Thursday 16 May 2013

The Unsophisticated Genius of Barbara Jones

Bateman the Opticians, Croydon, from 'The Unsophisticated Arts'
Since I first came across Barbara Jones' extraordinary book 'The Unsophisticated Arts' a few years ago I've been wondering when somebody would reissue it, and now independent publisher Little Toller Books has gone a step further. I asked Gracie Burnett, who co-owns and runs Little Toller with Adrian Cooper, how they came to publish this new edition, which is rather different from their previous nature classics...

We decided to re-issue because we love Barbara Jones and have always done so. It seemed we were talking more and more with friends about her and I guess we were prompted by these conversations to go for it and republish the book. Simon Costin who curated the show at the Whitechapel was key and whilst drinking tea with him at a cafe in Dalston we got to talking about the exhibition and the book. We felt confident and so the journey begun. 

It is a departure for us. But we have always said to ourselves that we should publish what we like and to take the odd detour away from the Classics.

Barbara Jones enjoying her work - what is that peculiar ornament on the bookshelf?
As with their previous titles Little Toller haven't simply reprinted the original edition but have substantially redesigned it, decluttering a spread here and updating an illustration there. Gracie again:

The design is very different. Adrian spent hours trawling through Barbara Jones’s  studio in Hampstead and discovered so much that we wanted to include in the new edition, especially as we wanted to bring more colour to the book - the original is mostly black and white. We also wanted to show her working process, hence the inclusion of sketches and early paintings. 

Her studio has remained largely untouched since her death; most of the artwork has gone, but her sketchbooks and ephemera remain.  We spent hundreds of hours cleaning up the images and making them good for publication. it was a joy to work on because you look so closely at every single image and you see each page in a new way.

The new edition is lighter, brighter and more colourful than the original, which was printed on paper made out of recycled porridge (it was 1951, after all). A little of the chiaroscuro of Jones's vision is lost - the photos of roundabout horses are not quite as black and sinister as they were previously - but all in all this is a fantastic book. Buy it now!

No detail too small... Interior of a canal boat, from 'The Unsophisticated Arts'
I meant to write a post on Joan Eardley last week, after reading Christopher Andreae's wonderful new book, but time got away from me. Neither Eardley nor Jones lived as long as they should have, and both had a fascination for the local and particular that went down badly with critics of the time but which now makes them - to my mind - seem doubly valuable as fine artists and chroniclers of everyday life. While Eardley became well-known for her paintings of children from now-vanished Glasgow slums, Jones is now recognised as one of the most significant arbiters of modern taste.

In a Foreword to the new edition, Peter Blake notes that 'I have no doubt that discovering Barbara Jones was one of the more important things that happened to me, and helped form the way I work.' In her books and in her almost unclassifiable 1951 exhibition 'Black Eyes and Lemonade', Jones introduced what she called 'the vernaculars' to a culture desperate for some alternative to pretentious, soulless modernism. She wasn't worried about distinctions between folk and machine-made art but stuck them altogether, choosing work that was, as she put it 'bold and fizzy.'

Never judge a book by its cover? Maybe in this case...
Her books show a similarly eclectic spirit. 'The Unsophisticated Arts' combines chapters on tattooing and the seaside, amusement arcades and taxidermy, each illustrated with a mixture of photographs, line drawings and paintings. It is disorderly, intensely personal and obsessive, but at the same time the book  hangs together perfectly.

Ravilious would have loved this, from 'The Unsophisticated Arts'
It helps that Jones was also an excellent writer, the kind who (I imagine) wrote down words as she would have spoken them. Like her contemporary Olive Cook she writes seriously about her subject in a way that an intelligent child could understand perfectly - and enjoy too. I love this introduction to the chapter on Roundabouts:

When the Romans left England there were a thousand dull years filled only with ballads, pipe and tabor, folk dancing and maypoles. Gradually, however, the fairs emerge from the manuscripts, the tumblers and dancing bears begin to perform, and at last there is something to look at.

from 'Recording Britain', early 1940s (V&A)
Here and there you hear echoes of earlier books like 'High Street', as in the chapter on shopkeeping, where we visit a butcher's that Ravilious would have recognised, complete with 'butcher's cat, noticeably sleek, and apparently unmoved even by the sale of liver'. It would have been fun if Jones had written the text of 'High Street', given her eye for the aesthetics of shops:

He makes beautiful patterns with carcasses and joints and festoons of sausages or, when meat is scarce, he hangs up sheets of paper by their corners, cut into patterns if he has time, and heightened with loops of black pudding.

Interior of saddler's shop, Croydon, from 'Recording Britain' (V&A)
I wonder if this was her Dad's place, as he was a successful Croydon saddler.
Born in 1912 a decade later than Ravilious, Bawden, Peggy Angus and Enid Marx, Barbara Jones trained at the RCA in the 1930s and cut her teeth on the 'Recording Britain' project during the early part of World War Two. Among the myriad pictures of old houses, pubs and quintessentially English scenes, Jones's work stands out. She was clearly much more than a topographical painter, imbuing her subjects with personality. A light touch and a sure eye were hers from the start.

