Charles Jones was the greatest 19th-century photographer of vegetables no one had ever heard of, until a fateful day in 1981. While wandering London’s Bermondsey Market, collector Sean Sexton came across a trunk packed with gold-toned gelatin silver prints of cauliflower, peas, gourds, radishes, corn, celery, and cucumbers, all carefully posed against neutral backgrounds. Many were annotated with the initials “CJ.”
“Though they had been passed over and scorned by dealers and collectors earlier in the day, Sexton instantly saw an originality and quality in the works, acquiring the whole collection for a nominal sum,” writes curator Robert Flynn Johnson in an introduction to The Plant Kingdoms of Charles Jones, out this month from Thames & Hudson. The publication follows a 1998 monograph of Jones’s images, neatly ordering the photographs by vegetable, flower, or fruit (although the majority are of the vegetable kind).
Why and how Jones, a professional gardener, took these photographs, remains a mystery. Johnson relates the few facts that are known about his life: born in 1866 in Wolverhampton, he was the son of a butcher, became an estate gardener in the 1890s, and was called an “ingenious gardener” in a 1905 issue of The Gardener’s Chronicle. By the 1950s, he was still living a Victorian lifestyle with his wife in Lincolnshire, never getting electricity or running water. He finally died at the age of 92 on November 15, 1959. In his later years, according to one of his grandchildren, he was using glass-plate negatives as shelters for young plants in his garden.
None of these negatives survive. All that’s left of Jones’s intent is in the images, which were never exhibited in his lifetime. And they are remarkable, being ahead of their time in still life photography, and presenting a very modern view with the careful framing and studio portraits. However, they also reflect the interest in botanicals and systematic documentation of photography in the 19th and early 20th century, such as Anna Atkins’s seaweed cyanotypes, or Karl Blossfeldt’s flowers.
Restaurateur Alice Waters writes in her preface: “Of course the photographer would have had to be a gardener, or a cook — and a good one, with a keen, unjaded eye. Who else would have composed still lifes so alive they are hardly still at all?” An arrangement of sugar peas has two pods open to display their gleaming contents like pearls, the bountiful silhouettes of gourds are captured with their spiky leaves, and a close detail of a bundle of leeks emphasizes their architectural curves. Each demonstrates an intimate appreciation for the variety in even the most humble of vegetables.