The traveling exhibition “In the Light of Italy” (recently at the Brook-lyn Museum of Art and shortly to reopen at the St. Louis Art Museum) features half a dozen luminous oil sketches of Naples made in the 1780s by Thomas Jones. A further two of these extraordinary studies, in which the artist seems to compose his scene at random, and to lavish his attention on the mundane details of crumbling walls and rooftops of indeterminate age, were included in the Tate’s recent “Grand Tour” show. In both exhibitions, Jones was paired with a scarcely less remarkable artist, Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes: in London we saw his twin views of a roof-top with a clothesline at two different times of day; in Brooklyn there were views in and around Rome, and another of these twinned views of the same site under different conditions of light—Rocca di Papa in the Mist and Rocca di Papa under Clouds.

The sketches were roughly contemporary, but there is no evidence that either artist knew the other’s work. The two men have this important feature in common, that they did their sketches in oil on paper, a technique which aids speed of execution, since oil paint dries swiftly on paper. The paint is applied directly. There is no preliminary drawing, and so the technique is quite different from that used by both artists when they sketched with pen or pencil on paper, composing the elements of the scene in strong, calligraphic outline (even when these outlines were later to be painted over in watercolor). The oil sketch on paper is entirely a matter of brushwork, a study in light and color.

A further thing the oil sketches of Jones and Valenciennes have in common is that they were only discovered in this century. Valenciennes had once been well known as the leader of a neoclassical school of landscape artists, but his reputation was at its nadir when the bequest of the Princesse Louis de CroÌÀ came to the Louvre in 1930 and the Italian landscape sketches (which had all been in the same single collection since their purchase by the princess’s ancestor, the Comte de l’Espine, in 1819) were exhibited for the first time. People discovered that, insipid as they thought his finished works to have been, Valenciennes was, in private, a “devoted realist.” This gave, as Peter Galassi explains in Corot in Italy, a new perspective for understanding Corot’s early work.1

But Jones had never been well known in his lifetime, and only one of his large, mythological landscapes ever made it into one of the great collections. By happy chance, this one exceptional painting is also currently touring the United States, and the curious can catch up with it next in Toledo, Ohio, where it is appearing in the exhibition “British Art Treasures from Russian Imperial Collections in the Hermitage.”2 It was bought by Catherine II, and shows a stormy landscape with Dido and Aeneas (Jones was not a figure painter, so the figures were supplied by his friend John Hamilton Mortimer). Another of these stormy, sublime landscapes (into which Mortimer inserted a scene from The Winter’s Tale) was bought from Jones by Sir George Beaumont, the landowner, painter, and collector. Presumably Wordsworth and Coleridge would have known this picture.

Just how obscure and little valued as an artist Jones was until the middle of this century may be gauged with almost forensic accuracy from the introduction Paul Oppé wrote to his edition of Jones’s Memoirs, in which he quotes, apparently unquestioningly, Joseph Farington’s judgment that Jones’s paintings were “very cold—like china,” and includes the faint praise that “by the time that Jones reached Naples he could find a picture in a landscape and note it with a spirited touch.”3 The reason why this is such a good indicator is that Oppé himself was a great expert on British watercolors (his vast collection of at least 3000 items has just been acquired by the Tate) and would certainly have recognized Jones’s originality if there had been any evidence available. Oppé was interested in Jones’s Memoirs for the light they shed on other painters and on the world of the Grand Tour, and he was quite right. The Memoirs are vividly written, with many curious touches, as, for instance, the description of the scene painter Nicholas Dall, who “dyed of Discontent & despair from the reflection that when all the houses in the Kingdom were full of Pictures,—which he thought, in a short time, would be the case—there would be no room for any more.”

