Plant Kingdom: Secret garden

Eighteen years ago hundreds of photographs of fruit, vegetables and flowers turned up in a London market. A dealer bought them for a song and saved them from the rubbish tip. Today, they are acknowledged

as works of genius, the creations of a reclusive Victorian gardener, Charles Jones, and each print is valued at thousands. Jonathan Dyson unravels the mystery

Five dark, pitted beets stand upright against a white backdrop. Pulled from the earth, shorn of leaves and roots, they seem strangely alive. They have the aura of standing stones, the menace of thugs blocking your path. Turn a page and six cabbages are placed in a pyramid. The neglected and ubiquitous become unique, magisterial. Each cabbage stares back at you, defying your expectations. Celery, radishes, redcurrants, tulips, red hot pokers: all are transformed. But the hand and the eye responsible for these photographs was not a great, acknowledged artist, but a humble gardener, Charles Jones. And the images are not, as they appear, modern, or modernist, but from the turn of the century, generations ahead of their time. Why they were taken, no one knows. It was pure chance that they were saved from oblivion. An Irish photographic collector, Sean Sexton, stumbled across them at Bermondsey market in 1981. Now, finally, they are being presented to the world, in a book, and in exhibitions, in London, Lausanne and San Francisco, ready to receive the acknowledgement they are so belatedly due.

The little that is known about Charles Jones came to light two years ago, again by chance, thanks to the photographer's oldest surviving granddaughter, Shirley Sadler. "I was just switching on the television before a science programme. I caught the end of Sean Sexton talking about these photographs. I think he was talking about the pears. I was flabbergasted. I sort of screamed, that's my grandfather, and then the programme ended, so I wrote to the producer." Shirley Sadler recently retired. She has moved out of London with her partner Tony - "a late match" - to a large detached house in a leafy suburb of Ipswich. Smart and sprightly, she serves tea and biscuits in a sunny drawing room overlooking a long back garden. Tony, amiable, leaves us in order to supervise decorators in the hallway. Shirley is obviously pleased at the turn of events. She had always known about the plant photography but, like everyone else, had always regarded it as "just funny old turnips".

She produces her grandparents' photograph album, passed down to her because no one else wanted it. Victorian family portraits are interspersed with documentary images - factories, a horse-drawn lawnmower, a foundry - and then, at the end of the book, dozens of carefully annotated photographs of pears and grapes, many of the varieties long since out of cultivation. Shirley has now had the album valued, on Sean's advice. She is beginning to revise her ideas about a man whom, it unfolds, no one ever had much affection for, a strange man, reclusive, distant, who was born in 1866 and lived until 1959, but never had electricity or an inside loo, who for many years refused to claim his pension, and, she recalls, made cloches out of old glass photographic plates.

For the collector Sean Sexton, Shirley Sadler was the key to at least the partial unravelling of a mystery which had dogged him since that discovery. Sexton has been collecting and dealing photographs and antique cameras since 1973. Born in County Clare, one of eight brothers, he left school at 16, dodged the priesthood and moved to London. He did a variety of unskilled jobs - on the railways, driving a truck - before getting hooked on collecting. He is self-taught. "I didn't go to school and I didn't go to university but I went to the best fucking universities you can think of, Sotheby's and Christies." Passion and bad language drive every sentence. Huddled in his shabby flat in north London late one rain-swept evening, surrounded by photographs and auction catalogues, he tells long, involved stories about the trade - "Jesus, the characters I've met, you've no fucking idea. You can forget your Lovejoy" - and about his own life. Struggle is the main theme. The slog of collecting, getting up at dawn and doing the markets - his best friend, a collector, died last year, worn down by it, says Sean. His own marriage was destroyed by it - "another casualty - all the money going on this and that".

His main collecting interest is Irish historical photographs. He is currently working on his second book of collected Irish photographs: Anglo gentry, peasants being evicted from their homes during the famine, Fenians in the 1860s. He is passionate about Irish history and English oppression - when someone once foolishly asked him if he came from the north or the south, he of course replied, "Neither, I'm from Ireland."

