In the autumn of 1770 Thomas Jones recorded in his Memoirs a trip to Gadbridge, Buckinghamshire, the home of his cousin Rice James: ‘made a number of Sketches from the little picturesque Bits round about, as far as St Alban’s, and painted in Oil some Studies of Trees &c after nature.’
This is the most substantive reference in Jones’s own writing to his technique of producing studies from nature on primed paper small enough to fit into the lid of a painting-box. The present work, signed and dated 1776, is precisely such a study made whilst staying at his parent’s home, Pencerrig in Radnorshire, on the eve of his departure for Italy. Successful during his own lifetime, but largely forgotten after his death, he has received a great deal of attention in recent years as a result of these powerful plein air studies.
Born at Penkerrig to an established family of dissenters, Jones was originally intended for a career in the church, but decided instead to pursue his life of landscape painting. From November 1761 Jones spent a year in William Shipley's drawing school, where he became a firm friend of John Hamilton Mortimer, his frequent collaborator as well as companion on high-spirited excursions. Convinced that his ‘natural bias’ was towards landscape painting, in March 1763 he persuaded Richard Wilson to take him as a pupil for two years. His journal includes a glimpse of Wilson rebuking Jones and his fellow pupils William Hodges and Joseph Farington for rowdiness: ‘Gentlemen, this is not the way to rival Claude.’ Jones was a prolific exhibitor at the Society of Artists, sending some fifty works between 1765 and 1780. Some were specific views in England and Wales; others are less identifiable, such as the View, after Nature singled out by Horace Walpole in 1770 as a ‘very fine picture.’
Jones’s exhibited landscapes were principally conventional ‘exhibition’ works; either topographical subjects or historical landscapes, such as his Bard of 1774, the subject-matter taken from the poem by Thomas Gray, which was shown at the Society of Artists that year and turned into a mezzotint by John Raphael Smith and published by John Boydell in 1775. Jones’s most significant innovation was technical, developing a habit of painting small oil sketches on paper outdoors. These landscape excursions were by no means unique – we know Jones’s master, Richard Wilson executed oils en plein air in Italy in the 1750s – but no painter had made it such an integral aspect of their working practice.
Jones returned to Pencerrig in September 1775 on the eve of his departure for Italy and made ‘a number of Studies in Oil on thick primed paper—after Nature’ of which the present is a particularly fine example. (ed. P. Oppé, ‘Memoirs of Thomas Jones, Penkerrig, Radnorshire, 1803’, The Walpole Society, vol.32, 1946-8, p.38.) Jones executed a number of highly personal studies of the environs around Pencerrig, as well as on the nearby river Wye. It is perhaps no coincidence that Jones’s native landscape was the landscape made famous by the second generation of writers on the picturesque. The present lively oil tallies with Benjamin Malkin’s lyrical description of the river scenery at Aberedw, one of the most spectacular stretches of the Wye. Malkin’s assertion that Jones himself had made the ‘romantic scenery’ at this spot the focus of his ‘early studies’ is confirmed by his autobiographical poem ‘Petraeia’ which dedicates a stanza to the pictorial delights of ‘Vaga’ – the Wye (Benjamin H. Malkin, The Scenery, Antiquities, and Biography, of South Wales, London, 1804, p. 280).
Clear Vaga, whose meand’ring floods
Embrace fair Lechria’s fields and woods,
Here gently gliding o’er the plain,
There foaming like the angry main;
Rushing through rock with horrid sweep,
Or whirling down the giddy deep.
Jones may have generally resisted the attractions of continental sublime scenery – and the mountains of North Wales – but the ‘Alpine majesty’ of the Wye proved a fruitful exception.
Dated clearly on the rock in the foreground the status of Jones’s oil on paper studies remains unclear. The present study was probably painted in one sitting, out of doors, as indicated by the amount of ground which has been allowed to show through. Whether the present painting was designed for sale or as private study is unclear. The fact that he neither lists nor describes them in his Memoirs, suggests ultimately that they were intensely personal works and as has been observed, they would hardly have been deemed ‘pictures’ by his contemporaries. As is the case with a number of these intense studies of the period, the present work is made on two joined sheets. The present sketch is one of the most successful compositions he executed during his 1765/6 Welsh period and in its compositional structure and technical fluency presages his great Italian landscapes.