist.  Just hang in there a little longer !  My featured artist today is not Richard Wilson but one of his pupils, Thomas Jones who spent some time in Italy and who completed a series of unusual (for that time) paintings of the city.  It was a copy of one of these works which I saw as I walked around the Sir Watkins Williams Wynn’s Grand Tour exhibition which I found fascinating and as it was such an unusual depiction for its time, I had to find out more about the painter, hence today’s blog.

Thomas Jones was born at Trefonnen, a small township in the Radnorshire parish of Cefnllys in 1742.  He was the second of sixteen children, seven of whom died in childhood, to Thomas and Hannah Jones.  His father was a land owner in Trefonnen and his wife inherited a house and an estate at Pencerrig, near Builith Wells, where the family went to live.  Thomas Jones went to school at Christ College, Brecon when he was eleven years old and it was here he developed his love for pictures and drawing.  In 1758, at the age of sixteen he moved to one of Dr. Daniel William’s schools at Llanfyllin in Montgomeryshire, where he was taught by the well-known master Jenkin Jenkins.  The following year Thomas Jones was accepted as a student at Jesus College, Oxford.  The fees for attending Oxford University were funded by Jones’ maternal uncle, John Hope,  who believed that a university education would lead to his nephew entering the church.  His stay at the university was cut short with the death of his uncle at the end of 1761 and Thomas Jones decided that his future did not lie in religion nor a life at sea which was often a chosen profession for the younger sons of the landed gentry.  He believed his future was in art.

Buildings in Naples with the North-East Side by Thomas Jones (1782)
Buildings in Naples with the North-East Side by Thomas Jones (1782)

In November 1761, Thomas Jones left Wales and moved to London where he enrolled at the William Shipley’s Drawing School.  This was an establishment named after the great artist and social reformer, William Shipley, who some years earlier had founded a London arts society that would become The Royal Society of Arts, or to give it its full name, the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce, (RSA).  It was at this school that Jones was taught by the draughtsman and drawing tutor Henry Pars.    During this period in London, Jones also attended the St Martin’s Lane Academy where he studied life drawing.  Reluctantly he realised that his ability at painting figures was not good enough and he decided to concentrate on landscape painting.  All he needed now was a good landscape painter to tutor him.  As far as Thomas Jones was concerned, the best landscape painter of the time was his fellow countryman, the Welsh landscape painter, Richard Wilson.   Wilson, who is now considered the father of British landscape painting,  had himself started off studying to become a portraitist in London but had switched to the landscape genre of painting on the advice of the Italian painter, Francesco Zuccarelli, whom he met whilst living and working in Italy between 1750 and 1757.

In March 1763 Thomas Jones managed to persuade Richard Wilson to take him on as a student.  Wilson agreed to tutor him for two years for a fee of fifty guineas.  Once his tuition period with Wilson was over, he dedicated the next ten years to landscape painting in Wales and around London.  In 1765 Jones began to submit some of his works to the Society of Artists exhibitions.  This society would eventually become the Royal Academy.   In the late 1760’s a change in style in his landscape work could be detected.  At this time he began to adopt what we now term the “grand manner” by which we mean his landscape works incorporated mythological scenes or scenes from history or literature à la Claude Lorrain.   As Jones was not an accomplished figure painter he often relied on the help and collaboration from artists such as John Hamilton Mortimer, who was a British figure and landscape painter and known for his romantic paintings set in Italy.  Thomas Jones had by 1776 exhausted all his commissions and the sales of his work were falling so he decided that September to embark on his keenly anticipated journey to Italy.  He first visited and settled in Rome and stayed there for two years carrying out a number of lucrative commissions, often for wealthy English men who were on their Grand Tour.  His reputation as a landscape artist grew and he was part of the city’s hectic cosmopolitan art-scene. Following a dispute over commission with an art dealer he decided to leave the Eternal city in September 1778 and travel south to the capital of the Kingdom of the two Sicilies, Naples.  His first stay in the city lasted five months before he returned to Rome.  It was during his sojourn in Rome that he met a Danish widow called Maria Moncke who became his lover, although for the sake of respectability he always referred to her as his “maid servant”.  The couple moved back to Naples in April 1779, where Jones believed there was more scope for painting commissions.   Later, Maria gave birth to two daughters in Naples, Anna Maria in 1780 and Elizabetha in 1781.

In Naples, Jones found lodgings in a house close to the harbour which had the advantage of having a roof terrace opposite the Dogana Del Sale. It is from this very vantage-point, and from the window of his studio that he made a set of small beautifully, highly finished oil studies of the neighbouring buildings and it is these cityscape views I am featuring today. At first glance they may seem mundane and just uninteresting views from out of his window, but I love them.  They are so different to his other works and those of many artists of that time, so much so, I felt I had to make them known to you.   These works were done by Jones for his own pleasure and were never intended for exhibition or sale. However, today they are looked upon as some of the most ground-breaking pictures of their time.   In some ways they have a modern look about them.  They could have been contemporary cityscapes but remember, he painted these works almost two hundred and fifty years ago.  It was this Naples series, which he completed just before his return to Britain in 1783, on which Thomas Jones’ modern reputation is based.