Three years after the publication of Jones’s memoirs, in 1954, an auction at Christie’s included “The property of a Lady, whose husband was a descendant of Thomas Jones, a pupil of Richard Wilson, R.A.”4 This catalog provides further forensic evidence. Nearly all the lots were snapped up by the great drawings expert James Byam Shaw, working for the London dealer Colnaghi. These were the now-famous oil sketches, making their first public appearance. Not one of them fetched as much as twenty guineas. Afterward John Gere, who began collecting oil sketches in 1956, would kick himself for not having made any purchases at this sale, for not having seen the significance of these apparently unique works. It was only, he later recalled, after seeing the sketches by Valenciennes in the Louvre and comparing them with one of the same artist’s full-scale idealized paintings, and after reading an article by Lionello Venturi on the CroÌÀ bequest (it had been published in the Art Quarterly in 1941, but Gere did not read it until 1955)—only after all this that he began to see that


the sketches were paintings of a unique kind, resembling drawings (my own professional field) in their freshness, their informality, their directness of vision, and their emphasis on effects of light and atmosphere, but having a resonance of color beyond the reach of all but the greatest watercolorists.5

Oppé clearly felt the same, for it was in 1954-1955 that he purchased the four Joneses (three of them oil sketches) which have now passed with his collection into the Tate. And it was in 1954 that K.T. Parker at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford bought the dreamy Neapolitan oil sketch which, to the modern eye, reads like a study in rectangles, a construction of receding planes of light.

By now, then, we have four well-known names “on the case”—Oppé, Gere, Parker, and Byam Shaw—but it was not until 1970 that Ralph Edwards organized the first exhibition devoted to Jones’s work, and the oil sketch itself began to gain definition as a subject. What had held people back—it turns out in retrospect—was a question of taxonomy. As Gere wrote:

These small paintings, usually on paper, are not pictures in the sense of having been intended for exhibition and for display on the walls of picture galleries or private houses. They were not even meant to be framed. They were part of an artist’s working-material, kept in a portfolio in his studio and shown only to pupils and fellow-artists. Curators of paintings dismissed them as not being pictures in the true sense, since they had the function of drawings; curators of drawings tended to reject them because of their technique. The landscape oil-sketch was thus relegated to the critical limbo from which it has only recently emerged.6

This question of taxonomy must have arisen when the National Gallery in London purchased its Thomas Jones sketch Wall in Naples (to be seen in the “Light of Italy” show—it is the one showing nothing but pockmarked wall, two uninformative windows, and some washing on a balcony; see previous page). The National Gallery does not, in principle, collect works on paper (apart from very, very grand cartoons by Leonardo da Vinci or the Carracci) and even, quite recently, divested itself of some drawings, sending them in the direction of the British Museum. But this small clothesline in Naples must have seemed more desirable than sticking to principle.

The sketch in question had been seen in America before the National Gallery acquired it: it was one of the star items in a show put on by the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1981, curated by Peter Galassi and called “Before Photography: Painting and the Invention of Photography” (appreciatively reviewed in these pages by Charles Rosen and Henri Zerner).7 The same pair of rooftop studies by Valenciennes I mentioned earlier were also in this show, appealing to the taste of anyone with an affection for Edward Hopper, seeming to confound our sense of eighteenth-century decorum and composition, and illustrating the thesis of the exhibition, which was that (as Rosen and Zerner summed it up)

the freedom and directness of photography, in order to be communicated, depended on certain modes of presentation, certain methods of cropping and points of view, that were already developed earlier in a particular kind of painting and taken over by photography.

Jones’s Wall in Naples was thus presented as a forerunner of such photographs as Auguste Salzmann’s Jerusalem, the Temple Wall, West Side (1853-1854), in which the subject of the photograph is nothing but the huge rugged stones and the plants in their interstices.

It seems to have been an excellent exhibition, and the catalog essay remains thrilling. Galassi’s subsequent career (writing his book on Corot while becoming curator of photography at MOMA) can be seen as a heroic rebellion against the vices of taxonomy. While there may be sound practical, curatorial reasons for storing works on paper in one place, oil paintings in another, and photographs in yet another, the brain itself is a place where all these items may be set side by side. 8 Galassi is guest curator of “In the Light of Italy,” which builds on and exemplifies the work of his Corot book, while adding (and this shows how the subject of oil sketches is still expanding) interesting new material. In 1991 it was known that Claude-Joseph Vernet had produced oil sketches on canvas, but none had been found. Item two in the catalog is the first such sketch to be identified.



