Thursday, 18 June 2009

Jeffrey Catherine Jones: Painter at the gates of dawn

In collecting paperback editions of Robert E Howard one is exposed to some pretty piss-poor artists, if indeed one can grace them with that title. For every master such as Frazetta or Kelly there are dozens of lesser skilled bunglers who’s work is both an embarrassing eyesore and a challenge to the patience of even the most committed collector. But amongst the dross and shoddy, gaudy rubbish I discovered a jewel so lustrous that it shone brighter than the sun at midnight.
On the cover of the Zebra Books anthology of Howard’s stories stood a warrior, head thrown back in triumph and shield uplifted in salute. Everything about the illustration spoke of an artist that understood form, character, art and life. In place of the technicolour beefcake barbarians of the Frazetta copyists stood a figure that embodied power rather than violence, litheness rather than massiveness and was possessed of the same dark, brooding intelligence that ran through Howard’s heroes. Here was an artist whose work did not just provide a cover for a cheap book but complimented the stories inside and raised that book from the ordinary to the fantastic.
Jeffrey Jones was born in Atlanta on 10th January 1944, studying geology at Georgia Tech before moving to New York to pursue a career as an artist and illustrator. When Jones arrived in town in the winter of 1967 the iconic covers Frazetta had painted for Ace Books were all the rage and publishers were searching for new people who could deliver something similar – having previously sold black and white strips to horror comics such as Eerie and Creepy Jones was well placed to supply a ready market and found a rich source of work for several years to come.
Between 1968 and 1976 Jones painted over 150 covers for genres of fiction as diverse as fantasy, romance, detective stories and spicy fiction. Jones’ work of the late 60s and 70s is full of strong flowing lines that are at the same time loose and direct. Her paintings show the same reverence for the human form as the illustrations of William Blake and share with Roerich the efficiency of a muted and restrained palette, used to masterful effect in evoking atmosphere and emotion. Indeed many of Jones paintings from her book cover days show a stylistic heritage with the early, folkloric paintings of Nikolas Roerich - such as “Guests from Overseas”, “They haul them along” and “The Sword of Valour”.
At her best Jones’ work transcends the narrow bounds of book illustration or fantasy art and is able stand side by side with the masters of any age. In the painting “Dragon Slayer” we find a languid femme fatale as beautiful and vulnerable as any Pre-Raphaelite heroine - although infinitely more erotic - reclining on a couch with the head of a serpentine dragon in her lap. Silhouetted against the gauzy backlight a figure approaches with sword in hand. The image is charged with sexual tension, full with an ageless and eternal symbolism and could have been exhibited alongside Khnopff or Delville in any salon of the fin de siecle.
In “Avatar” a dramatically posed male figure stands erect and hieratic beneath the horns of a crescent moon, his face raised in the ecstasy of rapture as a billowing cloud of interlaced female figures rises to the night sky. We do not know if we are witnessing a dream, an invocation or a moment of revelation. The image combines the eternal archetypes of the masculine and feminine, transfigured through the lens of an unearthly sabbat. There is both motion and stillness, peace and the frisson of fear in the painting, which swirls in front of the viewer like smoke rising from a secret fane.
I love the way that Jones captures a moment of emotional energy and freezes it beneath a painterly gaze. Whether it be embracing lovers or a charging chariot Jones’ work is charged with passion and depicts an eternal, crystalline moment. There are many competent draughtsmen, many painters who have mastered colour and tone but few who can compose a painting so that it looks like a moment of frozen wonder.
The best artists can make our souls sing with the beauty and glamour of their vision. Looking at the work of these few we are swept away to far off places where the dreaming world collides with reality, where the fields we know – to use a phrase employed by Lord Dunsany – are subtly changed by secret magicks and mundane things are revealed in their true, halcyon forms. Jeffrey Catherine Jones is one of these few - her eye pierces to the heart of the mystery and her hand reveals the innermost lights of masques, rituals and revels that we would never have otherwise seen. We feel that we truly are witness to a drama played out by gods and men. She is, as Frank Frazetta proclaimed, the greatest living artist.
Jones now works both in sculpture and landscape painting. A selection of her recent work was displayed on her own website which unfortunately appears to be no longer online A selection of Jones illustration for the pulp paperbacks of the 1960s and 70s is archived at A detailed article outlining Jones career and her major publications is available at An interview with Jones conducted in 2004 is available at

No comments: