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Charles Jones, Gardener & Photographer

March 9, 2012
by the gentle author

Garden scene with photographer’s cloth backdrop c.1900

These beautiful photographs are all that exist to speak of the life of Charles Jones. Very little is known of the events and tenor of his existence, and even the survival of these pictures was left to chance, but now they ensure him posthumous status as one of the great plant photographers. When he died in Lincolnshire in 1959, aged 92, without claiming his pension for many years and in a house without running water or electricity, almost no-one was aware that he was a photographer. And he would be completely forgotten now, if not for the fortuitous discovery made twenty-two years later at Bermondsey Market, of a box of hundreds of his golden-toned gelatin silver prints made from glass plate negatives.

Born in 1866 in Wolverhampton, Jones was an exceptionally gifted professional gardener who worked upon several private estates, most notably Ote Hall near Burgess Hill in Sussex, where his talent received the attention of The Gardener’s Chronicle of 20th September 1905.

“The present gardener, Charles Jones, has had a large share in the modelling of the gardens as they now appear, for on all sides can be seen evidence of his work in the making of flowerbeds and borders and in the planting of fruit trees. Mr Jones is quite an enthusiastic fruit grower and his delight in his well-trained trees was readily apparent…. The lack of extensive glasshouses is no deterrent to Mr Jones in producing supplies of choice fruit and flowers… By the help of wind screens, he has converted warm nooks into suitable places for the growing of tender subjects and with the aid of a few unheated frames produces a goodly supply. Thus is the resourcefulness of the ingenious gardener who has not an unlimited supply of the best appurtenances seen.”

The mystery is how Jones produced such a huge body of photography and developed his distinctive aesthetic in complete isolation. The quality of the prints and notation suggests that he regarded himself as a serious photographer although there is no evidence that he ever published or exhibited his work. A sole advert in Popular Gardening exists offering to photograph people’s gardens for half a crown, suggesting wider ambitions, yet whether anyone took him up on the offer we do not know. Jones’ grandchildren recall that, in old age, he used his own glass plates as cloches to protect his seedlings against frost – which may explain why no negatives have survived.

There is a spare quality and an uncluttered aesthetic in Jones’ images that permits them to appear contemporary a hundred years after they were taken, while the intense focus upon the minutiae of these specimens reveals both Jones’ close knowledge of his own produce and his pride as a gardener in recording his creations. Charles Jones’ sensibility, delighting in the bounty of nature and the beauty of plant forms, and fascinated with variance in growth, is one that any gardener or cook will appreciate.

Swede Green Top

Bean Runner

Stokesia Cyanea

Turnip Green Globe

Bean Longpod

Potato Midlothian Early

Pea Rival

Onion Brown Globe

Cucumber Ridge

Mangold Yellow Globe

Bean (Dwarf) Ne Plus Ultra

Mangold Red Tankard

Seedpods on the head of a Standard Rose

Ornamental Gourd

Bean Runner

Apple Gateshead Codlin

Captain Hayward

Larry’s Perfection

Pear Beurré Diel

Melon Sutton’s Superlative

Mangold Green Top

Charles Harry Jones (1866-1959) c. 1904

The Plant Kingdom of Charles Jones by Sean Sexton & Robert Flynn Johnson available here

You might also like to read about

The Secret Gardens of Spitalfields

Cable St Gardeners

Thomas Fairchild, Gardener of Hoxton

Buying Vegetables for Leila’s Shop

Heather Stevens, Head Gardener at the Gefrrye Museum

At St Mary’s Secret Garden

14 Responses leave one →
  1. March 9, 2012

    Thank you. Thank you for the breath taking beauty of those photos and the gift of telling us a small part of the story of a consummate gardener and photographer. And what a dapper man he was.

  2. katy permalink
    March 9, 2012

    Wow!
    Love these photos, they have an incredible quality to them …

  3. March 9, 2012

    Are you sure that last picture isn’t of Paul Bommer?!

  4. March 9, 2012

    Really wonderful post. Some of the images reminded me of Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings. Loved the bean pods in particular.

  5. Ree permalink
    March 9, 2012

    Such marvelous photographs…A shame his work was not recognized in his lifetime…

  6. March 9, 2012

    Thank you so much for sharing this wonderful work. I have an allotment so I plan to take some black and white pictures of my own vegetables this year. I am very inspired. Sarah

  7. John_F permalink
    March 9, 2012

    A beautiful set of images. His style bears some similarity to that of Karl Blossfeldt (1865-1932) – I wonder who was influenced by whom…??
    KB’s images are sometimes not immediately recognizable as plant material – often bordering on the abstract. By contrast, CJ’s work seems much more ‘accessible’ and readily recognizable – but nonetheless very appealing.

    Many thanks for introducing me to his work !

  8. Ash permalink
    March 9, 2012

    I was going to mention Karl Blossfeldt but see that John beet me to it! (pun intended:D)

  9. March 10, 2012

    Beautiful images. They remind me of a photograph I once saw in the Museum of Contemprary Art in Barcelona. A peapod, opened, simple and perfect. Very like Charles Jones’ broad bean photo. Can’t remember who did it though.

  10. March 11, 2012

    Excellent! I immediately wanted to point you to Karl Blossfeldt, but John F above has beat me to it! :)

  11. March 11, 2012

    superlative photos – they contain so much detail which we now take for granted with colour shots

  12. March 15, 2012

    These are seriously great photographs.

  13. October 20, 2012

    Yes, these photos reminded me of Karl Blossfeldt as well. These photos are works of art. And thanks for telling us something about this photographer. It’s a pity he wasn’t recognised in his lifetime

  14. denise merrill permalink
    October 5, 2013

    How can a broad bean be moving? -yet I’m crying

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