Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

The picture, a small, delicately hued watercolor, is deceptively simple. A plain white farmhouse serves as its centerpiece. A profusion of flower beds and blooming shrubs surrounds the house. Each stone in the front wall is carefully outlined, curving walkways lead to the entryway, and two maple trees stand tall. No occupants are in sight, but their presence is signaled by the comfortable chairs set at angles on the porch and the basket left on the fence.

This richly detailed scene depicts the homestead of the William O. Jones family, painted by artist Ida Ella Ruth Jones (1874-1959) in 1953. On the back of the canvas, the artist has gracefully scripted, “In my 80th year I have much to be thankful for …. Watercolor – Don’t get wet.”

Both painting and inscription aptly introduce the work and life of Ida Jones, a self-taught artist who lived in the Chester County crossroads village of Ercildoun, south of Coatesville. The William O. Jones homestead, Ida’s home, was the heart of her many narratives and the core from which she drew the details of countless visual tales. It was where she learned to paint, depicting the rhythms of farm life, the power of religion, the splendor of nature, and the warmth of family life.

Called by some “the Grandma Moses of Chester County,” Jones began painting at the age of seventy-two. From 1947 until shortly before her death in 1959 at the age of eighty-five, she executed more than three hundred paintings, combining an eye for telling detail with a gentle sense of humor. Her work offers a powerful personal narrative, as well as a rare chronicle of life in rural Chester County during the first half of this century.

Ida Jones was a self-taught artist. Her oeuvre belongs to the category of uniquely American art often called folk, primitive, or naive. This work remains outside of the training and traditions of formal arts, encouraging an unselfconscious expression that flows directly from the artist’s personal experience. Through such art, physical reality undergoes a transformation, sifted through the mind and personality of the artist. The setting and time are specific and boldly recorded, and the interpretation is unique and intimate. Through Jones’ work, viewers are given rare insight into the rural African American community in Ercildoun – and an introduction to an extraordinary personality.

Ida Ella Ruth was born on February 4, 1874, in Chatham, Chester County, the third daughter in a family of ten children. Her parents, Samuel and Louisa Pin Ruth, moved to Ercildoun when Ida was young, purchasing land along what is today route 82. They owned a small family farm, and Samuel Ruth operated a successful threshing business.

Both of Ida’s parents had been slaves. Her father, born July 15, 1850, was the son of Leah Warner, a slave, and Robert Frederick Ruth, a plantation owner. As a young boy Samuel was separated from his mother, who was sold away from her children and lost to the family for decades. Freed at the age of twelve, Samuel was picked up along the road by a Union soldier and Methodist minister, Captain John McPherson. Too young to enlist, the young Ruth traveled with McPherson, tending to an officer’s tent. He eventually joined the 54th Massachusetts Volunteers, the first black militia unit organized to fight in the Civil War, serving as water boy.

After the Civil War, Ruth remained in the North, perhaps attracted to Ercildoun because of its reputation for racial tolerance. The village was the center of a vigorous abolitionist movement and several residents were actively involved with the Underground Railroad. An article in a county newspaper in 1904 described Ercildoun as full of “reformers,” citing Quaker involvement in the antislavery cause. Following the war, African Americans flocked to the area, establishing a strong community.

Deeply religious, Samuel Ruth experienced a calling to preach. He organized the Church of Christ in Ercildoun in 1868, and walked nine miles each day from Chatham to Ercildoun until he was able to move his young family. His congregation first met in Abolitionist Hall, a meetinghouse established by radical Friends. In 1893, Louisa Pin Ruth gave a portion of land she had received from an employer for the erection of a church. The Ruths’ children helped carry stones for the building’s foundation, which helped firmly establish Ida’s lifelong relationship with the Church of Christ.

Ida Jones’s deep spirituality is evident in her painting The Parable of the Ten Virgins. The painting, a night scene, is drawn from the Biblical story found in Matthew 25: 1-14. The wise virgins, their lamps filled with oil, go to meet the bridegroom while the foolish virgins, unprepared, must, instead, seek out a merchant to purchase lamp oil. The artist transposes the setting to one remarkably similar to her own home. A white farmhouse amusingly bears the sign “Oil on Sale.” Jones later told friend and patron Roberta Townsend that she painted the story exactly as she imagined it. On the painting’s reverse, she offered her interpretation: “I look at it this way – that half of the church won’t be saved.”

