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“A generosity of spirit in her landscapes”: the artwork of Jean Jones

Anna Mayer speaks to Harry Langham, a curator of an exhibit for the work of artist Jean Jones.

CW: mental health

English painter Jean Jones was once predicted by Iris Murdoch to become ‘as famous as Van Gogh’. Her textured brush strokes, rendered in a bright, opulent palette and invoking comfortingly familiar landscapes from her life in Oxford, Devon and Primrose Hill, have been noted for their particularly ‘poetic’ and ‘lyrical’ quality. In a striking juxtaposition with the sunny serenity of the scenes, the progression of her artistic career was inevitably and tragically limited by her various struggles with mental illness. A team led by her grandson have made it their mission to shine a new light on her fascinating life and career once again. As the second of a duet of landmark exhibitions on Jones’ work, Pembroke College JCR Art Collection are hosting a brand-new exhibition ‘Jean Jones: In Dialogue with Modern British Painting’, running from the 30th April to the 15th May. The exhibition will include a selection of landscapes, still-lifes, portraits, and self portraits, many of which depict notable sites within Oxford, such as Holywell Street, Magdalene College Deer Park, and boat houses along the Isis river, and will focus on placing Jones alongside other post-war British painters, presenting Jones’ art in dialogue with artworks from the gallery’s own collection.

In anticipation of the exhibition, I spoke to Harry Langham, part of a three-person curatorial team at the Jean Jones Estate. We talked about the process of posthumous curatorial work, the experience of viewership, and the relationship between the art world and mental illness.

Tell me a bit about yourself and your curatorial background.

I am part of a three-person curatorial team at the Jean Jones Estate. Myself and my co-curator Alex studied English at Wadham College, whilst Michael Kurtz studied History of Art – also at Wadham. In 2019, the three of us were approached by the family of Jean Jones, who were looking for a team to revive her artistic legacy. Alex, Michael and I all have quite varied backgrounds working in curatorial and editorial roles across the arts, but from the very first day that we set out on this project, we all felt bound by a real belief in the power of Jones’s story, and a common desire to share this story with the world. 

Though she was obviously formerly very prolific, when Jones died in 2012, she was experiencing relative artistic obscurity. Her work is now undergoing an incredibly exciting posthumous revival! From your perspective, what is the significance of curating a posthumous exhibition, as opposed to curating the works of a living artist? Is there a kind of specific excitement involved in preserving a legacy?

I think this is an interesting question, and one that absolutely goes both ways. There is, without doubt, something magical in the act of curating an exhibition posthumously. When you look at Jones’s paintings up-close – seeing the textures of the paint, the physical remnants of her brushstrokes – you do feel a real sense of closeness to the living woman. I think it’s something to do with that almost tangible trace to the maker’s hand. And there’s nothing more exciting to us than the idea of Jones living on through the work that we are doing today. On the other hand however, I also feel a real sense of responsibility to present Jones’s work authentically and sensitively, in a way that reflects her own artistic principles. It’s worth pointing out that neither myself, nor my fellow curators ever met Jean Jones, so part of this work has involved extensive research into her diaries and letters, as well as conducting interviews with family members and friends that knew her well. We have tried to build as clear a picture in our own minds of her character, but there is always a voice in the back of my head whispering: “I hope she would approve!” My sense though is that she’d be delighted to know that her work was getting the attention it deserves.

Michael Kurtz commented on Jones’ belief in the moral value of close observation as a method of empathising with the world beyond the self. What do you think her work has to say about the relationship between the external world and the self? Particularly with regards to the way she painted scenes that had personal significance to her.

Yes – Michael’s done some brilliant work in this regard. If you look through Jones’s catalogue of work, you very quickly notice her tendency towards painting familiar scenes. That’s because for Jones, familiarity was not synonymous with mundanity. In Jones’s work, there are differences to be found in even the most familiar locales – the subtle shifting of light, the formations of clouds, the winding on of the seasons. To me that’s a real act of love. There is, I think, a generosity of spirit in her landscapes, which reflects the way she thought about painting more generally. As you may know, Jones suffered from an intense and deteriorating struggle with bipolar disorder, during which painting offered one of the few sources of respite. I wonder whether engaging her attention fully in the external world, perhaps allowed her to forget, for a time, the turbulence of her inner life.

I’m really intrigued by the ‘The Myth of the Tortured Genius’ virtual exhibition and how it explores the relationship between Jones’ creativity, artistry and mental illness. How do you think the trope of the tortured artist is changing in the 21st century? Or rather, how do you think it should change?

I think that exhibition came from our own experiences as curators for the estate of an artist who fits the criteria of the “tortured genius” trope. Those sort of readings, which attach a kind of magical or maverick quality to mental illness, do have a kind of unthinking, romantic attraction. But in reality of course, they are damaging, and in the case of Jean Jones, not particularly accurate. When we started looking into Jones’s work, we naturally found ourselves looking for reflections of her mental turmoil in her paintings. But it soon became clear that the correspondences weren’t there, and that her creative output existed not because, but in spite of her mental illness. Jones’s work was not the expression of a tortured mind. In fact, we feel that to see it in that way is to short change the seriousness of her craft. More broadly though, I don’t think there’s any place for it. In a world that takes mental illness seriously, the days of the “tortured genius” are done. 

What is your favourite painting displayed at St. Cross Church and why?

Oooh tough. The focus of the exhibition are a series of paintings of the church itself, but there’s some other great Oxford scenes on display too. There’s a particularly serene painting of Magdalen Deer Park for example, seen through the railings. If I had to choose a favourite though, I’d probably say Autumn Beech Shade (1971). Jones was fascinated by theories of vision, and throughout her work she sought to recreate the experience of viewership by warping and upturning the peripheries of her landscapes. This painting is a classic example of that, but taken to an even greater extreme than is usually the case. It is at once immersive and alienating – and I think at its best, that’s exactly what her work is capable of making you feel.

Image credit: freephotocc / Pixabay License via Pixabay

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