Great Works: A Wall in Naples circa 1782 (11.2 x 15.8cm), Thomas Jones

National Gallery, London

Good poems, it has often been said, transfigure the ordinary. They rinse the eyes so that we see the familiar anew, rendered wonderfully revitalised. The same thing could be said of a great oil sketch, such as this one by Thomas Jones. There could be few things more humdrum and insignificant from a thematic point of view than this woebegone and decrepit stretch of late-18th-century Neapolitan house-wall, with its meagre display of attention-grabbing smalls.

It almost seems to exist in order to be overlooked – or to be hurried past in the company of a snarly, scurvacious dog. It looks like the aggressive anti-type of a fashionable history painting. Which is precisely, of course, why Jones found it so fascinating.

Jones finds it so enthralling that he is clearly urging us to contemplate it for itself alone, as if it were not so much a wall as a segment of abstract patterning. There are no other considerations here. The wall practically blocks out the entire view. (Well, there is a tidy rectangle of blue sky and, beyond our wall, what looks like yet another example of its kind, sun-splashed, fairly smooth, and of a smudgy, creamy hue.) This work has no evident audience appeal. It is not destined for the august, soaring walls of the Royal Academy. Jones is making it for its own sake, and, as with Constable's cloud studies over Hampstead Heath, it is so fresh and so good precisely because it looks snatched, impromptu, unpremeditated, uncalculated to please any potential purchaser. It reminds us that the oil sketch – which was usually a small-scale preparatory work (though seldom as small as this) – often possessed a vitality that its worked-up finished version has often seemed to lack. This is especially so in the case of Rubens.

Unlike some of the other paintings of equally modest dimensions (this is scarcely bigger than a seaside postcard; in fact, it is almost engulfed by its gilt frame) which flank it in Room 42 of the National Gallery by the likes of Corot, Eckersberg and Fleury, this wall does not form part of a landscape tricked out with tragically grandiose and sweetly poignant classical ruins. It has no such pretensions. What age is this wall? Goodness knows. It could either be newish or fairly old. Its age is beside the point. What excites Jones is the status of its objecthood, its oddly various textures, its singular decrepitude, the fact that the elements have punished it so badly, that various house beams have been punched into it and then, later on, rotted or fallen away. All this is evidence of what it may once have been, which is somewhat greater than it now happens to be. And yet, for all that it seems haunted by its past, here it still stands, like those thistles once written about by Ted Hughes which, year on year, came fighting back over the same ground.

It is a wall which is wholly rebarbative and without pity. It does not invite us in. It is nothing but the pockings and pittings of its surface, and that surface somewhat reminds us of work by the Boyle Family – those slices of reality (manhole covers, edges of pavements) that they have often chosen to replicate as free-standing, wall-hung artworks in order to prove to us quite how extraordinary these things that we habitually walk over can prove to be when we bother to look at them at all.

This wall exists to exclude us, to turn away our prurience. There are windows of a kind set into it, but it is not quite clear to us whether they are shuttered against the sunlight or not. The left-hand window may be glazed, but even if that were to be true – and it is by no means certain – we are not being permitted to see through it. No window opens into a picturesque interior scene. This wall offers us nothing but an unbudgeable, unshakeable blank stare.

The wall itself is not in good condition. It needs re-rendering. We see it in the company of nothing other than a rather lame and skeletal display of vegetation, which looks like a sickly, pale-green silhouette of itself. Part of us wants this wall to be more than it is, to be more than mere context, but the wall itself, soldiering gamely on, shouts back at us: "I am that I am. Love me for the fact that I have endured at all. Admire my wounds. Who needs the slick, sad, characterless smoothness of the new?" And then there is the no-holds-barred comedy of that washing, of course. What other artist has pushed such washing to the centre in this way? Who has made equal claims for such sad, wind-thrashed fripperies?

ABOUT THE ARTIST

Thomas Jones (1742-1803), born in Radnorshire and a pupil of Richard Wilson, is best known as a landscape painter of his native Wales and for his studies of Neapolitan buildings. His extraordinary art came back to public attention in the 1950s with the publication of his memoirs.

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)

comedy

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own
    Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

    The secret CIA Starbucks

    The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
    Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

    How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

    The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
    One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

    One million Britons using food banks

    Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

    The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
    Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
    Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

    Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

    They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
    Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
    The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

    The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

    Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
    How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

    How to run a restaurant

    As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
    Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

    Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

    For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
    Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

    Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

    The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
    10 best tote bags

    Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

    We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
    Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

    Paul Scholes column

    I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England