Sunday, March 30, 2008

Arthur Jones

After yesterday's cuteness... crime! And none of that "cosy murder mystery" nonsense from the Golden Age of British crime writing although these, too, date from roughly the same era.

I've been reading The Gang-Smasher by Hugh Clevely, an unknown classic somewhere between the 'clubland hero' (as championed by Richard Usborne) and the 'durable desperado' (per William Vivian Butler). The Gang Smasher of the title is John Martinson, a former Colonel in the army stationed in India who arrives back in England penniless and desperate for action. He very quickly becomes involved in a battle against a criminal gang led by the mysterious and unseen Tortoni.

The Gang-Smasher was hugely popular in its day (1928). American hardboiled novels were beginning to appear here in the UK for the first time. In 1927, Hodder published Charles G. Booth's Sinister House and Hutchinson published the first of a number of novels by Caroll John Daly, The White Circle (followed a year later by Daly's best, The Snarl of the Beast). It wasn't until 1929 that the genre really took off with the publication of Little Caesar by W. R. Burnett and Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett.

On 9 February 1929, the Amalgamated Press launched The Thriller, aimed at an audience who were starting to outgrow the adventures of Sexton Blake but who liked their thrillers tough and their heroes two-fisted. For the next eleven years, The Thriller published some of the best crime stories around—they ranged across the board from reprints of Daly, Hammett and The Shadow (in a wholly rewritten form and relocated to London) to reprints of Agatha Christie and Gaston Leroux. The reprints tended to be back-up stories and serials and the main meat of the magazine was the lead story, usually a 28,000-word novella. Editor Percy Haydon gave the magazine a fine send-0ff, paying Edgar Wallace the enormous sum of £2,000 for three stories (worth around £90,000 now). Wallace's 'Red Aces', featuring Mr. J. G. Reeder, took pride of place in The Thriller number one.

Hugh Clevely's 'Lynch Law' was the featured story in issue 2, followed by another Wallace and then Leslie Charteris' 'The Story of a Dead Man'. Although he had already published a number of novels, it was in the pages of The Thriller that Charteris really learned his craft. It was here that he re-introduced Simon Templar, the Saint, who had starred in a so-so novel a year earlier called Meet the Tiger. 'The Five Kings' (in Thriller #13) launched Templar on a stellar career as a crook and crime-fighter.

Another star of The Thriller was its main artist. The rather anonymously named A. Jones signed many of the covers and was associated with the paper for over a decade. Jones, in fact, had been setting the tone for illustrations of all two-fisted crime-fighters for years.

He wasn't the best artist Amalgamated Press had on their books—his work was crude, anatomically inaccurate and he was poor at perspective and proportion--but when it came to depicting menace, Jones was a master. If a story required a sinister figure, hat pulled low over his forehead, to be seen spying from the street or through a window, Jones was the man to do it. As the gangs began to take over the West End of London, Jones was able to depict them in scenes straight out of the movies of the day. Limited in his use of colour, his muted, brooding images become quite addictive.

Jones has remained stubbornly anonymous for years. Building up a picture of the man has to be done from fragments—a brief mention here and a note there—and, at the end, there is still no clear picture.

It is said that Jones was self-taught and he appears to have started working for the Amalgamated Press in 1913, drawing illustrations for The Boys' Friend. He apparently made no secret that he copied his style of drawing from Tom Peddie, whose work appeared in The Strand and, for boys, in The Captain and Chums. Jones was not able to match Peddie as a draughtsman and all his characters look identical but, despite these limitations, he was soon very much in demand.

He established himself quickly and, in 1915, became the artist of choice for the newly launched Nelson Lee Library and Sexton Blake Library. It is with these two series that his name has become most associated with. He was responsible for the first 566 covers of the Sexton Blake Library before passing the baton to Eric R. Parker; similarly, this relative novice was also responsible for a twelve-year run on Nelson Lee Library which began as a detective series but, before long, became a school story series featuring the adventures of Lee's assistant, Nipper, at St. Frank's.

For a relative newcomer this was a choice pair of assignments. The Nelson Lee Library illustrations showed Jones in a slightly lighter mood, as did his illustrations of other school stories (notably the 'Bombay Castle' yarns of Duncan Storm in Boys' Friend). The Blake's, by contrast, are atmospheric and full of action. Jones was clearly one of editor Len Pratt's favourites, as it was an image by Jones that was given away as a commemorative plate with the 1,000th issue of Union Jack, depicting Blake in his dressing gown, pipe firmly between his lips, deep in thought in his study. (The image was originally painted for a 1917 Sexton Blake Library cover.)

After 15 years depicting the Baker Street detective, Jones became the main illustrator on The Thriller, where he remained for the next eleven years. Because of his long associations with magazines, Jones appeared elsewhere only sporadically and a rough chronology of his work shows his loyalty to the A.P.'s boys' detective papers:

Boys' Friend in 1913-25, The Dreadnaught (1914), Red Magazine (1914), Union Jack (1914-31), Nelson Lee Library (1915-27), Sexton Blake Library (1915-29), Detective Library (1920), The Detective Magazine (1922-24), Chums (1928), The Thriller (1929-38), Detective Weekly (1934), Sexton Blake Annual (1938).

It is said that Jones often lived beyond his means and was fond of a drink; despite this, he was considered a very pleasant fellow. He was a Londoner, living at St. Quintin Park, not far from the famous Wormwood Scrubs prison. Short, of stocky build and with a ruddy complexion, he worked best at his studio with a wireless turned on full blast, seeming to draw inspiration from the blaring music. A wireless was something of a novelty in the 1920s.

His great love was cars and he owned quite a few in his time; he was always tinkering and experimenting with them, and in his own way was a very skilled mechanic. A keen motorist, he spent much of his spare time at Brooklands, the famous motor racing track.

He is said to have died before the Second World War, although I'm not wholly convinced. 'Arthur Jones' is a rather common name and establishing his dates has proven tricky. For example, there are two artists of that name in the 1901 census: A. Jones, a 46-year-old "Artist", born in Liverpool, Lancashire, who was living in Flint, Rhyl; and Arthur Jones, a 17-year-old "Litho Artist", born in Birmingham and living in Aston.

However, since Arthur Jones was said to have been a newcomer when he started working for the A.P. in 1913, neither of these artists are likely to be "our" Arthur. A better clue is his location: St. Quintin's Park was the name of an underground (subway) station in North Kensingtonin fact it was called St. Quintin's Park and Wormwood Scrubs Station until its closure in 1940. This was located in North Kensington, London, and an A. Jones was living at 25A Kelfield Garden, N. Kensington, London W.10 during the period Arthur Jones was most active. I can trace him to that address via telephone directories for October 1923 to August 1938.

There is a death registered around that time: one Arthur S. Jones
died, aged 68, in late 1938, his death registered at Kensington. My collection of The Thriller wouldn't fill a shoe box so I'm not able to say with any certainty when his last cover appeared but others have credited Jones as the artist of covers appearing as late as May 1939. I'm nagged by doubts: why didn't that middle initial show up in the telephone book? He'd have been in his early 40s when he started out as an artist which doesn't seem to match the young newcomer Jones is thought to have been in 1913. That said, was his rise so rapid because he was not called up for service during the Great War? His output during the years 1914-18 would appear to me to indicate he was not.

I will have to leave these questions unresolved for nowbut I'm sure I'll come back to Arthur Jones in the future.

(* pics © IPC Media)

1 comment:

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