Exhibition catalogue text

Catalogue entry from British Watercolours from the Oppé Collection

THOMAS JONES
1742-1803

45 The Bay of Naples and the Mole Lighthouse 1782

Oil on laid paper 24.5 x 39.6 (9 5/8 x 15 5/8)
Inscribed verso in pencil 'TJ | Naples - March 1782'

T08246

During his seven-year stay in Italy Jones made two visits to Naples, one between September 1778 and January 1779 and another, more extended visit between 1780 and 1783. He was still intent on attracting commissions for large-scale oils, and on the second visit was especially hopeful of securing the patronage of the influential British envoy Sir William Hamilton (by the time Hamilton did get round to commissioning a picture in 1783 Jones had already decided to return to England; see Stainton 1996, p.183). It is from this second visit to Naples that the most celebrated of all Jones's oil studies belong, most of them painted from a window or from the flat roof of the various studios he rented.

The first set of lodgings Jones occupied, between May 1780 and 3 May 1782, is described in some detail in his Memoirs. He took rooms in a 'large new built house or Palace if you please' situated opposite the 'Custom house for Salt' in a noisy area near the old harbour. The ground floor was 'all appropriated to Warehouses', and the rest of the building being empty, Jones selected 'that Part of the second floor nearest the Sea, being by far the pleasantest, with the use of the Lastrica or Terras Roof' (Jones, Memoirs, pp.95-6). It was from this 'lastrica' that in April 1782 Jones made some of the earliest of his oil studies of roof-tops and buildings in Naples - his moving to smaller rooms on an unspecified level of the building the previous year had clearly not prevented him access to the roof. The elevated viewpoint of this study suggests that it, too, was painted from the same spot; for from this vantage point Jones would no doubt have enjoyed views in many directions and given his proximity to the sea, presumably towards the harbour as well. Since this study is dated a month earlier than the others, it may well have been the first in this remarkable series.

The old harbour with its prominent lighthouse was a centre of great social activity in this period and offered magnificent views of Vesuvius and the Sorrentine peninsula (Hawcroft 1988, p.94). Thanks both to his elevated viewpoint and to his orientation away from the harbour, with this oil study Jones produces something very different from the more conventional representations of the scene (fig.19). He paints a simple stretch of water looking across to the Sorrentine peninsula, articulated only by the lighthouse and a sequence of rhythmically placed feluccas. The overwhelming impression is one of stillness and calm. Lawrence Gowing (1985, p.52) has described how studies like these achieve 'an enveloping unity by means quite opposite to dramatic illustration. They are gentle and precise and they illustrate nothing. They simply are.'

Anne Lyles

Published in:
Anne Lyles and Robin Hamlyn, and others, British Watercolours from the Oppé Collection with a Selection of Drawings and Oil Sketches, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1997, p.126 no.45, reproduced in colour p.127