Ironic, really, that his name, and perhaps his fortune, may be made from photographs taken by an Englishman who, among his other subjects, celebrated that most cursed of vegetables in the long story of Ireland's woes, the potato.

"I'd got there four hours late, about 9 o'clock," says Sean, finally getting to the story of the discovery after various excursions and tirades. "It's a soul-destroying fucking spot, Bermondsey. I don't know what happens before the sun comes up but the cold air seems to come in off the Thames. I haven't been there for years now, it's too fucking much." Doing the rounds of the open-air market, he reached one of his main stops, a photographic stand. He noticed a couple of boxes of photographs under the trestle and asked what they were. "`Don't bother your head," said the dealer, "you're too late. All the others have had a look at them. There's nothing there for you." I said can I have a look and I pulled out the photographs, and I thought, Jesus. At first I thought it might have been Atget [Eugene Atget, whose spare, documentary-style photographs of belle epoque Paris acquired a later cult following] because of the tonal quality, very similar to Atget, and the same process I think. And I thought, Jesus, he must have come to London and done still-life. I can date a photograph to two years either side and I thought 1900, this predates all the other fuckers. Then I came across the name Charles Jones.

"Now there was this guy standing alongside me from New York who's got a gallery there now, who'd just turned them down, and he says, `What are you looking at this stuff for?' You see, the experts, their eye is learnt from books, with me, I was born into farming stock and you always had to judge and observe everything, land, cattle, horses, and I just have this gift of recognising artistic photographs." The dealer quoted a price for the 500- plus images, less than half what it had been earlier in the day. "He wanted rid of the stuff. I reckon it would have been dumped or sold off or put in an attic." Sean asks me not to reveal how much he actually paid, although he admits it was a "nominal" sum. His circumspection seems to be out of deference to the feelings of the dealer. "You don't want to break their fucking spirit. It can affect people. It's like saying, I won the pools and you were a number out."

Sean breaks off the story. He goes to the bathroom down the corridor and washes his hands. He returns and unlocks a case on the desk in front of us. We slowly go through just a fraction of the original Charles Jones prints - vegetables, fruit, flowers. "Every time he got the composition right. A mere photographer would have click clicked clicked like the rest of them but every time he got it right." The photographs, gold-toned gelatin silver prints taken from glass-plate negatives, vary in size. Three different cameras were used, Sean thinks. The images have survived remarkably well, despite the years of neglect. The depth and detail is extraordinary, the result of long exposures and the careful use of contrasting backgrounds. The flowers and fruits, it appears, were often photographed in situ, the backdrops set up as necessary - in the middle of flower beds, halfway up a tree. "I can't think of another photographer like this guy. It's such a body of work."

In the years since his find, Sean has placed a few of the photographs at auction every year, testing the market and building up interest, the photographs' value gradually rising from hundreds to thousands of pounds each. It was this which led to the meeting with his collaborator on the book and exhibition project, Robert Flynn Johnson, a curator at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. "I was used to seeing the occasional photographs which Sean put in Sotheby's sales from time to time," says Flynn Johnson. "I had no context for them but I just thought they were wonderful. Initially, I thought they were clearly deep into the 20th century. When I realised they were turn of the century, it was amazing.

"I think one of the keys to the photographs is that they do not have the artsiness of arrangement that you see in Victorian photographs where the plants are made into a pretty little arrangement like a Dutch still- life, nor are they artsy in terms of shadow or placement like Edward Weston, nor are they scientific. They have a simplicity about them, almost like Shaker furniture, spare and direct, which makes them special. They stop you cold. Jones has taken a subject which we don't see artistically and he's made us look at these things with a whole new eye which is the greatest compliment you can give an artist."

