In May 2020, after a year of intense research and hand-cramp-inducing typing, I submitted my university dissertation. I called it, ‘The city-as-subject; Thomas Jones’s ‘A Wall in Naples’ and the ‘anti-picturesque’ – a suitably obscure and pedantic title, which really doesn’t invite anyone to read it.
All the same, I was really proud of my diss. The project looked at how and why the city of Naples can be considered ‘anti-picturesque’ (that is to say, an unusual choice of subject for the Romantic period), why Jones painted it, and the impact of his work on the history of landscape.
I spent a whole year indulging my interest in eighteenth-century Romantic landscapes; strangely, Jones’s work doesn’t really fit into this category, but more on that later. I felt immediately drawn to his paintings, and inspired by how different his work felt: when everyone else was painting classical Italian landscapes, Jones was focussing on the Neapolitan cityscape, producing postcard-sized oil paintings that detailed snapshots of the crumbling, bustling, beautiful city. I just love his paintings, and I hope more people come to appreciate them too.
Rather than turning my 12,000-word diss into a mind-boggling blog post, I have decided to collate the most interesting and important bits about Thomas Jones and Naples into something a little more digestible. This post is broken up into seven sections – click on a heading to jump to a section:
Romantic Landscapes & The Grand Tour
Richard Wilson rivalled the work of Claude and Poussin, the great French landscape painters who defined the genre almost one hundred years earlier. Characterised by realistic brushwork, scattered with staffage, and framed with repoussoir, Romantic landscapes often depicted scenes and stories from classical antiquity. As artists began to focus on the landscape itself, rather than the story played out by characters, Romanticism was born.
By the early eighteenth century, British painters were tentatively venturing onto the continent, hoping to emulate the astonishing romantic landscapes of their European counterparts. In 1750, Wilson set out on his own European sojourn, known as the Grand Tour, where he painted some of his most memorable works.
Defined by the aristocracy of the eighteenth century, the Grand Tour was a rite of passage for young British travellers to learn the cultures and languages of Europe, namely France, Switzerland, Italy, Germany, and Austria. Tourists were usually accompanied by a guide, known as a cicerone, and endeavoured to see the great sights of Renaissance Europe.
Jones in Naples
Thomas Jones embarked on his own Grand Tour in 1776. Meandering through France and Switzerland, Jones was eager to reach Italy. He spent some months in Rome, but finding little artistic success he ventured south to Naples, first arriving in 1778. Flitting between the cities of Southern Italy, he eventually settled in Naples in 1780 where he stayed for two years.
It was here, in the bustling, chaotic city of Naples, that Thomas Jones found his own style; a style that would go on to define his name and his legacy nearly 200 years later. Painting from his roof terrace, or lastricia, Jones captured a view of the city that had never been recorded in oil paint before, and he did it outdoors (you might recognise en plein air painting as something pioneered by the Impressionists at the end of the nineteenth century – but more on this later). Recording snapshots of the city, Jones focused his work on the textures, buildings, and composition of the city itself. In a period that was obsessed with the Wilson-esque panoramas of the beautiful Bay and surrounding countryside, Jones was doing something entirely different (Jones was actually painting idyllic landscapes too, but he made very little money and saw nearly no success).
The paintings of his Neapolitan series are often referred to as studies due to their unusually small size (for ease and clarity, I also used this word throughout my dissertation). However, these bite-sized oil paintings are artworks in themselves, intentional paintings made for Jones’s personal enjoyment and reflection. I believe they acted to Jones as photographs do to us today – his paintings showed the real Naples, capturing a genuine account from which he could remember his travels and his beloved city. As such, I believe that his works need to be treated as complete paintings, rather than sketches.
‘A Wall in Naples’
My dissertation focused on one painting. I chose to look at ‘A Wall in Naples’, 1782, which is one of the more subtle works of the Neapolitan series. The painting is unusual in many ways: measuring just 11.4 x 16 cm, the artwork depicts a crumbling wall with a door, small balcony, and a line of washing in the centre of the composition. A slither of blue sky and a hint of foliage are the only indicators of the city beyond. There is a lack of human presence, yet a palpable identity of the people behind the wall. The strikingly modern handling of oil paint in an en plein air study is highly unusual when compared to the traditional landscape painting techniques of the period.
The work is oil on paper laid onto canvas, which indicates that although the work was not for public view, it was a painting that Jones himself took seriously – seriously enough to use expensive paint and mounting techniques, rather than the watercolour or ink that was normally used for studies.
Most of the academic analyses of this painting have been uninspiring. I came across one ground-breaking idea: the painting is a religious metaphor that depicts the bleeding body of Christ on the cross – but this is largely speculation, and cannot be backed up (even by Jones’s extensive Memoirs). Deciding to take a new approach, I used the painting as an example of Jones’s radical choice of subject. The artwork itself demonstrates a crucial moment in the history of Italian landscape painting: Jones’s conscious decision to move away from the typically picturesque in order to explore a more modern subject matter, which I coined the anti-picturesque (that is to say, the opposite of the idealised landscapes of the classically-inspired Neapolitan countryside) – the significance of this is huge. Gigantic. Ground-breaking to the history of landscape. I also proposed that the city-as-subject was even more radical in Naples due to the widely criticised and stereotyped Neapolitan people, who were seldom associated with the distinguished and classical landscape in which they lived.
