Obituary: Stephen Jones

Click to follow
The Independent Online
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.