Three years ago, Flynn Johnson came to England. He met Sean by chance - of course - at Portobello market in west London, where both were searching for photographs. They got chatting. Sean, it seems, took a shine to Flynn Johnson because of his Irish surname. They went for coffee. "Towards the end of the coffee he said, do you know who Charles Jones is, and I said, yes, but I've never seen a real one, and he winked at me and he said, they're mine, and I winked back at him and said, I really like them, and we got to talking and I said I'd love to write about them." The project only finally became feasible, however, with the appearance of Shirley Sadler, and the authentication and information she could provide. A picture of Charles Jones himself began to take shape: born in Wolverhampton in 1866, the son of a master butcher, during the 1890s he had worked in the gardens of several private estates, most notably Ote Hall in the parish of Wivelsfield near Burgess Hill, Sussex. In 1894, at the age of 27, he married Harriet Meadows, the head cook at Ote Hall. While at the Hall, he was evidently a successful enough gardener to earn a long, laudatory mention in the Gardeners' Chronicle of 20 September 1905, preserved in the family photograph album:

"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. A beautiful herbaceous border is one of his most recent additions to the gardening features around the Hall ... Pleasing as are these decorative portions of the gardens, the fruit and vegetable portions are equally so and this especially applies to the fruit gardens. Mr Jones is quite an enthusiastic fruit grower and his delight in his well-trained fruit was readily apparent."

Sometime between then and 1910, Jones, together with his wife and children, left Ote Hall and resettled in a house in Bourne in Lincolnshire where he remained until his death. Why they moved there and to what extent he continued with gardening and photography remain a mystery. Certainly, the photographs acquired by Sexton all appear to date from a period of only a few years, at Ote Hall, although the Gardeners' Chronicle article noticeably fails to mention anything about this at all at a time when such an expensive, time-consuming pursuit by a person in his position would have been extremely unusual.

Shirley Sadler's personal memories of her paternal grandparents date from the Forties, during the war, when they went visiting. "I don't remember looking forward to going," she says. "Bourne was a little old market town. It seemed rather a lost place. I can remember the house: the passageway had brown lino going down it and there was the smell of oil from the stove. The kitchen had a scullery and huge stone larder, a walk-in one with that smell of food because it's been used for that for so many years, almost pungent. Then beyond that there was the outside loo with its spiders and wooden seat. I remember climbing into a high iron bedstead with my sister and sinking into this feather mattress. They didn't move with the times at all. I know I heard through an aunt that they had to persuade my grandfather to accept the pension because they felt it was accepting charity, so what they were living on I don't know. It must have been very difficult."

The picture she paints of family relations is not a happy one. "Grandfather was very, very strict, a real martinet, and it didn't leave his children with a lot of affection for him. It was a very uncommunicative family, and I think that's why we have this problem of not knowing much about him because he was quite distant. He certainly didn't communicate his enthusiasm for photography to anyone we knew. Grandmother was kept down, she was always in the kitchen. She was a brilliant cook - the old school. I think she was a kindly and very religious soul. She prayed over us when there was an air-raid siren and I remember her trying to teach us the catechism. She thought we were an irreligious lot because my parents hadn't had a church wedding and were almost considered to be living in sin. I remember my grandmother was a very large woman and he was a rather small chap; maybe that was why he was so bad-tempered."

Shirley thinks the fact that only one of her grandparents' five children - her own father, Eric - married and had children may have been because of their childhood, the lack of communication and affection. "I think they were all sort of blocked off by their upbringing, it was very strict and Victorian." And it was due to the family's dearth of grandchildren that the photographs left the family. When Charles died the house was cleared by the oldest uncle who, among other things, smashed up the original plates, some of which were being used for cloches, the rest of which were stored in an outhouse. But Shirley thinks he probably kept the photographs. It was when he died, childless, that the photographs must have come on to the market. Shirley didn't go to either of her grandparents' funerals - she can't remember why not - and her last memory is of her grandmother, who outlived Charles by a few years. "I remember seeing her in a huge bed at an aunt's. In those days people used to take to their beds and stay there."

For Sean and Robert, the picture painted by Shirley answered a lot of questions, but left others unanswered. As Flynn Johnson says, "We're talking about someone who is seemingly - and I use the term seemingly because we just don't know yet - rather naive in their artistic training but who intuitively has a sense of composition and order and such a tremendous respect and love for his subject-matter because he grew the darned things himself." Flynn Johnson is inclined to class Jones in the ranks of the so-called "outsider artist". "An outsider artist is someone who makes art and makes quite a body of art and doesn't show it to anybody. They've written a thousand-page novel and they show it to nobody. An outsider is not asking for any recognition from the world."

