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'Plant Kingdoms'

Classic garden photographs saved, published

Web posted on: Wednesday, September 30, 1998 4:52:14 PMEDT

By CNN Interactive Writer
Jamie Allen

ATLANTA (CNN) -- One truth of art is that you never know from where it might spring.

Some artists are born into prodigy spray-painting buildings and street signs; others are discovered late in life and reach a final, climactic acclaim before passing on.

Take a stroll through the garden

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And still others are never discovered, their work collecting dust in the attics of homes and antique stores, forever hidden from enlightening the world.

That's precisely why the photographic art of Charles Jones is considered such a treasure. His art, literally, sprung from the ground. A turn-of-the-century gardener in England who lived to be 92, Jones took pictures of the fruits, vegetables and flowers he grew.

"The whole collection could have quite easily been thrown away."
-- Sean Sexton, art collector

Charles Jones

But his style was unique, perhaps ahead of its time, and he was never "discovered" during his lifetime. For years, his pre-modernist photographs languished in a family trunk. Then, in 1981, 22 years after Jones' death, author and art collector Sean Sexton happened upon that trunk at Bermondsey antique market in London.

"I have been to almost every exhibition in (England) since 1973," Sexton says. "The thing that amazed me (about Jones' photos) was this modernist approach. What's even more amazing is that he was almost lost. The whole collection could have quite easily been thrown away."

Thanks to Sexton's insight, and his payment of a "nominal price" for the trunk, the Charles Jones collection will never be thrown away. The photographs are now available in the just-released book "Plant Kingdoms: The Photographs of Charles Jones."

Published by Smithmark, the book offers 100 pictures by Jones, with a preface by Alice Waters and an introduction by renowned art expert Robert Flynn Johnson.

Johnson, approached by Sexton with the Jones photographs, recognized the genius behind each frame. He is currently the curator of a Charles Jones show at the M.H. DeYoung Memorial Museum in San Francisco, and calls it "the sort of exhibition one lives for."

"There is speculation why he took them, but we'll probably never know."
-- Robert Flynn Johnson, curator

Johnson has been part of an effort to find out more about the life of Charles Jones, who was a very private person, according to family.

"He was born the year after Lincoln was assassinated and died the year before Kennedy was elected," Johnson says. "He was a victorian floating around the middle of the 20th century."

Johnson says that while Jones was well-known for his gardening, it appears that he kept his photography veiled from outsiders.

"It's not as if these are not snapshots of garden scenes," Johnson says. "They are very sophisticated old photos. There is speculation why he took them, but we'll probably never know why he took these pictures."

With simple titles like "Cucumber Telegraph," "Turnip Early Six Weeks" and "Quillin's Golden Gage," Jones' pictures are isolated works standing out against neutral backgrounds, held at long exposures and captured on glass-plate negatives.

Johnson admits that while the images are works of art, the mystery of Charles Jones adds to the excitement over his work.

"We're at the beginning of the road here," Johnson says. "It's one thing to say there's this great young artist in Berkeley. But to say we have someone from 100 years ago -- it's kind of amazing."


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