A sketch made by an Englishman in Rome around 1650 shows a box designed for painting trips in the countryside.9 The opened lid provided the easel, onto which the paper would have been pinned. There is a section for “pincils,” a word which one must be attentive to in texts from this period, since it normally seems to mean paintbrushes (pinceaux). There is a section for an “oyle glasse” and one for paint rags, but the majority of the base of the box accommodates the palette. Since no provision is made for pigments, it is suggested that the artist would charge his palette with paint before setting off out of town—a recipe for disaster, one might think. A century later, Alexander Cozens jots down a diagram of a box for open-air painting, which is interpreted by Philip Conisbee, the curator of “In the Light of Italy,” as showing “paper mounted in the center of a rectangular board, which serves both as easel and paintbox. It is surrounded by twenty small pots for containing and mixing pigments….” This seems to imply that the whole contraption is kept horizontal, and one can’t help wondering whether the blobs Conisbee interprets as paint pots are not simply piles of pigment. In the studio, it was traditional practice for the artist or his assistant to set the palette at the beginning of the day, laying on the pigments in a given, preferred order. So perhaps it would not have seemed odd to take a ready-charged palette out into the countryside. Perhaps it would have felt odd to work in any other way.

Oil paint in tubes is an American invention, pioneered by John Rand in 1841. Preceding generations might (if rich enough) have used oil paint from glass syringes, but these were expensive and hard to refill. In Jones’s day, ready-prepared oil paint was available and came in little pigskin bladders. You punctured the bladder with a tin tack, squeezed out the required amount, and then attempted to replace the tack in its hole. This process was fraught with danger, particularly so (apparently) in the case of Prussian blue, which had a nasty habit of exploding all over your clothes.10

That some painters still mixed their own colors, or had them made up according to secret recipes, is shown by a letter from the eighteenth-century English landscape painter Sawrey Gilpin to his father, in which he has been permitted to divulge Alexander Cozens’s “method of painting with tacky collours,” the secret being: “Let Your colours be ground up with a mixture, of two parts fatt oil, & one Venice Turpentine.”11 And there is a moving piece of evidence of the care that Jones himself took with his pigments in the flyleaf of a sketchbook in the National Museum of Wales, where the artist has tried out samples of the different qualities of vermilion and crimson lake. Vermilion was apparently an unstable pigment, and one can see the way the oil has separated from it and spread into the surrounding paper. Beside each dab of color Jones has carefully noted the price, which varies between one carlina and eight carlinas an ounce. (The sketchbook also includes a shopping list for food, while the British Museum sketchbook has a recipe for onion soup.)12

Enough has been said to indicate that the assembling of equipment for open-air oil sketching would have been an interesting, complex problem. What happened when the painter arrived at his picturesque location on the Campagna was exactly what happens when a photographer today drops in on some remote barrio in the so-called developing world: one is surrounded by children. Jones describes a painting trip in which the children turn nasty and are about to pelt the artists with stones, until they are bribed with copper coins. On another occasion, in the tufa quarries near Naples, he is congratulating himself on finding a scene just like a Salvator Rosa when he comes across some Rosa-style banditi butchering the carcass of an ass. Clearly these sketching trips were not for the fainthearted.

Nevertheless, oil sketching from nature is a practice dating back to the seventeenth century, recommended in 1708 by Roger de Piles in his Cours de peinture par principes:

Others have painted with oil colours on strong paper of medium tint, 13 and have found the method convenient, in that the absorption of the colors by the paper makes it easy to put color over color, even if different, one from the other. For this purpose they carry a flat box that comfortably contains their palette, their brushes, some oil, and some colors. This method, which in truth requires a certain amount of paraphernalia, is without doubt the best for extracting from nature a maximum of detail with a maximum of accuracy, above all if, after the work is dry and varnished, one wishes to return to the scene to retouch the main things and finish them after Nature.14

And in the 1750s, we have perhaps a surprise witness, Sir Joshua Reynolds, advising a marine painter:

I would recommend you, above all things, to paint from Nature, instead of drawing; to carry your palette and pencils to the waterside. This was the practice of Vernet, whom I knew in Rome: he showed me his studies in colours, which struck me very much for the truth which those works only have which are produced while the impression is warm from Nature….

And in another source we read that Claude-Joseph Vernet always painted from Nature, “despite the difficulty of carrying with himself the necessary materials, and of placing himself so as to be able to work quietly. He had the courage to overcome those obstacles….” From Vernet himself we learn that, when making these sketches, “one must copy as exactly as possible, as much in respect to form as to color, and not believe that improvement comes from adding or subtracting; one will be able to do that later in the studio….”15

Vernet is reminding the reader what the point of sketching is not: it is not to create a composition for a large finished canvas (although one has to say that the newly discovered oil sketch is composed quite conventionally). It is to acquire one of the elements from which a composition will later be made.

