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Charles Jones, Photographer

May 7, 2018
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 Kingdoms of Charles Jones by Sean Sexton & Robert Flynn Johnson is published by Thames & Hudson

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 Geffrye Museum

At St Mary’s Secret Garden

12 Responses leave one →
  1. John F permalink
    May 7, 2018

    The British Blossfeldt !
    I wonder who influenced who…?

  2. May 7, 2018

    His photographs are quite incredible – they make you think there is colour where there is none. You may be interested in these pieces I wrote about the variety of hybrids (where known) that he grew:;;

  3. May 7, 2018

    Wonderful photos which show how much he loved his work as a gardener. Valerie

  4. Rupert Bumfrey permalink
    May 7, 2018

    Third image – they are broad beans, not bean runner!

  5. Richard Smith permalink
    May 7, 2018

    Thank you for telling us about Charles Jones. What an interesting man, I wish I had met him!

  6. pauline taylor permalink
    May 7, 2018

    These photographs are works of art and, if you know the subjects you can see and feel the reality that is captured in every one, I have tried to pick out a favourite but it has been impossible. Thank you so much GA for giving us the chance to see them, I know that I shall go back to them again and again. The photograph of the man himself is great too, how stylish and confident he looks, a class act in all respects.

  7. May 7, 2018

    Thank you for this post! I just recently discovered and enjoy his work immensely. I found in him a kindred spirit as we have a similar aesthetic and subject matter. I’m no gardener, but I have been known to buy produce purely for its photogenic rather than nutritional properties.

  8. Chris Webb permalink
    May 7, 2018

    If he used the glass negatives as cloches they were presumably 10in x 8in full plate which would give a level of detail even the most expensive off the shelf modern digital cameras could not come close to. Also, the toning process makes the prints effectively immortal, unlike modern inkjet prints which fade quickly.

    So he was achieving things over a century ago which modern technology cannot come anywhere near to. Hmm…

  9. Saba permalink
    May 8, 2018

    These photographs belong in a major museum. I shall save this post and it will guide me in my own work.

  10. Delia Folkard permalink
    May 8, 2018

    Amazing photos which wouldn’t be out of place in a modern exhibition. He was way ahead of his time.

  11. Andrew Plume permalink
    May 8, 2018

    I have a copy of the book, well worth buying, very good quality reproduction of the plates too

    The Camera used was possibly a ‘half plate’ i.e. 6 1/2 x 4 3/4″ (or thereabouts) and the lens(es) used were almost certainly of the ‘Rapid Rectilinear design’, you can tell that a RR was used since there are no soft focus/out of focus elements to his (lovely) images

  12. Ron Bunting permalink
    May 9, 2018

    I would bet that most of the varieties he photographed are no longer around since certain unnamed large companies patented most vegetable types, so all we get today are boring ,tasteless things which sort of resemble food we once enjoyed .

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