Charles Jones and His Plant Kingdoms

Charles Jones

This full-figure photograph of a dapper, late Victorian-era gentleman in his late 30s suggests a man of affairs or politics. His crossed leg and left hand buried in his pocket hint at a pause at his townhouse door before he darts off to a trolley or cab and a day at his ledgers. In fact, a truer portrait of the man, Charles Jones, would show him in rumpled overalls and grimy, spattered shoes, his brow streaked with a cocktail of dirt, leaves and sweat. Jones was a professional gardener who spent many years of service at the turn of the 20th century at Ote Hall in Wivelsfield, near Burgess Hill, Sussex, less than an hour by train from London’s Victoria Station. Today, Ote Hall is a 350-acre social venue of “hospitality for private and corporate events.”

A wedding at Ote Hall in January 2015.

Ote Hall has been owned by the Goodman family since 1530. It is unlikely that Jones, were he to visit the estate today, would feel comfortable among the wedding parties and polo matches advertised on the facility’s website.

The Sept. 20, 1905, issue of The Gardener’s Chronicle described Jones’ position at Ote Hall:

The present gardener, Charles Jones, has had a large share in the modeling 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 windscreens, 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.

Jones’ tenure may have been a mere blip in the history of a centuries-old English country house, but because of his labor in its gardens, and through his photographs of the literal fruits of those labors, Ote Hall has become an accidental grace note in the history of photography.

Little is known about Jones’ photography, which was never exhibited and about which he never wrote. We know that he used a glass-plate camera only because a monograph of his work, Plant Kingdoms: The Photographs of Charles Jones, references a note from one of his grandchildren.

At the end of his life, Jones used his glass-plate negatives as cloches in the garden to protect his young plants in the early part of the growing season. Not a single Charles Jones negative is known to have survived. It is fortunate that Sean Sexton’s eye helped to recognize and save the photographs.

Sean Sexton was trolling the Bermondsey antique market in London in 1981 when, as with so many tales of similar discovery, he found and bought a battered trunk. Inside were hundreds of contact photographic prints, many annotated, dated and signed. About a third of them were simple still-life arrangements of flowers and fruit, and the rest were vegetables, sometimes small groupings, but more often close-ups of a single plant. Most of the prints were unique; they were of several sizes, 3x5, 5x7 and 8x10. They had been lovingly printed but not sleeved or matted, so they had suffered surface abrasions, nicks and dings. Still, to hold them in your hands, as I did recently, is a unique sensual experience.

Photo by Charles Jones

Photo by Charles Jones

Photo by Charles Jones

Botanical studies of fruit, flowers and vegetables exist from the dawn of photographic history. The subjects’ inherent immobility well served the demands of long exposures in the work of pioneers such as Fox Talbot, Charles Aubry, Adolphe Braun and Anna Atkins.

Photo by Charles Aubry

For 20th century vegetarian Edward Weston, garden vegetables were both models and dinner.

Photo by Edward Weston

For Josef Sudek, cooped up in the dank, frigid claustrophobia of his studio in winter, a single apple could assume near metaphysical perfection in his luminescent studies of form and light.

Photo by Josef Sudek.

And late in the last century, Robert Mapplethorpe’s high-contrast, icily perfect studies of flowers were often metaphors for the artist’s sexual obsessions.

Photo by Robert Mapplethorpe

What is unique about Jones’ photographs of these subjects is how truly they capture the earthy vibrancy that only a passionate gardener could find in plants freshly harvested by his own hands. To me, there is nothing else in the realm of botanical photography that seems so alive. Not the compositional objects of a François Kollar …

Photo by François Kollar

… nor studies in near abstract form as in Weston. Jones’ work embodies not generic taxonomy, but a sense of each botanical study as a unique, living thing. Perhaps only the botanical photographs of the great French photographer Denis Brihat (also a gardener) rival Jones’ for authenticity.

Trailing clinging earth, wilted leaves, blotched surfaces and snaking tendrils, each subject set before Jones’ camera is a living subject. Only an artist with such a keen sense of intimacy with his “models” could capture such individuality.

Photo by Charles Jones

Photo by Charles Jones

Unlike Weston, who left detailed notes in his Daybooks, Jones left no letters, interviews or journals, so theorizing about his photography is purely conjectural.

There were no exhibitions of Jones’ images. It seems as if he intended to record the products of his labor not for acclaim, but for himself alone.

Photo by Charles Jones

How this unassuming, nearly lost photography ended up in a trunk more than two decades after its creator’s death is unlikely to ever be known. But in one of those delicious ironies that can so delight any biographer, this passionate English gardener/photographer was the son of a master butcher. He seems to have made no photographs of animal flesh, but some of his most affecting images of vegetive life verge on the carnal.

Photo by Charles Jones

NEXT: Streetview: George Georgiou on America's Parades


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