The emphasis on the difficulties Vernet faced reminds us of one practical and non-pictorial reason for all the rooftop views by Thomas Jones with the blank walls and their unremarkable windows: they were painted from positions where the artist could work relatively undisturbed, without spectators gawping over his shoulder or insolent children refusing to get out of the way. Some of the city views are painted from either the rooms or the rooftop terrace of his lodgings or his studio. There he could lay out his equipment at ease, and be alone. In return for this advantage he was obliged to accept the discipline of painting whatever lay before him, however crazy the composition might seem—he knew that he was not making a composition, he was undergoing an exercise.

We love the fact that, when a church cupola is in the view, we may only get to see a fraction of it, the church itself being in dead ground. This is the opposite of the topographical sketch as practiced in Italy by an artist like Israel Sylvestre, who would have made sure that the church was fully visible, to the extent of rearranging the surrounding landscape or buildings. But Jones was a topographical artist when wearing another hat, and even in the Naples sketches there is, now, a topographical interest, since the area in which Jones worked was torn down soon after.16

It has become customary to say that, since the sketches are devoid of human beings, the viewer himself enters the scene as the sole spectator. This is indeed the effect. The cause is that Jones avoided figure painting because he was no good at it. He lacked the apprenticeship, and he lacked the apprenticeship in this and in portraiture because he lacked the money. Portraiture was good business, and you had to buy your way in. All Jones could afford to buy his way into was the art of the landscape—an art that supported neither him nor his master, Richard Wilson.


Thomas Jones was born in 1742, the second son of a landowning family in Wales. For two years he studied at Oxford, at Jesus College (still to this day a college with strong Welsh connections), and if his patron in these studies had not suddenly died intestate he would have become a clergyman. The next plan, cooked up by two of his clergy cousins, was to send him to sea. Jones’s father mournfully put this proposal to him, but Jones was outraged:

I found out that those two parsons had accidentally fallen into Company, at some Tavern or Coffee house, with the Master of a Ship bound for Barbadoes and had clap’d up a kind of bargain to bind me apprentice to him, and so pack me off for the West Indies, merely & for no other purpose but that they might have an opportunity of making a jolly party to Portsmouth—No—thought I—these pampered Priests shall never for the sake of a Jaunt of pleasure, degrade me into a Cabin-boy, after having been a member of the University two years—17

Instead he followed his own wishes and went to London to study at William Shipley’s drawing school in the Strand, where he was “reduced to humiliating Situation of copying drawings of Ears, Eyes, mouths & Noses among a group of little boys half my age who had the start of me by two or three years.” In 1762 he was admitted to the Academy for Drawing in St. Martin’s Lane, but the crucial move was to an apprenticeship with Richard Wilson, the Welsh landscape painter, then declining into drink.

My bargain with Wilson was to give him fifty Guineas for two Years—The first year I was to be confined entirely to making Drawings with black and White Chalks on paper of Middle Tint, either from his Studies and Pictures, or from Nature—This, he said, was to ground me in the principles of Light & Shade, without being dazzled and misled by the flutter of Colours—He did not approve of tinted Drawings and consequently did not encourage his Pupils in the practise—which, he s’d hurt the eye for fine Colouring.18

Wilson was not a hard taskmaster. If he found his pupils fooling around he would merely shake his head and say: “Gentlemen—this is not the way to rival Claude.” Jones left him at the end of the two years, having copied his landscapes often enough to have become infected by the desire to visit Italy—infected to such an extent that he even painted an Italian view of his own in advance of making the tour. The painting which ended up in the Hermitage was done in 1769.

