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Barbara Jones (1912 - 1978)

Man at Work A Century of Technical and Social Progress, 1961

Catalogue essay by Blanche Llewellyn

Barbara Jones’ training as a mural painter at the Royal College of Art provided her with a sense of freedom and achievement. Transitioning from the small scale of her book illustrations to large-scale canvases spanning many feet in length and height, these expansive surfaces not only accommodated greater physical movement and bold brushstrokes but also liberated her imagination to pursue daring visions.

Jones possessed the competence, charm, and astuteness to attract important commissions and navigate the clients numerous demands. Yet, she always sought opportunities to infuse her murals with her own quirky obsessions.

Man at Work: A Century of Technical and Social Progress, was a feature of the international Exhibition of Labour in Turin, which presented ‘a great panorama of industry and labour’. Jones’ mural was presented as a “symbolic of the complexities of the social sciences” by the Central Office of Information of London. The artwork displays figures loosely connected to its theme, such as a board meeting, agricultural scenes, and coal miners. However, these elements are overshadowed by Jones’s preferred subjects: strange and surrealist elements, including a coffin, embracing couples, a television, camels, boats, an orchestra, a skeleton, a tiger atop a crocodile and her beloved owl.

Although Jones never identified herself as a surrealist artist and refrained from aligning with any particular school or group of painters, her work left a significant mark on the movement. Dream-like scenes, unexpected juxtapositions, bizarre assemblages of ordinary objects, visual puns, distorted figures and biomorphic shapes characterize her unique murals.

Man at Work A Century of Technical and Social Progress
x W305.4cm
Mural for the International Labour Exhibition, Central Office of Information, Turin, Italy, 1961. Two panels, oil on board.
Jones, Barbara

Barbara Jones (1912 - 1978)

Barbara Jones first attended art school in Croydon (1931–33) before winning a scholarship to the Royal College of Art (1933–36), where she met painter Cliff Barry whom she married in 1941. A prolific and varied artist, during WWII she worked with the Pilgrim Trust on the Recording Britain series, making one of the largest contributions of the 63 artists taking part. She wrote and illustrated books on design history, many of which are today considered seminal, including The Unsophisticated Arts, 1951 and Design for Death, 1967. In 1951, she organised the ‘Black Eyes and Lemonade: Curating Popular Art’ exhibition held at the Whitechapel Gallery for the Festival of Britain. A fellow of the Society of Industrial Artists from the same year, she was made vice president in 1969. She was also a fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute and a member of the Society of Authors. A retrospective exhibition of the contents of her studio was held at Katharine House Gallery, Marlborough, in 1999.