Thomas Jones’s ‘A wall in Naples’

January 29, 2021 3 Comments

This week Patrick McGuinness reminded his Twitter followers of a two-part poem he published in his 2004 collection The Canals of Mars, called ‘Two paintings by Thomas Jones’.  The first part, ‘A wall in Naples’, goes like this:

Thomas Jones, A wall in Naples (c1782) (National Gallery, London)

I look and look until the nothing that I see
perfects itself. I perfect its lack of interest,
as if to show how it would not exist
were I not here to see it (though people see

it every day): a wall in Naples, cracked
plaster, and beneath it brick, a horizontal
line of balcony, some hanging clothes racked
along a clothesline, and above it, pale

and ordinary blue, the sky. It’s nothing –
it blocks the view; then, as I’m looking,
it becomes the view: in front of me, time’s slack,
the world’s swerve painted as it turns its back.

Especially since Lawrence Gowing drew attention in his Walter Neurath Memorial Lecture of 1985 to ‘The originality of Thomas Jones’, poets and others have stood in front of ‘The wall in Naples’ in the National Gallery in London, and wondered at its strangeness.

To judge by the rest of his output, Thomas Jones of Pencerrig (1742-1803) was a very able artist, but a representative one.  His paintings, almost all landscapes, follow familiar conventions of contemporary painting.  His big picture ‘The bard’ (1774) is notable for its contribution to Welsh historical myth-making, and the oil sketches he made of the landscape near his home in Radnorshire have a freshness that’s rare for their period.  But the Naples ‘wall paintings’ are different.  They’re unique in Jones’ work, and unparalleled in the eighteenth century.  In the simplest possible way, they put on view ‘the nothing that I see’. 

Thomas Jones, Buildings in Naples (1782) (National Museum Wales)

Of the ten or so oil paintings (they’re more than ‘sketches’) Jones made of ordinary buildings in and around Naples in 1782 ‘A wall in Naples’ is the most radical.  Gowing called it ‘one of the great microcosms of painting’.  It’s painted on a tiny piece of paper (11.2 x 15.8cm), laid on board.  Its forms are as geometrically strict as any middle-period Mondrian.  Jones deliberately avoids suggestions of depth.  (Another of the sketches, The National Museum of Wales’s ‘Buildings in Naples’ has a background of numerous buildings, but their shapes are presented in the same plane, drained of perspective.)  Jones ‘blocks out’ the spaces of the picture in the same way as he draws the plan of his Naples studio in May 1780 (included in his manuscript ‘Memoirs’ in the National Library of Wales).

Thomas Jones, Plan of his Naples studio (‘Memoirs’, 142r) (National Library of Wales)

A tall yellowy wall fills nearly all the space.  Only its top is visible, so we can get no feel for the building it belongs to.  In a strip above the wall is a horizontal, uniform slab of blue sky and beside it the uniform creamy section, a suggestion of another building behind.  The wall is far from uniform.  It shows its age.  Its grey plaster has peeled to revealed the underlying bricks, rain has run streaks down part of the plasterwork, and there are dark holes that once held scaffolding poles.   A window and a door, both shut, break the blank face of the wall.  The eye moves over the wall’s surface, feeling its way as if it had fingers.

Guiseppe Marchi, Thomas Jones (1768) (National Museum Wales)

Most of Jones’s other ‘wall paintings’ give no clue that his buildings might be inhabited. No people are visible in ‘A wall in Naples’, but there are a few traces of their work – or, to be precise, women’s work – almost but not quite at the centre of the painting.  Washed clothes are drying in the sun.  Two items hang from a line, two others are draped from the surround of a window balcony (one of them, a long piece of cloth, casts a long shadow on the wall behind – the single, subtle indication of depth in the whole picture.  Lawrence Gowing pointed out that the colours of the laundry echo colours elsewhere in the painting, especially the blue of the sky and the green of the foreground foliage.

Nothing could be more are mundane than these hanging garments.  Washing and drying laundry was, and still is, a constant in household chores.  But, very quietly, Jones invests his clothes with a universal presence or completeness.  Abstracted from the labour that produced them and the woman who provided the labour, they hang perfectly still, unmoved by any breeze, falling vertically or in a shallow catenary curve.

