Aged 85, Jean Jones died in relative artistic obscurity in 2012. Now a team lead by her grandson have made it their mission to cement Jones’ work where it belongs, celebrated in the history of post-war art.
With plans for exhibitions, research projects, and a new Instagram page (https://www.instagram.com/jeanjonesestate/), the group are hard at work to reclaim a space for Jones’ work. Formerly prolific and predicted by Iris Murdoch to become “as famous as Van Gogh”, Jones’ success was cut short by a battle with mental health through the 1980s.
In the following interview I speak to the Curator of Jones’ Estate, Michael Kurtz: a friend of mine from university and a wonderful art historian. We talk about Jean’s history, her place in a newly digitised art world, and art history’s relationship with mental health.
What is the history to Jones’ work and this resurgence?
A: Jean Jones was a British figurative painter who achieved substantial success in the London art world of the 70s. In 1980, at the height of her working life, she had a solo exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. After this point, the development of her career as a selling and exhibiting artist was curtailed by her deteriorating mental health. She did, however, continue to paint almost uninterrupted until her death in 2012.
Only now, 8 years later, we are beginning to sort through and research the paintings she left in the care of her family. Through this process of research – and by sharing the paintings and stories that we uncover – we’re hoping to celebrate Jean’s work and reclaim its place in the history of post-war figurative art.
How would you best describe Jean’s work?
A: I think that alongside many of the major figures of British painting at that time, such as Frank Auerbach and Ruskin Spear, Jones grappled with the legacies of Post-Impressionism and Expressionism. Her work is very committed to the value of representation but is also intensely emotional. I’m reluctant to generalise because of its extraordinary tonal range; some of her landscapes are arcadian, others are quite unhewn and dark.
What do you think the power of landscape is, especially in this overwhelmingly digital age?
A: That’s a really interesting question. One of the major effects of the internet is its contraction of space which can weaken our sense of physical presence. Jones’ work meanwhile is relentlessly focused on the places she lived – Primrose Hill, Oxford, and Dartmoor. She was remarkably uninterested in the exotic. Her art practice was in large part about achieving new levels of closeness to her immediate physical environment.
Hopefully the landscapes can be productive for thinking about the changing significance of place. We’re certainly very excited to re-introduce Jones’ paintings to the communities where she painted. Maybe this will encourage some people to look closer at their own surroundings.
A: The painting I keep returning to is Ringmoor Above Leemor (1976). It’s symmetrical ordering of natural phenomena is characteristic of many of her best paintings, which often take unruly, unconventional corners of her local environment and monumentalise them. The contradiction between this hermetic ordering and the rough, wild landscape of Dartmoor is one that I think Jones emphasises in her Devon works. The subject of the stone circle is ideal for her purposes because it already attempts to assert some kind of order within the landscape. I also love the idea of Jones setting up her easel in the middle of the ancient stone circle to paint.
What, do you think, sets Jones’ portraiture apart?
A: My favourite portraits by Jones are two of her smallest canvases. They depict her husband, John, and perhaps because of their small format, 8 by 8 inches, they decapitate their subject, cropping the face just above the chin and just above the hairline. The result is humorous and disturbing in equal parts. The facial features appear like cracks and protrusions on a cliff face. As in Ringmoor Above Leemor, Jones seems to enforce compositional restrictions in an attempt to claim some kind of control over the subject matter. When this process is applied to an intimate, familial portrait, the results are quite startling.
Do you think the story of Jean Jones is one that the History of Art needs to hear and preserve? How can Art History better preserve these legacies?
A: I definitely think it’s important that art history accommodates stories such as hers. She managed to create a substantial and challenging body of work while devoting the majority of her time to her family and in spite of her lifelong struggle with depression. The more I look at her paintings and hear about her life, the more impressed I am by Jones. She was, like her work in a way, very modest and understated – painting her local environment in a relatively unflashy manner – and yet, in her best pictures, she achieved some extraordinary things.
The widespread notion that mental health issues are an unproblematic source of artistic inspiration is what I would criticise, looking at Jones’ work. This view can obscure the fact that she was a deeply intelligent artist, thinking about how best to express her vision of the world and negotiating with contemporary artistic trends. Her bipolar disorder and depression did not drive but hampered what was by all accounts set to be a glittering career.