The Poise of Poppy Jones’s Solid Objects

Inspired by Virginia Woolf, the artist’s prints at Herald Street in London explore themes of life, death and the allure of possessions throughout history

BY Tom Morton in Exhibition Reviews | 03 APR 24

Staged across Herald Street’s two spaces in London’s Bloomsbury and Bethnal Green, Poppy Jones’s solo exhibition, ‘Solid Objects’, takes its title from a 1920 short story by Virginia Woolf. This haunting tale opens with its protagonist, a young man ‘standing for Parliament on the brink of a brilliant career’, finding a lump of green glass on a day trip to the beach, and glimpsing ‘a dying flame deep sunk in its mass’. Moved by this piece of detritus – which seems to him ‘so definite an object compared with the vague sea and hazy shore’ – he returns to London, abandons politics and dedicates himself to the search for similar treasures. Years pass and, no longer young, he finds a strange kind of fulfilment (or is it consolation?) in his growing collection of objets trouvé, including a shard of porcelain in the shape of a starfish and a chunk of scrap iron he believes to be a ‘cinder of the moon’.

Poppy Jones
Poppy Jones, Egg, 2024, oil and watercolour on suede, soldered aluminium frame, 20 × 26 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Herald St, London; photograph: Jackson White

The everyday items depicted in Jones’s lithographic, watercolour-embellished photo prints on suede and silk are not broken or abandoned, but they do have a charged, even eerie quality. Like the still lifes of 18th-century French painter Jean Siméon Chardin (surely an influence on the British artist), these images not only arrest time, but also have an uncommon exactitude and poise. Contemplating them, the world outside their aluminium frames begins to feel somehow insubstantial – stare too long and we might forget ourselves, and the futures we had planned. In Egg (2024), a single, fetishistically rendered hen’s egg rests on a white ceramic saucer, its tawny shell shaded by matte, heather-grey shadows. In Western iconography, an egg usually symbolizes the promise of new life, but Jones’s work seems to be less about change than about stasis, even immobilizing obsession. When an object is this perfect, who’d want to see it craze and crack?

Poppy Jones
Poppy Jones, Cool of the day, 2024, oil and watercolour on silk, soldered aluminium frame, 43 × 30 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Herald St, London; photograph: Jackson White

Light Years (2023) is a study of a swan-necked art nouveau lamp, glowing in a gloomy, wood-panelled room. It may have been switched off moments after it was photographed, but in this image, it burns forever – an eternal flame. As such, it operates as the antithesis of the extinguished oil lanterns and snuffed-out candles found in baroque-era vanitas paintings, which served as indexes of both the brevity and futility of Earthly existence. In Blue Flower (2023), we glimpse a pair of pale tulips through a denim-toned wash. The piece’s title appears to reference the writings of the German romantic poet Novalis, for whom the figure of the blue flower symbolized all that was infinite, ineffable and beyond mortal reach. What does Jones mean by presenting us with these blooms – or, rather, their image? Perhaps that they can only be experienced within the confines of an artwork, which will always hold us at a distance, always leave us with a sense of pained, exquisite longing. I’m reminded of Woolf’s protagonist, who detects the celestial in fragments of shattered pottery, and who, by the story’s end, becomes a reclusive madman-cum-mystic, more determined than ever to find a ‘solid object’ that answers the call of his soul. 

Poppy Jones
Poppy Jones, Solid Objects, 2024, oil and watercolour on suede, soldered aluminium frame, 30 × 43 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Herald St, London; photograph: Jackson White

Cosmetically, at least, many of Jones’s still lifes would not look out of place in an Edwardian drawing room. This is not true of Tethered (2023), which depicts a nylon puffa jacket. Here, the artist homes in on the garment’s fleshly, deflated-looking purple fabric, as though she were a surgeon inspecting a collapsed lung. Standing in front of the piece, I began to notice my own breathing, and wondered, a little morbidly, when I’ll breathe my last. Eggs, lamps and flowers may speak of life, death and the allure of objects across the centuries, but Jones’s repurposing of the puffa as a memento mori is a brilliantly contemporary stroke.

Poppy Jones’s ‘Solid Objects’ is on view at Herald Street Bloomsbury and Bethnal Green, London, until April 13. 

Main image: Poppy Jones,
White Tulips (Tuesday) (detail), 2024, oil and watercolour on suede, soldered aluminium frame, 42 × 59 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Herald St, London; photograph: Jackson White

Tom Morton is a writer, curator and contributing editor of frieze, based in Rochester, UK.