This sun-splashed view of Naples was painted by Thomas Jones in 1782 and is one of a series of brilliant, informal plein-air views of mundane parts of Naples and its environs from that year. Of this group of paintings, the best known is A Wall in Naples (The National Gallery, NG6544). They are all executed on paper on an intimate scale in oil and/or watercolor.
In this example, we see a steeply sloping stone road cut through the volcanic rock, or tufa, near Capodimonte looking down over the city of Naples, the azure bay and beyond to the hazy peaks of the Sorrentine Peninsula. It was drawn in situ, is inscribed in the sky with the site and date and then again in the lower right, again with the site ‘Palace near Capo di MONTE’ with the signature and the number, 34. It is almost identical in size to another view in oil on paper of the same rocky road numbered 35. Jones lived nearby in 1782–83 and frequently sketched the area, around Santa Maria de’ Monti, depicted here.
The technique is a combination of pencil, watercolor and oil. It is hard to ascertain if the color was applied on the spot or later, but the effect is dazzling and spontaneous, even if the composition is carefully worked out. This painting has the trademark combination of bright white and brilliant blue of Jones’s Neapolitan period.
Until 1954, Jones was mainly known as an able pupil of his fellow Welshman, the pioneering landscape painter Richard Wilson, and as the author of an amusing memoir. Jones’s finished works were Italianate landscapes somewhat in the idiom of Claude Lorrain or Salvator Rosa but mostly his own teacher Wilson. However, in 1954 and 1955 a collection of watercolors and works in oil on paper were sold at Christie’s by the descendants of Thomas Jones’s son-in-law, Captain John Dale. These showed a completely unknown side to the artist. The minimalist views of decrepit walls and buildings in Naples set off against brilliant blue skies, with single pieces of washing hanging out of windows to dry were a revelation and introduced a new and important artist to a public who responded enthusiastically to his ‘modern’ sensibility.
Thomas Jones had come to Italy aged thirty-four. Wilson had already visited Italy in the 1750s and Jones was determined to follow in his footsteps. In November 1776 Jones arrived in Rome which, despite the dismal winter weather, impressed him. Of St. Peter’s he wrote ‘taken in every respect, it is I suppose the grandest effort of human art in the world’. In Rome, Jones was quickly fast friends with the expatriate community: artists like William Pars, Jacob More and Henry Fuseli (see cat. 43 and 53) but more importantly the dealers James Byres (see cat. 24) and Thomas Jenkins who invited him to his first Christmas lunch in the city. It was the norm for visiting English collectors to go to the showrooms of Byres and Jenkins in which paintings by artists resident in Rome could be bought or new work commissioned. Jones soon befriended the Duke of Gloucester, brother of King George III and more importantly, the eccentric Frederick Augustus Hervey (1730–1803), the 4th Earl of Bristol and Bishop of Derry, who would become his most important patron.
Jones moved into a house built by Salvator Rosa on the Pincian hill just above the Piazza di Spagna and the epicenter of the artistic community in Rome. He fraternized with artists in Rome from all over Europe and went with them to the Campagna where he made drawings and oil sketches. However, Jones had fallen out with Byres and Jenkins by 1780 and moved south to Naples, the largest city in Italy. There, Jones settled into spacious quarters with his Italian maid and future wife, Maria Moncke. He increasingly pursued unconventional subject matter, ‘various picturesque Scenes of Nature. I made Studies of them with ye same Ardour as ever’. He painted en plein-air or on rainy days in his studio ‘several Studies upon paper in oil’, and in May 1781 ‘a View of my Kitchen…the Subject was prosecuted and finished con amore’ (‘Memoirs of Thomas Jones’, Walpole Society, London, 1951, vol. 32, pp. 53, 97 and 103.).
By 1782 Jones was painting scenes in Naples of astonishing directness and originality. Even when treating a familiar subject such as the Grotto of Posillipo he did so with scant regard for topographical detail and concern only for the play of light and shade on the massive rock face, contrasted with the brilliant blue sky above (Yale Center for British Art, B1993.9; The National Gallery, L840). In this year Jones started to paint a sequence of oil sketches on paper, in the words of Christopher Riopelle, ‘of an immediacy and directness almost unprecedented in the history of European painting, and of a proto-photographic presence which has rendered them central to any discussion of the rise of the oil sketch tradition’ (Christopher Riopelle, Thomas Jones: An Artist Rediscovered, New York, 2003, p. 63). However, in his lifetime Jones’s small works on paper were never intended for sale. The market wanted only his large, finished landscapes and the smaller sketches seem to have had no commercial purpose, nor even to have been preparatory for larger compositions.
In Naples, Jones traveled about with his friend Giovanni Battista Lusieri (see cat. 44) whom he called ‘Don Titta’, and to whose highly finished watercolors many of Jones’s own watercolors, especially those executed around Rome, have an affinity. Jones also met the German artist Jakob Philipp Hackert (see cat. 49) and the British envoy William Hamilton, who had Jones use his billiard room as a studio. Having painted a large view of Vesuvius (now lost) which was purchased by Hamilton for 50 guineas, Thomas Jones and his wife-to-be sailed home for England, taking with them a trove of the most remarkable landscape sketches painted by any artist in the 18th century.❖