Jones’s most ambitious essay in the Sublime was another large, stormy landscape called The Bard, illustrating Gray’s poem of the same title, a Pindaric ode founded, in Gray’s words, upon the “Tradition current in Wales, that EDWARD THE FIRST, when he compleated the conquest of that country, ordered all the Bards, that fell into his hands, to be put to death.” Jones takes off from the following passage:

On a rock, whose haughty brow
Frowns o’er old Conway’s foaming flood,
Robed in a sable garb of woe,
With haggard eyes the Poet stood;
(Loose his beard, and hoary hair
Stream’d, like a meteor, to the troubled air)…

Gray’s poem is one of the foundation stones of Romanticism, and this passage shows us how that movement was created. The last two lines have their poetic roots in Milton; visually, they are intended to remind the reader of Italian painting at its most sublime. Gray said in a note that the image was taken “from a well-known picture of Raphael, representing the Supreme Being in the vision of Ezekiel,” of which he knew two versions. But he also told his editor Mason that “Moses breaking the tables of the law, by Parmigianino, was a figure which Mr. Gray used to say came still nearer to his meaning than the picture of Raphael.” This is a striking observation: Gray had spent only one day in Parma, where the Moses is to be found, in 1739. In 1757, after hearing John Parry play the Welsh harp in Cambridge, he was moved to complete his poem, which had been begun not long before. Presumably he knew reproductions of the Parmigianino design.

Italian painting thus inspires the idea of what ancient Wales would have been like. Jones as it were picks up the aesthetic instruction, and uses the poem as inspiration for a further painting (just as Blake would do later). And so the Welsh bard acquires an image traceable back, in the end, to Michelangelo.

Jones’s Bard now hangs in the National Museum of Wales, in an extraordinary gallery which was refurbished last October to show paintings and other works of art illustrating the connection between Wales and the Grand Tour. You might think this a small subject. It turns out not to be. Not only is Richard Wilson there as a major artist of the Italianizing persuasion. There is also one of the major shop-till-you-drop patrons, in the shape of Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn (he dropped at the age of forty, having run up debts of å£160,000), who commissioned Robert Adam to build and furnish his London house, Wynn House (20 St. James’s Square). The occasion for the refurbishment at Cardiff was the museum’s acquisition of Adam’s beautiful pea-green organ, originally made for Wynn House. This now takes its place alongside paintings that once belonged to Sir Watkin, as well as Adam silver of the most imposing kind, Adam furniture, and some Derby porcelain believed to have been decorated with Welsh views by Jones. The effect is both sumptuously varied and intellectually concentrated—achieving more in one large room than the Tate’s (fine enough) “Grand Tour” show did in several.

Unlike later versions of the Celtic revival, such as for instance the movement in which Yeats took part, the eighteenth-century Welsh version of nationalist resurgence sprang from exactly the same roots as eighteenth-century classicism. People like Jones and Sir Watkin developed an interest in Welsh antiquity which arose as a natural consequence of their interest in, say, Tivoli or Pompeii. The part of the British eighteenth-century brain that loved stormy scenes around Stonehenge was the same part that wanted to moon around the ruined tombs on the Campagna.

The Bard was exhibited in 1774. When it failed to sell, Jones gave it away to a friend. Lawrence Gowing, whose Walter Neurath lecture of 1985 is the best thing yet written on Jones, remarks:

To have given The Bard away Jones must have valued friendship more than ambition. The truth is that retiring, unconceited people are ill-equipped to generate and foster a sense of their own artistic destiny. The other kind—I often have Matisse in mind—understand that their own self-importance is almost the most important part of their equipment.19

And Gowing has a fine quote from Constable to support this: “Take away a painter’s egotism and he will never paint again.” Gowing’s essay is particularly fascinating because it is so shot through with Gowing’s own autobiography. What Gowing loves to trace in Jones is his failure and the consequences of failure. He had failed to get into portraiture, for which he obviously was not suited. “When his attempts at the Sublime were defeated he must again have felt a secret consolation.” This is leading us to the idea that, as Gowing puts it, “Originality may be the recourse of a talent that has failed, as likely as not, in its social fulfillment, failed to find an audience, failed to satisfy its possessor.”