So, ‘A Wall in Naples’ is a lot more than a painting of a wall. To me, it is a social commentary as well as a technical exercise, a rebellion against the Romantic norm, and a definite precursor to later techniques. There’s a lot to be said for looking into the context of a painting: where was it painted? Why did the artist choose a particular viewpoint? What did they include or leave out? What was everyone else painting at the time? These probing questions can be applied to every painting. The important thing is not to accept the given definition, and to continue to question, scrutinise, and interrogate the narrative. Only then will we find out what a painting truly means.
Jones’s Neapolitan series contains at least 18 small oil paintings depicting the city itself, as well as popular sights in the vicinity including the Molo San Vincenzo Lighthouse, the Gaiola beach, the Bay of Naples, the caves of Posillipo, and of course, the formidable Mount Vesuvius.
It is always interesting to assess the work of other foreign artists working in the same period and location to assess their different treatment of the same subject. When researching Thomas Jones, you will find relentless comparisons to a little-known French artist called Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes, who was working in Rome at the same time as Jones. Much like Jones, he painted out of doors in an impasto style, using expressive brushstrokes to detail form and colour. The most significant difference between the artists is their choice of subject, which had not been discussed in academic literature.
Where Valenciennes was painting rustic farm buildings and ancient ruins with Mediterranean poplar trees swaying in the foreground, Jones was inspired by the crumbling facades of Neapolitan city walls. Of course, Valenciennes makes for an interesting technical comparison with Jones. But to me, Valenciennes’s work is far less radical than that of Jones, although similarly beautiful in its simplicity of perfectly observed colour and form.
Watercolourist Francis Towne spent one year travelling in Europe from 1780 until 1781. As a British artist who travelled in Italy and visited Jones in Naples, he is one of Jones’s most significant stylistic contemporaries. Towne visited Naples in March of 1781, a trip that was well-documented by Jones’s Memoirs. In the entry dated 8 March 1781, Jones writes that ‘I gladly offered my Services to be [Towne’s] Cicerone, and revisit with him all the Curiosities of Art and Nature in, and about this delightful City’.
During his lifetime, Towne never saw great success as a watercolourist. Like Jones, his reputation was revived in the twentieth century, and his watercolour and ink works are now considered in a new light. ‘Bay of Naples’, c. 1785, is a pencil, pen, and grey-ink watercolour which offers an interesting insight into the styles, techniques, and viewpoints chosen by foreign artists visiting Naples. Contrasting with Jones’s rich oil paints and depth of colour, his style is characterised by a lucidity of colour, with a surprisingly minimalistic application of detail.
Another fascinating artist who was active in Naples at the same time as Jones is Giovanni Battista Lusieri, who is thought to have been born in Rome in 1755. Working as a court painter in Naples, and accompanying Lord Elgin as a draughtsman to Greece, Turkey and Sicily, ensured that Lusieri’s work was highly sought-after. Jones and Lusieri lived in the same lodgings in Naples in 1782, as detailed in Jones’s Memoirs.
His most significant painting, ‘View of the Bay of Naples Looking Southwest from the Pizzofalcone towards Capo di Posillipo’, c. 1791, is one of the few examples of Neapolitan landscapes which focuses on the city itself. Despite being a highly topographical representation, the panorama encapsulates the picturesque veduta, and is one of the artist’s most impressive paintings. The work was commissioned for Sir William Hamilton, who wanted a reminder of the view from the window of his Chiaia residence upon his return to Britain. The watercolour stretches across six sheets of paper totalling 274 cm, and records highly intricate detail.
What is particularly interesting about Lusieri’s painting is the inclusion of everyday details that were often excluded by foreign artists, such as the washing lines on the centre-left of the composition. The greying washing is one of the most distinctive features of ‘A Wall in Naples’, and its inclusion emphasises Jones’s intention to illustrate exactly what he saw. It appears that Lusieri’s obsessive attention to detail caused him to include similar elements.
Catagorising Thomas Jones
Jones’s work poses a bit of a problem for art historians in that it cannot be easily categorised. Typically, Jones is described as a Romantic landscape painter due to the period in which he worked, and his traditional paintings depicting Welsh and Italian landscapes. ‘A Wall in Naples’ falls loosely into the genre of landscape painting but his work is clearly more intimate and city-facing than typical landscapes of the period. The unusual combination of Jones’s style, subject, and informal composition was not replicated by any other artist at the time. His intention to depict small sections of what he saw in a matter-of-fact manner cannot be seen in the work of any other artist in Italy in the late eighteenth century.
The movement in which Jones’s work would most comfortably sit is the Macchiaioli, a group of Italian artists who were active some one hundred years after Jones. The movement (including the Post-Macchiaioli) is defined by paintings such as Renato Natali’s ‘Vecchia Livorno’ and Telemaco Signorini’s ‘Via Torta’. The work of both artists emanates the same authenticity that makes Jones’s work so exceptional. Their en plein air paintings reflect the impoverished city-subject that also captured Jones’s imagination. This emphasises how Jones’s detailed, realist subject matter can be seen as a precursor to later movements, including the Barbizon school. However, one can hardly place Jones into a category of artists who were working one hundred years after his death.