Art: Tom Jones

    The first was, naturally, the eponymous hero of Fielding’s excellent moral novel, the country foundling whom town women liked and whose adventures ought surely to be near the top of the list of great books that the BBC is currently trudging through. It’s by the by, but to seek to be remembered as a culture that reads Winnie-the-Pooh rather than Tom Jones is ever so sad. The second Tom Jones is still with us. He is the belting boyo, the voice from the valleys, the singing Samson who gave us Delilah and at whom women throw their knickers. Bravo, Tom. But it is the third Thomas Jones we need here to consider most closely. He is, in the end, the one with the most intriguing pretensions to artistic greatness.

    In the field of landscape painting, Thomas Jones (1742-1803), of Trefonnen, and then Pencerrig, and then, amazingly, of Naples, could be a lost player. Certainly, he was the keenest observer of Italian walls that Wales has produced. But was this Thomas Jones more than that? Hurry along to the National Gallery, where the chance to decide awaits you in a cunning little show that spends most of its length softening you up with gently underwhelming examples of Jones’s output, but reaches a climax with a wall full of Neapolitan wall views that are truly glorious. Shorn of their context and perhaps even misunderstood, these could claim to constitute some of the most original and exhilarating landscape art produced by anyone, anywhere, in the 18th century. Thus, nine-tenths of this show argues for Thomas Jones’s essential ordinariness, while the final tenth places him on his own revolutionary summit.

    The first I heard of Jones was in 1985, when I attended a lecture entitled The Originality of Thomas Jones, delivered by the elongated Lawrence Gowing, Slade Professor of Fine Art at the time, who, though already in his seventies, had recently been asking his students to paint him naked. I don’t know why I went. Probably it was the chance to compare the rigid Gowing in the flesh with the dangling Gowing as his students envisaged him. Certainly, I had never heard of Thomas Jones.

    Hardly anybody had. He was one of those misplaced masters whose entire career had somehow slipped out of view. I now read that Jones’s re-emergence can be dated back to 1954, when a hitherto unknown cache of his oil sketches, 50 of them, appeared on the London auction market and caused a stir. In Gowing’s circles, the cry went up: who was this Welsh producer of sensationally progressive Neapolitan wall views? Gowing proceeded to slide-flash us through an unusual career. Jones was born in Trefonnen, to a family of gentlemen with money. He was not a product of Welsh poverty but of Britain’s expansive rural squiredom. His folks paid for him to study in London under the other Welsh landscape painter of note, Richard Wilson, a “gentleman painter” too, and it was from Wilson that Jones inherited most of his landscape tricks, tics and ambitions.

    The National Gallery’s display opens with a couple of big, sub-Wilsonian lake views, painted by Jones in Italy, which try to evoke the same elemental grandeur that Wilson, to his eternal credit, discovered in and around the lakes of Snowdon. Jones cannot pull it off. Wilson’s best Snowdon lake views have a core simplicity — the mountain a triangle, the lake an ellipse — that is overgrown here with fussy Italianate vegetation, irksome goatherds, soppy evening-light effects and the like. Had this been all Jones did — copy Wilson stodgily, and redden him — nobody would ever have suspected him of possessing genius.

    He was in Italy because that, of course, was what you did in the 1770s if you were an aspiring artist with moneyed parents. Having served his apprenticeship with Wilson, Jones set off for a seven-year stay in the “Magick Land” in 1776, and, once there, attempted, somewhat half-heartedly, to make a living selling picturesque views of it to other grand tourists. He could afford to be half-hearted because his family was financing him. Jones did not have to sell to stay.

    Thus, his progress around Italy has a leisurely gait to it, an absence of banal endeavour. And on the evidence presented in the National Gallery show, which focuses on his Italian years, it is only now that something real kicks in — a different talent, Jones’s talent.

    At his leisure, he was free to look more closely and independently at the Italian spectacle than his contemporaries were. It is as if he could enjoy the sights less hurriedly than they could, and had time to find his own viewpoints, rather than repeat those recommended in the grand-tourist guidebooks. Even in the Colosseum, in 1777, he finds an unusually dank and overgrown corner into which sunlight has difficulty penetrating. Various artists had found darkness and strangeness at the base of the old Colosseum. But only Jones looks up from its depths and makes such a natural wonder out of it: a canyon, a cave, a ravine.

    You sense immediately that such scenes were painted on the spot. There is something utterly first-hand about this observation: it has such conviction. A little further along in the show, the ambling Jones has reached Ariccia, on the Roman outskirts, and a stunning sequence of watercolours, all produced on May 22 or 23, 1777, has us looking up at the palazzos on the edge of the town. The sun stripes their walls with harsh shadows. They are stern. Flat.

    Fortressy. And it is in the depiction of these harsh shadows, on those decaying walls, that Jones comes into his own as a splendid capturer of urban texture.

    It is this talent that bears such unexpected fruit with the series of oil sketches of the buildings that surrounded Jones’s lodgings when he reached Naples. These are certainly his finest works. But all they consist of is walls, windows, parapets, minutely observed. The continuing freshness of these oil sketches is thrilling. Naples remains exactly like this. But it behoves me, at this point, to stress that they are only oil sketches.

    Jones was collecting location details, which, in the portentous comfort of his studio, he planned to work up into big Italianate set pieces, like the ponderous pair of lake views that open the show. Thus, judging Thomas Jones on his Neapolitan wall sketches is like judging a novel on the author’s research notes. In some aberrant recesses of the academic mind, this might be seen as a disqualification. But not by me. I only wish he had done more of them.

    Forced to return from Italy when his father died, Jones soon inherited the entire family fortune, and from then on only dabbled in art as an amateur. His best work, therefore, remained the Neapolitan oil sketches, offering, as they do, such excellent proof of the liberating influence of indolence.