Jones convinced his parents to allow him to go to Rome by means of a threat:if not Rome, he would accompany Captain Cook on his voyage to the South Seas. Although startling, this is a very good threat:either project would be appropriate for a man in his mid-thirties who considered his life as an artist hitherto a failure. He arrived in Rome in 1777, and the first thing he describes is being led to his lodgings by a roundabout route, in order to avoid the English Coffee House (presumably the company could not be seen until they had washed off the grime of the road). When they eventually sally forth from their lodgings, Jones finds the English Coffee House to be

a filthy vaulted room, the walls of which were painted with Sphinxes, Obelisks and Pyramids, from capricious designs of Piranesi, and fitter to adorn the inside of an Egyptian-Sepulchre, than a room of social conversation—Here—seated round a brazier of hot embers placed in the Center, we endeavoured to amuse ourselves for an hour or two over a Cup of Coffee or glass of Punch and then grope out our way home darkling, in Solitude and Silence—20

And, as a typical Protestant, he is appalled to find his bedroom to be like a chapel, with “walls hung with dirty dismal pictures of weeping Magdelene, bloody Ecce Homo, dead-Christs and fainting Madonnas.” But, strikingly enough, that first visit to the English Coffee House brought him together with no fewer than a dozen of his friends from London. The foreign artistic community in Rome, which lived in the vicinity of the Spanish Steps, had these regular national meeting places. The German Stammtisch apparently survives to this day.

Among Jones’s British acquaintance was John Robert Cozens, the son of Alexander, to whom Jones refers as “little Cousins.” When it came to patronage, “little Cousins” had the advantage over Jones because, it would seem, the rich dilettante William Beckford had been infatuated with his father. One could imagine that Beckford’s letters to Alexander Cozens were the model for Virginia Woolf’s prose style in Orlando:

Think too of the life you led in your early years, when every month was marked by some great spectacle or splendid feast, where you still retain a faint memory of gilded halls, bright lights, & a long train of nobles led by the Empress, & moving majestically like a solemn procession to Polish measures. Is the mournful sight of Peter the Great’s funeral forgotten, when you kissed his pale hand. Remember your happy excursions in the shadowy meads, the Tents of the Elephants, the Marble rocks of Norway…21

“Little Cousins” was engaged to follow Beckford’s entourage across Europe, and to provide mementos of his patron’s “solitude.” There was a price to pay, however. Cozens made drawings of his proposed paintings, and waited on Beckford’s approval before proceeding to the finished work.

Jones knew all about that price you had to pay, as an artist, and he dearly wanted to pay the price. He wanted a patron, and he moved to Naples in order to be near Sir William Hamilton.22 But someone in the Hamilton entourage seemed to make trouble—or perhaps, as Jones doesn’t say, but as I often suspect, his Welshness was held against him. Perhaps he was thought ridiculous—a Welsh painter with a Danish common-law wife, picked up along the way.

Jones began to feel ashamed:

Looking upon my self as deserted by my Countrymen—the depression of my Spirits was such, that I endeavoured avoiding as much as possible those places where I was mostly to meet them—The greater part of my Excursions abroad were mournful and Solitary—The various picturesque Scenes of Nature still had their Charms, & I made Studies of them with ye same Ardour as ever—it was the immediate pleasure of the Moment—not from any Expectation of a future pecuniary Recompence, for the feeble glimmering hopes that remained of that sort were dying fast away—23

So it is out of this depression, this homesickness, which in those days was known as “the Swiss disease,” that the incomparable sketches of Naples emerge. Beckford sweeps through, praises Jones’s paintings, and vanishes. Hamilton finally pays a visit, but when Jones asks if he can accompany him on a trip south to inspect earthquake damage, he is, to his mortification, refused. What he has been showing these great men is an art which, no doubt, seemed out of date; what he has been tidying away before their visits, they would never have thought of as great painting. He was about 170 years ahead of his time.

His father died, and Jones went back to London, where he tried to make a living faking Wilsons and Zuccarellis and passing them off on the auction market. But his enemies fingered him and he failed even as a faker. Then his older brother predeceased him and he became the squire. He had made an honest woman of his Danish wife, and he had two daughters. He had entered into his inheritance. And so in time he invited a friend, an Italian artist he had met in Rome, Francesco Renaldi, to come and paint the family portrait in 1797. This painting hangs alongside the Joneses in Cardiff today. The wife is at the spinning wheel, like a good Welsh wife. The daughters are at the spinet, together with (perhaps) Thomas Jones’s younger brother, who did become a clergyman. Jones himself stands before an easel, with his palette, his mahlstick, and his “pincils.” On the floor in the foreground is a portfolio, which it took two centuries to open.

This Issue

March 6, 1997