Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Land of Darkness

Thomas Jones is renowned for his Italian oil sketches, but should be just as well known for his memoirs, which are often cited by historians of eighteenth century landscape painting, but, bafflingly, remain out of print. They can be read in Volume 32 of the proceedings of the Walpole Society (for 1946-48). In this extract Thomas Jones and Francis Towne find that Nature can occasionally be just too Picturesque...
June 2nd 1781 This day crossing the Mola piccola I saw a large crowd of People assembled round two circular vacant Spots about ten or twelve pases asunder - in each of these lay a man extended on his back with a knife in his hand - dead - It seems two of the Sbirri or guard of the Place had a quarrel, stabbed each other, and both fell - getting through the multitude as well as I could I proceeded to meet Pars, according to appointment at an Osteria in the road to S'a M'a de Monti - In this hollow Way is a most beautiful Series of picturesque Objects, which I discovered by Accident in one of my perambulations - Here may be visibly traced the scenery that Salvator Rosa formed himself upon - Only taking away the Pinetrees, which were, perhaps, a planted since his time, and which indicate a State of Cultivation not suited to his gloomy mind, with the addition of Water & a few Banditti - And every hundred yards presents you with a new and perfect Composition of that Master - When Towne was in Naples, I took him with me to this romantick place, with which he seemed much delighted - but the following whimsical Incident put a stop to further explorations at that time and which I forgot to mention in its proper place - Proceeding up the valley whose boundaries contracted more and more as we advanced, increasing in proportion the Gloominess of the Scene; We arrived at a Spot, which might very properly have been termed the Land of Darkness and the Shadow of Death - This sequestered place was environed on all Sides, with hanging Rocks here and there protruding themselves from behind dark masses of a variety of Wild Shrubs, and overshadowed by branching Trees - Here, says I, Mr Towne, is Salvator Rosa in perfection we only want Banditti to compleat the Picture - I had scarcely uttered these words, when turning round a Projection of Rocks, we all-at once pop'd upon three ugly-looking fellows dressed in the fantastic garb of the Sbirri di Campagna, with long knives, cutting up a dead jackAss… Towne started back as if struck by an electric Shock… "I'll go no further" says he, with a most solemn face, adding with a forced smile, that however he might admire Scenes in a Picture - he did not relish them in Nature, - So we wheeled about and returned to the more cultivated environs of the City.


Anonymous said...

Your commentary on landscape reminds me of Robert Macfarlane's two review articles in The Guardian 26.03.05 and 30.07.05 on writres and landscapes. Alongside is apoem by Nicholas Pierpan which may be of interest.
I was dry-stone walling for the National Trust,
High on a ridge in the west

And counted the scars through each Roman stone,
Laying in headers of a crown

As the valley rolled beneath their weight - twisted
My straight gaze into a squint -

Its poplars aligned
Like regiments.

Anonymous said...

You mention that Thomas Jones's memoirs are out of print. This is not so.

Both the original manuscript and Paul Oppe's edited transcription form part of the National Library of Wales's Thomas Jones online exhibition, at http://www.llgc.org.uk/pencerrig/index_s.htm

You can also order back issues of Walpole Society volumes from its website, www.walpolesociety.org.uk.

A French translation of the memoir was published six or seven years ago.

Plinius said...

Fantastic! Thanks for this information... I had no idea it was all available on-line! The Library of Wales site is really interesting. I was hoping the journal would be re-published as part of the recent 'Thomas Jones: An Artist Rediscovered' exhibition and I always thought the it would make an ideal Paul Mellon Centre Yale Unicersity Press book with lots of good reproductions of paintings by Jones, Pars, Towne et al. But having it readily available on-line is the next best thing.

Anonymous said...

Do you know the 1988 exhibition catalogue called 'Travels in Italy', by Frances Hawcroft? It's a survey of the British landscape artists visiting Italy in the late 1770s and early 1780s, based on Jones's memoirs, many quotes from which are reproduced. There are also many reproductions of Towne, Warwick Smith, Jones, Pars, Cozens etc.

There are several copies on sale on abebooks.

This group of artists is of special interest to me, by the way, as I have just submitted a phd thesis on Towne (www.francistowne.org).

Plinius said...

Good luck with the PhD. I once took a course at Birkbeck with Will Vaughan on British landscape painting and did a little presentation on Thomas Jones. Looking back I see I referred to the Hawcroft book in my handout, but I don't own a copy of it.