From his standpoint opposite, possibly on what he called the ‘lastrica’ or terrace roof of one of the apartment blocks he lived in, Jones painted, directly and simply, exactly what he saw.  Or so it would seem.  His choice of what to paint was little short of revolutionary.  No other artist of the time would have thought the scene in any way worth the expense of paper and paint, even for a small sketch.  Its potential for what painters in Italy were after – the grandeur of classical ruins, the charm of the Picturesque or the shock of the Sublime – was precisely zero.  The only part of Jones’s Memoirs that might refer to his radical insight is this sentence, dated December 1782:

Besides painting on the Pictures, I had in hand, I began several Studies of the different Scenes & Objects seen from the Windows on both Sides, some of which were painted in Oil, & some in Water Colors –

Francesco Renaldi, Thomas Jones and his family (1797) (National Museum Wales)

In ‘A wall in Naples’ space and time come together in a single, tranquil present.  In McGuinness’s words, ‘the nothing that I see perfects itself’.  He goes on to question the solidity of the moment and the place.  In what way does it exist, outside the vision of the artist and the vision of the viewer, especially given its apparent ‘lack of interest’?  If the viewer were not there, would it disappear?  (This seems a reference to George Berkeley’s famous need to invoke the eye of God in order to guarantee the continued existence of unviewed objects in the world.)  At the end of the poem, though, the wall reveals itself and recovers significance.  It may look at first sight like ‘nothing’, an obstruction to seeing other, more interesting aspects of the world.  But once the eye has adjusted, the picture suddenly falls into place in the space-time continuum: ‘time’s slack, / the world’s swerve painted as it turns its back’.

Thomas Jones, A wall in Naples (c1782) (National Gallery, London)

An earlier poem about ‘A wall in Naples’, written by Andrew Motion in 2000, speaks in the voice of the baffled poet, wondering how to respond to the painting.  The same question is raised, ‘When we look at the wall, what are we, artist and viewer, looking at?’  Scaffolders’ holes, rain-streaks and washing?  The indentations of ‘tiny meteors’ on a board?  Perhaps all that matters is the work the artist does: making marks on paper, searching for ‘signs of life’:

                                                This wall,
I mean, which faces me over the street.
Smooth as a shaven chin

but pocked with the holes that the scaffolders left
and flicked with an overflow-flag. Which still
leaves pigeon-shit, rain-streaks, washing –

or maybe the whole thing’s really a board
where tiny singing meteors strike.
How can we tell what is true? I rest my case.

I rest my case and I cannot imagine a hunger
greater than this. For marks.
For messages sent by hand. For signs of life.

What Thomas Jones thought he was up to in his Naples wall paintings is impossible to know.  In 1795, however, he published a poem included in James Baker’s Picturesque guide to the beauties of south Wales.  Entitled ‘Petraeia’, a bilingual Greek/Welsh pun on the etymology of his home, Pencerrig, it makes plain that what guided his painting brush was not ‘fancy’s maze’ but Nature.  Nature, though, Jones clearly interpreted in a broader way than any of his artist contemporaries.

In these sweet shades kind nature did impart
Her first choice lessons to my infant heart,
Guided my youthful pencil not to stray
From Nature’s laws (and Nature led the way)
Nor let it wander wild in fancy’s maze,
But shew’d the beauties she herself displays.

There’s other poetic evidence, though, for Thomas Jones’s attachment to the mundane and the everyday.  In ‘Grasso’, a skit that appeared in the Gentleman’s magazine in February 1797, he writes:

What! eggs to night and last night!
And eggs the night before!
Must ev’ry night be fast-night?
I’ll have these eggs no more. –

Of foetid oil and sallad,
I’m sure, I’ve had enough;
You’ve quite destroy’d my palate
With such vile meagre stuff.

Tired of eggs, oil and salad, Thomas Jones left Italy in 1783. Six years later he retired with his family to Pencerrig, which he’d inherited on the death of his brother John, and devoted himself to improving his small estate and living the life of a minor squire. He’d left professional art behind in London, but continued to make paintings in and around Pencerrig, just to please himself. Two of them, watercolour studies of rocks painted in 1796, recapture the spirit of his Naples ‘wall paintings’, with their close-up scrutiny of geometric surfaces in nature. They look forward to the miraculous watercolours John Sell Cotman painted in Yorkshire in 1803, the year Jones died.

Thomas Jones, Studies of rocks near Pencerrig (1796) (Yale Center for British Art)

Comments (3)

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  1. Dafydd John Pritchard says:

    Onid difyr, weithiau, yw gwylio
    dim yn digwydd? Wedi’r cyfan, mae’r paent,
    hyd yn oed, wedi hen sychu a’r ysbrydoliaeth
    wedi mynd at ei gwobr. Mae’r lliwiau,

    wrth gwrs, yn aros, er bu pylu yn eu hanes nhw.
    Ond nid oes pylu ar linellau syth nac awydd
    haul, mewn golygfa brin ei hawel,
    i blicio carreg ac i sychu dillad.

    A chofiwn ddoe (ynteu echdoe oedd hi?) pan
    oedd yr haul yr un mor danbaid, y llinellau’r
    un mor syth a’r dillad, hwythau, yr un mor
    amyneddgar uwchlaw cysgod gwyrdd y dail.

  2. Amanda says:

    Hi,
    Thank you for this article. Reading it was like a holiday for my brain. I’ve added seeing this painting onto things to do after lockdown list. X

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