Thomas Jones

An Excavation of an Antique Building in a Cava in the Villa Negroni, Rome

?1777, later dated 1779

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Not on display
Thomas Jones 1742–1803
Oil paint and chalk on paper
Support: 406 x 552 mm
Presented by Canon J.H. Adams 1983

Display caption

Jones visited the excavations in the grounds of the Villa Negroni in July 1777, which had begun the previous month. He described the frescoes they discovered in the ancient domestic dwelling, as ‘painted Ornaments much in the Chinese taste’. At that time there was relatively little respect for the historical importance and context of such classical paintings, and Jones’s companion, the artist turned art dealer, Henry Tresham, purchased them for the Earl of Bristol. This oil sketch shows the site of the excavation in the foreground, with the convent of San Eusebio above and to the left.

Gallery label, April 2007

Catalogue entry


Oil over black crayon under-drawing on hand-made laid paper 16 1/16 × 21 3/4 (407 × 552), irregularly cut on all four sides
Inscribed ‘T. JONES.’ lower left and ‘No:2 - [corrected from ‘I’] | An Antique Building discovered in a Cava |in the Villa Negroni at Rome in yc Year 1779| T Jones’ in pencil on the back
Presented by Canon J.H. Adams 1982
Prov: By descent from the artist to Canon J.H. Adams, whose great-grandfather Captain John Dale married Thomas Jones's younger daughter Elizabetha
Exh: Thomas Jones, Marble Hill House, Twickenham, and National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, June–September 1970 (30); British Artists in Rome 1700–1800, Iveagh Bequest, Kenwood, June–August 1974 (9); Zwei Jahrhunderte Englische Malerei, Haus der Kunst, Munich, November 1979–January 1980 (97, repr.); Painting from Nature, Arts Council, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge and RA, November 1980–March 1981 (19, repr.); På Klassick Mark, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, September–December 1982 (146); in each case as ‘An Excavation’
Lit: [ed. A.P. Oppé], ‘Memoirs of Thomas Jones’, Walpole Society, XXXII, 1951, p.62; Lawrence Gowing, The Originality of Thomas Jones, 1985, p.33, pl.27

Jones recorded in his ‘Memoirs’ under 5 July 1777, ‘Went with Tresham to see the Antique Rooms just discovered, by digging for antient Bricks, in the Villa Negroni - The painted Ornaments much in the Chinese taste - figures of Cupids bathing &c and painted in frescoon the Stucco of the Walls - The Reds, purples, Blues & Yellows very bright - but had a dark & heavy effect - NB Tresham made a purchase of these paintings for 50 Crowns, to be taken off the walls at his Own Expence-’.

There seems every reason to suppose that Jones painted this scene (or at least made the crayon under-drawing of it) on or shortly after 5 July 1777, the date recorded in his ‘Memoirs’ for his visit to the newly-discovered site. In his inscription on the back of T03544 however Jones dates the discovery to ‘ye Year 1779’. The ‘1779’ is written with a sharper pencil than the rest of the inscription, and may have been added later, Jones relying on his memory (in this case at fault) rather than on his ‘Memoirs’.

In her catalogue of the 1974 exhibition British Artists in Rome, Lindsay Stainton observed that ‘Considering the number of excavations that were made in Rome in the eighteenth century it is surprising that there are so few visual records of any’. Writing before the inscription on the back of T03544 established the site of this scene, Stainton correctly supposed that the scene corresponded with Jones's description of his visit to the grounds of the Villa Negroni with Henry Tresham on 5 July 1777, and suggested that the building to the left in the background was the convent of S. Eusebio seen from the north-east. She also suggested that Jones gained admittance to the excavation through the influence of the dealer Thomas Jenkins, who had been a friend of Jones's teacher Richard Wilson in Rome in the 1750s. She notes that Henry Tresham's purchase of wall-paintings, recorded by Jones, proved a good investment, being later sold to the Earl-Bishop of Derry, and that Thomas Hardwick, another friend of Jones, made a ground-plan of the ‘antique Rooms’ and recorded the wall-paintings in a cross-section drawing (both in the RIBA collection).

Jones seldom introduces figures into his scenes. The presence here of several spectators, as well as labourers on the site, perhaps testifies to the interest aroused by the excavation, at least among English visitors.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1982-84: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1986

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