Visual Arts: Beauty in the eye of an off-beat beholder

Influential but never previously exhibited, Barbara Jones's eccentric, idiosyncratic style has finally found its niche. By Annabel Freyberg
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BARBARA JONES found beauty in unlikely places. Long before popular, not to say vulgar, taste became an acceptable subject for academic study, this artist celebrated and charted the delights of tattoos, fairground rides, fireworks, ice-cream cones and the glass balls on the Christmas tree. She even wrote a book called Design for Death (1967), about the gorgeously florid coffin, tombstone and monument designs with which we once saw fit to honour the departed.

However, in spite of her reputation as an illustrator and painter in the Forties' style of Eric Ravilious and Edward Bawden, as well as the success of her idiosyncratic, pioneering and charming books such as The Unsophisticated Arts (1951) and the much-reprinted Follies and Grottoes (1953), which she both illustrated and wrote, Jones never held an exhibition. The current show of her work at the Katharine House Gallery in Marlborough is her first. It is in fact a studio sale of what remained in her Hampstead home at the time of her death in 1978. Christopher Gange, the gallery's proprietor, described the thrill of going through old leather suitcases, drawers and folders untouched for decades in search of work for the exhibition. Devotees will recognise many of the original pen-and-ink drawings from Jones's books; while the speed with which items were snapped up from the illustrated catalogue before the exhibition opened gives some indication of the regard in which she is still held. Those who have encountered neither show nor catalogue should not lose heart. The latter's 80-odd entries make up fewer than half of the works for sale. As Gange explains, with insufficent resources to record every exhibit, he decided to limit himself to a representative spread.

The pictures are displayed in the two handsome 15th-century houses that make up the gallery, along with antiquarian books and prints, Chinese terracotta tomb statues, and other antiques. The most striking assembly is upstairs, where one large and pleasingly wonky wall is filled with Jones's pen-and-ink drawings, prints and watercolours - prices start at pounds 45.

Barbara Jones trained as a muralist at the Royal College of Art in the 1930s. She was particularly accomplished at architectural decoration and was one of the artists commissioned by the Pilgrim Trust to record buildings at risk during the Second World War. Her dry and rather grey watercolours of such subjects as Alton Towers and St Paul's from the roof of The Times building have a deserted and melancholy but very period feel.

Her mural commissions included a number for the 1951 Festival of Britain - for which she also designed a (sadly unbuilt) water roundabout of Baroque shells manned by cat-gondoliers, and organised an exhibition of popular art at the Whitechapel - and a series for ocean liners. Alas, few survive; the mural at the Philips Research Laboratory at Eindhoven in Holland is a remarkable exception. Among the drawings for murals are some delightful green jungles of East Bengal for the Commonwealth Institute and a sandy-coloured 1950s watercolour of flattened exotic animal skins entitled Mosaic Design for HM Customs & Excise Offices, Southend-on-Sea. They make you want to track them down in situ. Was either mural completed? If so, does it still exist? Fortunately, this task is already underway, as BC Bloomfield, author of the catalogue's main essay, has started a book about Jones and her work. Along with illustrations - some for the children's story Twit and Howlet and the Balloon - and studies for murals, the exhibition contains watercolours from Jones's travels, book jackets, magazine covers, and paintings of greenhouses and flower-pots.

Her passion for things curious yet commonplace is catching: you find yourself eyeing shop signs and cake displays with new admiration. After all, as she wrote: "mass production makes its own traditional arts, inspired less and less by the consumers - I cannot believe that there has been public clamour for streamlined perambulators or square clocks. Soon these things will acquire at least period charm; the cycle of taste, revolving ever faster, will quickly bring them, with cinema posters and jazz lino, within our range of aesthetic appreciation; but they are not really pleasing just yet." Now, maybe, their time has come.

Barbara Jones: Paintings and Drawings is at Katharine House Gallery, The Parade, Marlborough, Wiltshire (01672 514040) until 31 July, Monday to Saturday 10am-5.30pm

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