How I came across a national treasure in Wales

While visiting milords wanted Vesuvius in eruption, Jones painted the neighbours' washing
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Have finally caught up with the Thomas Jones exhibition in Cardiff. It's a reflection of the London-centric nature of the media that more newspapers haven't paid much attention to this important, and impressive, exhibition.

"But it's coming to London, isn't it?" said an artistic friend. Well, up to a point. After the show finishes at the National Museum in Wales, it goes on to the Whitworth Gallery, in Manchester (22 August to 26 October), before coming down to the National Gallery, in London, from 12 November to 15 February. But the point is that only the Italian section of the painter's work is taking the trip south to the capital.

True, it is Jones's oil on paper sketches of Italy, where he lived from 1776 to 1783, that so amazed the art world when they first came into public view some 30 years ago. They are truly breathtaking: studies of building and roads at once totally individualistic and completely modern in their concern with architectural mass and textural surface. While the visiting milords of the time wanted Vesuvius in eruption, Jones painted pictures from his Naples balcony of the washing line of the neighbouring apartment building. Little wonder that he was not more successful in his time.

What the full exhibition - more than twice the size of its Italian section - does is to fill out the whole man. Italy, of course, released his passions, as it did for so many artists of his time (just look at the effect on Turner's work once he was able to travel there). But it didn't come out of the blue. Before he got there, Jones developed his art, and his extraordinary facility with oil on paper, in the hills of Wales.

The second son of an established non-conformist family on the Welsh borders, he was meant for the church but insisted on an artistic calling, finally persuading his reluctant family to fund his Italian travels by threatening to sign up for Thomas Cook's Pacific voyages. When he finally returned to London, short of commissions and accompanied by his housekeeper-partner and two children, the death of his older brother brought him the position and lands to live the life of a country squire, managing his estates and occasionally painting up his Italian drawings into oils in memory of past days.

But this "little stunted man, as round as a ball, the truest Welsh runt", as a friend called him, was no idle amateur. He studied for several years under the landscape artist Richard Wilson, in London, and worked hard at his art, as infrared examination of the careful drawing and reworking of even his freshest compositions shows. Until this exhibition I had no concept of how important skyscape was to his work, and how developed it was before he left for Italy, nor how good his later rock studies in Wales were.

If you want to feel the whole of this warm and utterly original Welsh artist, hasten to see the show in Cardiff before it closes or go to Manchester. It's a real treat.

¿ On visiting the show, I was struck once again by the paucity of postcards in art exhibitions these days. The card of the Naples house that forms the poster for Thomas Jones was sold out within the first weeks - unsurprisingly, considering how graphic it is. And no posters on sale either. In several recent exhibitions at the Royal Academy and National Gallery, half the cards turned out not to be in the shows at all but of the same artist in other museums.

It may be that the young send all their messages on their mobile phones. But I find that increasingly friends and acquaintances like to use cards for thankyous and notes. What they use are exciting, amusing or interesting images. Looking closely, nearly all seem to come from abroad. Which is not surprising. Most of our museums seem to regard postcards as straightforward pictures of their major objects rather than visual delights taken from the collections. The V&A is improving, but the British Museum seems to have given up on imagination altogether in what it offers.

¿ This week has seen - at long last, some critics may feel - the demise of Chris Foy, the Royal Shakespeare Company's chief executive. His exit follows that of Adrian Noble, both men condemned for their authorship of the disastrous policy of ending the RSC's London home, dismantling its ensemble tradition and proposing to demolish its Stratford Theatre. "Chris has managed the organisation through an important period of change," as Lord Alexander, the RSC chairman, put it with deliberate understatement.

But wait a minute; don't Lord Alexander and his fellow board members bear any responsibility for this debacle? Didn't they look at the plans and approve them? And what about the Arts Council and its part in the whole sorry story? Very British this. The buck never stops at the top. Which is why we keep getting it so wrong in publicly funded enterprises. It's all happening again at English National Opera, and when it all ends in tears the chairman will be there mouthing platitudes as if it was nothing to do with him or his colleagues.