Both Flynn Johnson and Sean hope the publicity surrounding the book and exhibitions will lead to further discoveries. Perhaps there are other neglected cardboard boxes stuffed with Charles Jones photographs. Perhaps the true origins and nature of his photographic career will be revealed. Shirley doesn't seem unduly concerned that the photographs, now potentially very valuable, were allowed to slip out of the grasp of the family. Perhaps if her circumstances had been less assured she would have felt differently. "I think I feel humility," she says, "because the family didn't recognise the photographs so in a way we don't deserve to have them. I'm just glad someone recognised their quality and they're not lost altogether. They could never have seen the light of day"

`The Plant Kingdoms of Charles Jones' (pounds 16.95) is published by Thames & Hudson on 5 October. A selling exhibition of photographs runs at Hamiltons, 13 Carlos Place, Grosvenor Square, London W1 (0171-499 9493), 2-31 October. Prices, per print, from pounds 1,800-pounds 3,000. And if you go down to Bermondsey market today ...

Bermondsey market was, until recently, infamous for enjoying the protection of the ancient law of Market Overt under which anything bought there in good faith between sunrise and sunset was the legal property of the purchaser even if it was stolen. This so-called Thieves' Charter was finally outlawed following a notorious case in 1992 when council worker Jim Groves bought a Gainsborough portrait for pounds 85 and a Reynolds for pounds 60 there. Both, it later emerged, had just been stolen from Lincoln's Inn across the river and their real value was upwards of pounds 100,000. A campaign spearheaded by the Council for the Prevention of Art Theft (Copat) finally led to the law - which also applied to several other antiques markets - finally being overturned in 1994. Bermondsey market has been at its present address, on the site of the old Bermondsey Abbey, five minutes south of the Thames, since 1950. Before that it was off the Caledonian Road in north London. Although the official opening time is 7am, each and every Friday, come rain or shine - or snow - the really serious deals get struck before dawn, by torchlight. The less zealous dealers begin arriving about six, and the bleary-eyed members of the general public, and the contingents of Japane se and American tourists, appear with daybreak. When I turned up there recently with two market regulars - Tim Knox, architectural historian for the National Trust, currently renovating his three-storey 1740 home in Stepney Green together with partner Todd, and Annabel Freyberg, joint design-page editor of The Independent - things were already in full swing at 6am. The market is arranged over two and a bit squares which are crammed with ramshackle trestle tables. arranged in narrow rows. At a glance it looks like a giant open-air jumble sale, but there are certainly treasures in among the tatty and the kitsch. The more thorough dealers take several hours working their way round. Others, with more specific interests or just less patience, whip round in 90 minutes, honing in on items of interest - in Tim's case, architectural drawings, in Annabel's, pottery. As Tim is quick to point out, it is not just the possibility of stolen goods that you have to be aware of. There is also a large number of fakes about, everything from "original" Cocteau cartoons to cast-iron toys to Chinese tomb warriors and the ubiquitous Staffordshire pottery dogs. Those in the know regard this no t with a Watchdog-like horror, but with a certain amused regard for those dealers who have the nous to persuade gullible tourists to part with sweaty bundles of traveller's cheques. But what about another Charles Jones? Well, certainly not on the day we went, although perhaps we could have been a little more thorough beneath the trestles. Our final haul consisted of one 19th-century Belleek shell jug, badly chipped, pounds 5 (Annabel) a turn-of-the-century small horn mug, pounds 10 (Annabel again), two 19th-century photographs of a newly completed Scottish estate, possibly even Balmoral, pounds 5 (Tim) and three 19th-century plates marked West Ealing Congregational Church, pounds 6 (Tim again). Post-market comfort and consolation is recommended at Bermondsey's glorious greasy spoon, the Cat and Cucumber in Tower Bridge Road. JD

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