The Cappella Nuova outside the Porta di Chiaia, Naples, by Thomas Jones (1782)
The Cappella Nuova outside the Porta di Chiaia, Naples, by Thomas Jones (1782)

The Cappella Nova outside the Porte did Chiai, Naples was a small oil on hand-made laid paper, measuring just 20cms x 23cms which Thomas Jones painted in May 1782.  In his diary/memoirs of May 12th 1782 he wrote about the new lodging he had temporarily moved into and from where he painted this work:

“…The Room which I was in possession of at the Convent, was large and commodious for such a place, and as it was on the ground floor and vaulted above, very cool and pleasant at this Season of the Year – The only window it had, looked into a Small Garden, and over a part of the Suburbs, particularly the Capella nuova, another Convent, the Porta di Chaja, Palace of Villa Franca, and part of the Hill of Pusilippo, with the Castle of S. Elmo & convent of S. Martini &c all of which Objects, I did not omit making finished of in Oil upon primed paper…”

This compelling view was painted from the roof terrace of the artist’s lodgings opposite the Dogana del Sale in Naples. It shows a rooftop view of the city, but the painting is dominated by the humble Neapolitan house opposite – the real subject of this work.

Jones has captured in minute detail the texture of the crumbling wall, the half-shuttered windows and doorway, all bathed in sunlight. This is one of a number of oil sketches that surfaced on the art market in 1954 and completely changed Jones’s reputation. The sketches are characterized by their humble subjects and compositional cropping, and it is this which give them a startlingly modern appearance. These works show the artist painting his daily surroundings. They were not for exhibition or sale, but simply personal works, made for his own enjoyment.  Today they are prized as some of the most innovative pictures of their time.

A Wall in Naples by Thomas Jones (1782)
A Wall in Naples by Thomas Jones (1782)

Another small oil sketch Thomas Jones completed in 1782 was entitled A Wall in Naples, which measured just 11.2cm x 15.8cm.  It is about the size of a postcard and is dwarfed by larger works in the room in which it hangs in the National Gallery of London.   It is a strange work which just depicts a decaying expanse of late 18th century Neapolitan house wall, broken up by a closed wooden balcony door, a glazed and dust covered window which allows us no view of the interior.  There is a short washing line hanging over the balcony, on which there seems to hang various coloured items of undergarments.  The wall we see before us almost blocks out the entire view, except for a small rectangle of blue sky in the top right of the painting.  One can only wonder what made Thomas Jones depict such an uninspiring view and one can understand why this work like the others were simply for his own edification and would never, in the artist’s mind, be destined for an exhibition.   We can only wonder why Jones chose this wall for his painting.  Was it because of the various textures of the pitted and pock-marked surface or maybe its decrepit state having been battered by weather appealed to him.    What are the square holes dotted around the surface of the wall?   Are they places where once there had been beams which had supported floors?

During the same year Thomas Jones painted his Naples series he received news that his father had died and so feeling slightly homesick, he decided the following year to end his six year stay in Italy and return by ship to England with his lover Maria and their two daughters.  On returning to London in November 1783, he was horrified to discover that much of his possessions and paintings he had left behind in London had been destroyed or ruined by damp.  Jones once again set about painting but now as he was receiving an annual income from his father’s estate, he did not need the money from the sale of his works and his artistic output slowly decreased.

Since returning to England, he made a number of journeys back to Wales and the Pencerrig estate where he was brought up and which was now owned by his elder brother, Major John Jones.  In 1787 his brother died and having no descendents the estate passed to Thomas Jones.  Thomas eventually married Maria in September 1789 in London.  By all accounts the decision to marry his lover and “maid servant” was not solely his decision for it is believed that his mother “laid down the law”.  Thomas Jones painted less and less in the latter years of his life as so much time was taken up looking after his beloved Pencerrig estate.  In 1791 he was elected High Sheriff of Radnorshire.  Thomas Jones died in 1803 and was buried at the family chapel at Caebach, Llandrindod Wells

His autobiography, Memoirs of Thomas Jones of Penkerrig, went unpublished until 1951 but it is now recognised as an valuable source of information on the 18th-century art world.

Author: jonathan5485

Just someone who is interested and loves art. I am neither an artist nor art historian but I am fascinated with the interpretaion and symbolism used in paintings and love to read about the life of the artists and their subjects.

4 thoughts on “The Naples Series by Thomas Jones”

  1. I know nothing of blogging, or the world of blogs. But your site is very good indeed.
    You shine light on the margins, off the beaten track, and I feel enormous gratitude for this.
    Mr Jones’s paintings have been haunting me for years, but it is difficult to find any writing on them.
    Any further nudges or suggestions would be most welcome.
    Thank you so much once again.

  2. It is almost as though Thomas Jones was creating Modernist paintings of the future. The painting almost seem like a CAD orthographic projection; no doubt a reflection of his past tutoring under the draughtsman Henry Pars. At the same time he records how all the detailed minutiae of something as mundane as a wall, a framed view of his world that represented all that he could see out of his small window. And showing how, even in his restricted view of the world he could be very creative.

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