Silence – if buildings could speak, a tribute to Thomas Jones

There’s something obviously understated, classy (and consequently timeless) and static about Thomas Jones’ facades from Naples. By nature of their tone – which is linguistically so unassuming, and artistically, reflects the light of the Mediterranean – they are heart-warming… But, they are dull – visually and artistically minimal. Aren’t they? Well, they may appear so until you let the understated state something.

I must say, I couldn’t see it at first, until I read Richard Wollheim. Until I read Wollheim, what I saw was frustratingly frontal buildings, flat and inexplorable. You can’t follow an alley way around the side, you couldn’t climb up a staircase to reach the top floor. You can’t go anywhere, you just have to face what is in front of you. Forced to stare, yes I considered them intriguing, but essentially limited. Once I had seen what I’d seen in that first encounter, I’d seen it all. (First impressions always count.)

Wollheim had more patience and imagination (as a philosopher) than I. For, Thomas Jones had to be fascinated with these close encounters with cheap and flaking walls for a reason.

‘Rooftops in Naples’ at the Ashmolean, in Oxford (which I’ve seen recently) is a modest little oil, matt, and not too many steps away from being monotone, you say it’s meek. But stand back and I see how naturally cheeky this painting appears. (We say Victorian terrace houses have character, so why not these?) The skyline is higgidly piggidly like a building made of a child’s lego. The top room on the front of the house peaks up like a jack-in-a-box with two windows that watch us as much as we (by now) do it. This is one of the most energetic of Jones’ portraits of buildings.

It is right to note that these walls are bare – they are scantily dressed. If we see them as bodies, and each concave as comparable to one we possess, could his ‘Grotto at Posillipo’ be more obviously symbolic? Suddenly these walls become as sensualised as a Renaissance nude.

I do recognise the face in all of them, the human quality they possess, which is something the philosopher says we can’t help but do. And if a building has a face, it is able to speak…


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