Thursday, 4 December 2014

Charles Jones

Here’s another artist I had never heard about until recently… On their return from England, my Mum and stepdad Andrew splashed out on a magazine at Gatwick Airport. It’s a beautiful magazine – possibly one of the most elegant publications I have ever laid my hands on. It's almost more bookish in appearance, or maybe a periodical, and is called ‘The Art Book Magazine’. You can see a digital version of the journal here:, but I recommend actually splashing out on a real copy if you can find one as embracing the pages is such a delight. The idea behind The Art Book Magazine was conjured up by the genius Oscar Humphries, who wanted to create a publication that celebrated the beauty of art unlike most contemporary sources. In his words ‘what we need is a magazine that presents, in a contemporary way, the best art ever made: those masterpieces that engage, at once, the heart and the head’.  

Broad Beans by Charles Jones

So yes, I was just flicking through and getting a feel when Charles Harry Jones (1866-1959) popped up. Well, his images did. There they were, in all their glory; beautifully plump, velvety broad beans lined in metallic, militant rows. The work reminded me of Karl Blossfeldt (1865 –1932), but I knew straight away that it wasn't Blossfeldt’s work. This work was more organic and natural. In fact, I have thought about these two photographers all week since seeing Jones’ work for the first time and it’s taken me this long to write this post because of it. It irritated me that I couldn’t really put into words how the work from these two photographers differed, but it does. I wanted to say that Jones’ work was more sensual, but then some of Blossfeldt’s work is very sensual. I wanted to say Jones’ work has a tranquil quality to it, but so does Blossfeldt’s. After much thought I have concluded that the difference between the two comes to the level of processing when orchestrating their compositions. One can see that Charles was quite clearly showing how beautiful the fruits of his labour really were and maybe that's all there is.

Pea pods by Charles Jones

You see, Charles was actually an English gardener. From the 1890s, Charles Harry Jones began to work on a number of private estates in England as a gardener, including Great Ote Hall, near Burgess Hill in Sussex. In this profession he was renowned enough to have been featured in a glowing 1905 article in The Gardener's Chronicle about his place of employment.  It stated in part, "The present gardener, Charles Jones, has had a large share in the modelling of the gardens as they now appear for on all sides can be seen evidences of his work in the making of flowerbeds and borders and in the planting of fruit trees, etc..."  Sadly though, what no one realized then, or for another seventy-five years, was that this same gardener was also this brilliant photographer of uncommon sensitivity who chose as his subject matter the very produce and plants which he grew. It is in his treatment of vegetables and fruits that Jones really did transform the ordinary into the extraordinary.

Charles Jones

The strength of Jones's photographs is in the subtlety of his arrangement, lighting and focus.  They do not have the over the top decorative qualities typical of the Edwardian age in which they were created.  Instead, his works anticipate the modernism of photographers  such as Edward Weston and Karl Blossfeldt without the attendant formalism of twentieth century aesthetics.  The photographs of Charles Jones certainly have a simplicity to them, that is spare and direct.

Karl Blossfeldt

Cabbage Leaf by Edward Weston

Pepper by Edward Weston

Jones's work was sadly never exhibited in his lifetime, and his talent as a photographer went largely unknown, even to his family. He died in Lincolnshire on 15 November 1959, aged ninety-two. After his death, Charles’ exquisite photographs of fruits, vegetables and flowers remained hidden for a further 22 years, until they were finally discovered by accident in a trunk, along with hundreds of other Edwardian era photographs by Sean Sexton at Bermondsey antiques market. Apparently, two-thirds of the collection mainly comprised of vegetables and the remaining third was evenly divided between between fruits and flowers.  The photographs were fastidiously annotated with the name of each plant followed by the initials ‘C.J.’, although a few had the full name of the photographer.  Meticulously printed gold-toned silver prints from glass plate negatives, the majority of the photographs were unique with very few duplicates. Since Sexton's discovery, the collection has slowly been dispersed by him through auction houses and by other means. According to Charles Jones's granddaughter, Shirley Sadler, Charles was a private and uncommunicative individual, and she confirmed that his activities as a photographer were virtually unknown to his family. However, she did recount her aged grandfather using some discarded glass plates as cloches in his garden...

Cauliflowers by Charles Jones

Luckily for us, Charles Jones has been the subject of a book by Robert Flynn Johnson and Sean Sexton with a preface by Alice Waters called Plant Kingdoms: The Photographs of Charles Jones (Smithmark Publishers, New York, 1998). So, if you want to read more on the subject I suggest that might be a good place to start.  If you want to see his work in the flesh, his vintage photographs can be found in the collections of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, San Francisco, the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Further reading:

Charles Jones

1 comment:

  1. Hi Jess
    Sorry a bit slow with this - what great images & compositions. Black & white photography has, and will continue to be a most sympathetic and emotional art form, especially for the living world.