16 October 1998

Aphotographer who created works of art out of vegetables

Any collector who has rooted round markets in search of something "interesting" can imagine the excitement of photographic historian Sean Sexton on coming across a set of signed vintage photographs in Bermondsey Market in 1981.

The gold-toned gelatin silver prints from glass plate negatives – mainly of vegetables – dated from the period 1895 -1910. They were of impressive quality but the photographers name – Charles Jones – was unknown to him. Even more intriguingly, the photographer of these beautiful studies had the vision of a man before his time, for the way the vegetables were set up as formal studio portraits, anticipated later modernist photography.

Research showed Charles Jones to be a gardener, born in Wolverhampton in 1866.

He worked on several private estates, most notably at Ote Hall, Wivelsfield, Sussex. While there he was mentioned in The Gardeners Chronicle, Sept 20, 1905 issue, which praised his modelling of the gardens and described his work there. No mention was made of a passion for photography.

By 1910 he was living in Lincolnshire with his wife and children and his life up until the 1950s is something of a mystery.

It is said that he was commissioned by a government ministry to grow certain plants during World War II – but what they were or why he was asked to do this, Sean Sexton and Robert Flynn Johnson have been unable to tell us in this book.*

This most covetable book, presents Joness pictures beautifully, uncluttered by text save for his own annotations as to the vegetable, fruit or flower depicted. His work has waited a long time to be published and it would be interesting to know what he would have made of his originals being exhibited in London, this month.

His granddaughter Shirley Sadler remembers him as an intensely private person, quite uncommunicative.

He was also very proud and for years would not collect his old age pension – considering it charity – yet he was not a man of means.

Jones obviously took his photography seriously and had an artists eye for it, but never seems to have shown it off to the world at large. Much of his work is lost and the poignant recollection of his grandchildren is that at the end of his life Jones used his glass plate negatives as cloches to protect the plants in his garden. TG

*The Plant Kingdoms of Charles Jones by Sean Sexton & Robert Flynn Johnson, Thames & Hudson (£16.95).