By day, Andrew Jones works in finance but by night, and any other available times, he paints elegant—and elegiac—pictures of city stoops and their shadows. A member of one of America’s oldest families, he has an ancestor with the un-improvable name of Noble Jones. His own restored townhouse in the Village, which he bought in 1994, is full of sinuously beautiful Duncan Phyfe furniture and he has also committed time and money to preserving the Savannah Georgia house of Major John Berrien, who served under George Washington. When the restoration of the once-derelict 18th century house is complete, Andrew says, he will mainly use it “for having parties.” He likes parties, and served us champagne, with no preamble—we left a bit flushed and squiffy—but we hope the interview isn’t affected.
So what did you start with – the collecting of furniture, the painting, the renovation of the house? You seem to cover the lot.
It goes way back. I’ve just always loved to draw and paint. Apparently I did my first drawing at the age of sixteen months—my mother has a photograph of it. I grew up in Baltimore.
When you hit upon the idea of painting stoops, was it a relief to find your subject?
Absolutely. I had painted in many different styles and I was always waiting for a time when there would be something that was really me and I knew that it would happen if I didn’t try too hard.
That’s interesting. I think it’s true that you can chase something so hard and never get it but if you just sit and wait quietly, it might suddenly appear out of the bushes.
Yes. The way it started actually was when I was looking at buying houses. I took photographs of stoops because I was trying to understand the architecture. I was trying to [record] what an 1840s house is like or what an 1860s house is like. And then started looking at the pictures and I was, like, hmm, these could make interesting paintings. And it was odd because very few artists have specialized in stoops and it’s such a quintessential icon.
I think it’s fascinating that you can tell a period from the designs of the actual wrought iron work on the stoops.
You can tell a house within two years. I was walking by my friend’s house and he said, “When was my house built?” and I said, “1836”. Who does the Streetscapes column …?
Oh, Christopher Gray.
Yes. So once he sent me an email with pictures of ten stoops and I was very busy that day. He said, “Can you identify these by year?” and I said, “1842, 1837 …” I was off on one, which I should have known because it was 1830s style but had later elements added to it.
That’s like a party trick! And what was the point of him doing that, may I ask?
Someone said that and his reply was something like, “I want to join your religion.”
Can you do it in other cities? London used to have fabulous wrought iron work but they stripped it away to melt it down for munitions or something during the war. And then they found out they couldn’t use that type of metal for anything much.
They did – so in London you just have those spears everywhere. There are still some wonderful cast iron balconies there, rather in the same style as you might see in New Orleans or San Juan or Montevideo.
What is the difference between cast iron and wrought iron then?
In a typical stoop, often it’s mixed. Sometimes they cheat and they have one element wrought and the rest are cast.
So give us some clues as to what to look for so that we can have a go at judging stoops by period.
Gothic is easy – most Gothic stoops are late 1840s with little Gothic arches. There are some on Charles Street [in the Village]. The classical period is late 1830s—so Greek urns and so on. Also in the late 1840s, you get Greek revival but it is more eclectic because this was also the period of the discovery of the great Mayan temples. Something that looks like a Greek key is actually a Mayan square [symbol].
In your paintings, the shadows seem as important as the architecture.
Yes, some of my paintings are just shadows. Shadows create certain music.
Why don’t you just take photographs?
Because I’ve never taken a photograph that actually conveys what I feel. For me a photograph is like a sketch. It has information in it.
Let’s talk about preservation of architecture. Where is the balance between preserving and turning a vibrant city into a lifeless museum?
I think the goal is to leave what is good alone.
But the modern can be lifeless too. My husband got mad at me when we were in Oslo looking at the part of the city that is undergoing a building boom and is full of huge, new buildings – I found it impersonal and said I felt like one of the little human figures you see walking around in architectural rendering. Then he yelled, “Why do you always prefer the past?”
People are afraid of the past. And anyway, no matter the building, everything has Greek and Roman references.
Well, I wish I had said that. I just stomped off in a huff. But I have to say, I feel comforted by the past. What is the appeal or the beauty in ruin and decay and old things, would you say?
I don’t know. When a stoop is rusty, it’s so beautiful. And it can’t stay that way. Either it rots or gets preserved. My mother says, “I feel sorry for broken chairs.” When you look at a chair [gestures to one of the Duncan Phyfe chairs] that chair is about the people who sat in that chair, their taste and their elegance and their refinement. It meant something. And just look at the poise!
Did you inherit all this furniture or have you collected it?
There is Duncan Phyfe furniture in the family but I have collected these. The market is actually very weak [for this furniture] and I’m very happy about that. Everybody is still chasing Mid-Century Modern. When Phyfe made that chair over there, he was basically a millionaire, so he made it just for the love of it. He charged ridiculous prices!
Do you believe in ghosts?
Oh, absolutely! [laughs] They’re here. There are a lot of people in this room but they’re not paying attention to us right now.