Obituary: Stephen Jones

Stephen Jones was one of the London art world's brightest and most energetic figures; a scholar and aesthete certainly, but also an artistic administrator of no ordinary ability and a great fixer, one who knew how the world worked and who took a constant delight in bringing together the right people to make the things that he cared about happen.

Jones's real interests lay within the grand traditions of English taste and connoisseurship, and all of his professional life was devoted, in one way or another, to the care of our cultural heritage and the promotion of the arts.

He was born in London to parents who were both teachers. But it was at Cambridge, where he came under the influence of dons such as David Watkin and, in particular, Malcolm Burgess, that he formed many of the passions that would shape his life and career. As a prominent member of Magdalene's artistic and theatrical set, he had already begun to develop particular enthusiasms that embraced not only English 18th-century classical architecture, opera and contemporary dance, or the work of Victorian novelists such as Henry James, but also, more specifically, the deep interest in English 19th-century painting of the Aesthetic period that would remain the central focus of all his subsequent activities.

After brief spells in the old Education Department of the Victoria and Albert Museum, where he laid the seeds of his later suavely brilliant and entertaining lecturing style, and as an editorial assistant to the irascible Denys Sutton on Apollo, he was appointed curator of Gainsborough's House in Sudbury. During the two years that he served there, he made the gallery, and also himself, prominent features of the intellectual and artistic landscape of Suffolk, staging exhibitions that ranged from the work of Peter Blake and the Brotherhood of Ruralists to one devoted to the patronage of Frederick, Prince of Wales, based on a great deal of original research.

In 1981, Jones arrived in London to become the curator of Leighton House in Kensington, the role with which many will most readily associate him. He found the dusty shrine to the great 19th- century academic painter both poorly cared for and sadly neglected; this changed rapidly. With tremendous energy, but guided too by rigorous scholarship, he set about a full-scale restoration of the house, putting it firmly on the map of artistic London in the process.

With the backing of the museum's Friends and the help of the architect Ian Grant, the interiors were carefully coaxed back to life, wallpapers and silks were conserved or meticulously copied, and correct lighting installed to bring back the 19th-century feel of the place. Once again the house became Lord Leighton's "Palace of Art", but also through a scintillating programme of exhibitions, lectures and more social events, Leighton House during the years of Jones's curatorship attained an extraordinary cachet as a venue for parties, fashion shoots or the making of videos as much as for more conventional art-world events. Jones, always at heart the utterly serious and professional academic, took great delight in the tale of his chance encounter with an old acquaintance who, upon being told that he was running Leighton House, replied "Oh yes, I heard; it's a sort of night-club isn't it."

Following Leighton House, in 1989 Stephen Jones moved to the National Art Collections Fund as the editor of all its publications. Working there closely with the fund's then director, Sir Peter Wakefield, he developed the NACF's Art Quarterly into a stylish and highly readable journal. Moreover, as Wakefield recalls, "It was a great period of expansion for the fund, and we all came to realise the immense value of Stephen's fertile brain in every area of our activity."

Then, almost five years ago to the day, Jones was appointed Director of Spencer House. This was an immensely demanding role, for this was by no means simply another house-museum, but rather the cultural flagship of the vast mercantile empire of that contemporary Maecenas, Jacob Rothschild. Jones rose to the challenge with customary energy and eclat, earning Lord Rothschild's praise for "the quite remarkable way in which he combined a commercial hard-headedness in running the business side of things with an extraordinary taste and sensitivity to the house as an historic building". Such a combination of skills is extremely rare, and marked Jones as one of the exceptional figures of his generation. "It is tragic," says Rothschild, "that he did not live to go on to even greater things, for he could surely have run one of our great museums with both imagination and flair."

No one who came into contact with Jones could have failed quickly to become aware of the intelligence and erudition that informed everything he undertook, nor of his fastidious requirement that anything with which he was involved should be carried out with style and to exacting standards. This integrity was brought to bear in many areas of his activities, not least perhaps in those spheres, such as the Victorian Society, the Walpole Committee and the Architectural Advisory Board of the World Monument Fund, in which he took an interest and played an influential part.

From time to time, Jones found time to write. He frequently contributed articles and reviews to Country Life and to other journals and newspapers, whilst his short but lucid study The Eighteenth Century, published some 15 years ago in the Cambridge Introduction to Art History series, continues to be reprinted in more than a dozen languages. His greatest academic achievement however was the part he played in curating and cataloguing the major Frederic Leighton centenary exhibition earlier this year; a project planned for 10 years, but completed only months before his death from cancer. Along with his friends and fellow Leighton scholars Richard and Leonee Ormond, Jones had played a crucial role in raising the sponsorship and persuading the initially reluctant Royal Academy to stage the show. It proved in the event an aesthetic triumph, filling the rooms of Burlington House with Leighton's vast, heady canvases in their magnificent gilt architectural frames.

Those who knew Stephen Jones well will value most his great gift for friendship, and recall with pleasure his brilliant conversation, enlivened by the sparkling thrusts of a rapier-sharp wit and by a gift for mimicry of both speech and mannerism that could reduce his hearers to helpless tears of mirth. Always fond of parties, he loved the fact that he shared his birthday, 24 September, with that great wit of the 18th century Horace Walpole; to celebrate his 40th birthday, with characteristic stylishness and liberality, Stephen Jones gave a great dinner at Walpole's Gothick house, Strawberry Hill. No setting could have proved more apt for an aesthete of rare sensibility, and one who, in Walpole's celebrated phrase, contrived always to "inform, entertain and innovate".

Stephen Calloway

Stephen Richard Jones, art historian and museum curator; born London 24 September 1954; Curator, Gainsborough's House, Sudbury 1979-81; Curator, Leighton House, Kensington 1981-89; Editor of Publications, National Art Collections Fund 1989-91; Director, Spencer House, London 1991-96; died London 1 June 1996.

A model of a Neanderthal man on display at the National Museum of Prehistory in Dordogne, France
Richard Dawkins dedicated his book 'The Greatest Show on Earth' to Josh Timonen
newsThat's Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Dinosaurs Unleashed at the Eden Project
Arts and Entertainment
Life and Style
This month marks the 20th anniversary of the first online sale
techDespite a host of other online auction sites and fierce competition from Amazon, eBay is still the most popular e-commerce site in the UK
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, Graduate, SQL, VBA)

£45000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, ...

Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Perl, Bash, SQL)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Per...

C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB6, WinForms)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB...

C# Developer (Genetic Algorithms, .NET 4.5, TDD, SQL, AI)

£40000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

Day In a Page

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home