This delightful little Victorian oil on panel, by Cardiff born artist Charles Jones RCA (1836–1902), has been one of the most satisfying projects of the year. Particularly admired for his meticulous portrayals of sheep, the painter became known fondly as “Sheep” Jones. Previously lost in a dark grey fog of over a century of fire soot and discoloured varnish, the most precisely rendered sheep emerged into brilliant daylight after cleaning. The similarity between Jones’ small flock and that of another mid-Victorian painting is compelling.
In 1852, as the ageing Duke of Wellington was voicing his concerns about the poor state of the English coastal defence against a possible French invasion, William Holman Hunt (1827–1910) settled down for a long summer diligently painting “Lost Sheep,” as it was first entitled. Nestled above Covehurst Bay, on the sea cliffs near Hastings, the artist strove to represent the scene in accord with Ruskin’s exhortation to “go to Nature in all singleness of heart.” The painting, later exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1953 as “Our English Coasts,” drew critical acclaim and is now considered a quintessential Pre-Raphaelite landscape.
As in the “The Hireling Shepherd,” these sheep are in trouble. In a beautiful, but perilous, location they seem oblivious to danger. Grazing unwisely on the promontory, some ensnared in dense thickets while others flop haplessly. A social allegory of willful moral decline is emphasised in a third re-titling of the painting as “Strayed Sheep” in 1855, for the Exposition Universelle. Moreover, here he evokes a Biblical message: “All we like sheep have gone astray” (Isiah 53:6). Charles Jones ’ sheep also stand uncomfortably near the precipice, though appearing more alert than Hunt’s insensible flock. Perhaps the most striking parallel is not the evident peril in the pictures, but the unease generated by what is absent: not even a distracted hireling tends these sheep.
This painting has a wonderful script signature on the reverse of the panel, dated 1874. Charles Jones’ monogram appears in red in the lower right corner.
Tags: 19th century, Charles Jones, cleaning, Duke of Wellington, Isiah, John Ruskin, panel painting, Sheep, signature, varnish removal, Victorian, William Holman Hunt