St Mary's Homes and Chapel, Godstone, 'Recording Britain' (V&A)

Fairground litho, 1946 (V&A) - there's a detailed chapter on this subject in 'The Unsophisticated Arts'
I suspect that many artists besides Peter Blake owe a debt to Barbara Jones; she looked about her with keen eyes, found subjects no-one had bothered with before and took her discoveries seriously - but never too seriously. One of her more extraordinary achievements was the book 'Design for Death', in which she expanded on the final chapter of 'The Unsophisticated Arts', exploring all the 'beautiful, vulgar, frightening and propitiatory things that people make when confronted by that shocking and unwelcome reminder, the death of another'. The cover alone is remarkable, both beautiful and grotesque; I hope that her own death in 1978 was commemorated in suitable style.

An extraordinary cover for an extraordinary book...

On a lighter note... an illustration from 'The Unsophisticated Arts'
Recently, Barbara Jones has become known to a wider public, thanks in part to the tireless Ruth Artmonsky and her 2008 tribute 'A Snapper Up of Unconsidered Trifles'. Gracie adds:

She's become popular I think because of a new audience today, and because of the revival in artists of that time and the influence they have today. There's a new breed of artist who are deeply inspired by people like her, Bawden and Ravilious. etc etc.

At the moment The Whitechapel Gallery are hosting an exhibition about 'Black Eyes and Lemonade', and in June there's going to be a selling show of work from Jones's own collection at Burgh House in Hampstead. The pieces below will be featured. Meanwhile, if you want to know a bit more about her books, there's a nice page at Ash Rare Books.

Original artwork for 'Gift Book', on display at Burgh House, Hampstead, June 2013 
Original artwork from 'The Unsophisticated Arts' - also at Burgh House

Stook Duck Houses, Calbourne Water Mill, Isle of Wight

She was the author of three important books that significantly affected the taste and perception of her contemporaries in ways that more famous artists have never succeeded in doing. The first, The Unsophisticated Arts (1951), opened people’s eyes to the art in everyday life … and that the enjoyment of art was not restricted to an educated few, but was available for the enjoyment of all. It is difficult to over-emphasise her work in this area, but one can see the effects in the displays in almost every museum and gallery throughout the country today. The second, Follies and Grottoes, developed an entirely new field for architectural and building historians, and led to the founding of an international society … The third, Design for Death (1967), sparked a similar fashion for the study of funeral customs, cemeteries, and artifacts associated with death … How many other artists and writers can boast of having achieved so much in changing the perception and temper of succeeding generations? … The roll-call of English artists in the twentieth century is not so lengthy that we can afford to overlook such a distinctive figure.  (BC Bloomfield – The Life and Work of Barbara Jones [1912-1978] via Ash Rare Books)

All work shown is the copyright of Barbara Jones's estate.


Stephen Barker said...

Great Post, I have just purchased a copy of Follies and Crottoes. I am reminded of the Saturday Review books that started in the 1940's and contained eclectic collections of victoriana and everyday objects that would be considered unsophisticated art.

Jane Housham said...

Fantastic post. I think she was a genius. Thank you for this.

James Russell said...

Thanks Stephen and Jane - good point about the Saturday Review books, I remember my grandmother having some, and they were very eclectic!

Murgatroyd said...

What great potted introduction to Ms Jones. I bought the Little Toller edition this very week deciding to put my search for an original (& affordable) copy of The Unsophisticated Arts on the backburner for now. It's a feast for the eyes which I'd thoroughly recommend. Thanks for the tip off about the Burgh House sale next month too.

Elizabeth said...

Thank you for bringing Barbara Jones to my attention. I think I had just about heard of her before but was not familiar with her enchanting work. Very mid-century and lovely.

James Russell said...

Murgatroyd - I think the Little Toller ed is a much better investment.

Elizabeth - she's one of many not-well-enough-known artists of the period: plenty more to come!

Thanks for your comments

Philip Wilkinson said...

Terrific post - I've been a fan of Barbara Jones ever since first coming across Follies and Grottoes years ago. It's good to know that the The Unsophisticated Arts is being reissued in this new form - and by Little Toller, who have done so much good work already with their reprint series. A reissue of Design for Death would be good, too.

James Russell said...

Belated thanks, Philip - you're right about Design for Death!

Marshall Colman said...

This is very good news. Original editions of "The Unsophisticated Arts" are beyond my means and I'm glad Toller have decided to republish it.

James Russell said...

Thanks Marshall - the new edition is lovely

John Medd said...

I love the Design for Death artwork. Skulls never cease to fascinate.

Josie said...

Thank you. A new discovery for me and one that I am very glad to have made! barbara Jones has a new fan!

Bright said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Unow22 said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.