Ida’s girlhood days were filled with household and farming chores and the responsibility of looking after her younger siblings. There were eggs to be gathered, cows to be milked, butter to be churned, and the endless tasks of raising garden crops and putting up food for the winter months. Her tender­ness with her younger brothers and sisters earned her many child care duties. “I like to write to my dear friends, but I didn’t get much schooling as Mother and Father had quite a bunch of us and I was a better nurse than my older sisters,” she wrote to Townsend. She frequently recounted how, at the age of eight, she stood on a stool in front of the old kitchen stove to make cereal and simple meals for her siblings.

She received little formal education, but her delight in drawing was encouraged by her parents who gave her a sketchbook when she was eight years old. Others, too, took interest in her talent. Ida’s employer during her teenage years, Lucretia Haines – an artist herself – was deeply impressed with Ida’s sketches and offered to tutor her. Under Haines’ supervi­sion, Ida completed three lessons and one painting, The Fisherman, but she set aside a second canvas, Moonlight on the Lake, to accept the marriage proposal of a young apprentice blacksmith, William Oscar Jones. When Ida picked up her paint brush again, she was seventy-two years old.

Ida Ella Ruth and William Oscar Jones were married on December 28, 1893, and made their home near her family homestead in Ercildoun. During their long life together, the Joneses had twelve children, including twins who died in infancy. They became ardent workers for the Church of Christ. William Jones succeeded his father-in-law as the church’s leader, serving as elder from 1901 until his death in 1947. He gained a reputation as a powerful speaker and traveled extensively as an evangelist. Ida Jones served more than forty years as the congregation’s song leader, leading the a cappella singing with her beautiful soprano voice. The couple ministered to the congregation’s sick and troubled throughout their married lives.

Ida Jones’s full life as wife, mother, homemaker, and active member of both the church and community kept her from painting for several decades. She tended to the small family farm, caring for cows, pigs, chickens, ducks, and guinea hens. The artist captured seasonal chores of farm life in such paintings as Pasture Season, in which she tilted perspective to give viewers a “map” of the route the cows took from barn to pasture.

An avid gardener, she raised all kinds of fruits and vegetables and planted flowering shrubs. There were also grape arbors, fruit orchards, and strawberry patches. Her gardens bloomed from early spring through late fall, heralding the start of growing season with daffodils and ending it with brilliant chrysanthemums and autumn flowers that she later depicted in many canvases. In her flower paintings she arranged blooms symmetrically against a brightly colored background that energized both color and form. She completed more than sixty still lifes of flowers and fruit, capturing the essence of color, design, and texture that she had observed for many years.

Ida Jones is credited with introducing the growing of strawberries in her community; she ordered the first plants from a catalogue. Her daughters remember rising at the brink of day, picking the fresh berries amidst the rooming dew, and carrying the ripened fruit to an early morning market. Jones painted strawberries frequently, delighting in a sense of delicacy that paid attention to each individual seed in the berries. She referred to her light touch as “my secret” and once revealed she used toothpicks to bring out tiny details. Her painting Grapes and Berries highlights the luscious fruit against a black background. The fruit, symmetrically arranged, recalls the simplicity of a schoolgirl sampler or a colorful Pennsylvania German design.

She also helped her husband with his work. In a letter to Walter and Roberta Townsend she wrote, “did I ever tell you I used to help my Hubby hoop wheels when summer time came and the tires on the wagons would dry so bad the hoops got loose … he took them off and heat them and got me to hit it so it would stick.” Her painting Blacksmith Shop, completed in 1955, depicts rows of horseshoes lined up in the shop’s interior, a wagon wheel leaning against an outside wall and wagons standing nearby.

It was not until a chronic illness forced her to rest a few hours a day that she decided to renew her childhood hobby. William shared his wife’s enthusiasm and supported her by repairing and painting picture frames. When he died unexpectedly in 1947, Ida’s rediscovered joy in painting provided her with a new direction in life, filling the empty hours with a strong sense of purpose.

Before his death, William had hand-lettered a sign – ART WORK FOR SALE – and placed it at the end of the road near the house. A second sign was nailed to a maple tree in front of the homestead. Passers-by, drawn by curiosity, would find paintings equally as direct as these simple signs: vivid flowers arranged in a fan-like fashion against a bright background, delicate fruit in stylized patterns, map-like landscapes of surrounding fields and roads, and humorous encounters between the family dog and cat.

The subjects of Jones’s paintings grew from her observations of daily life. She began with small projects – birds, flowers, simple landscapes, and drawings copied from her childhood sketchbooks – but she increasingly combined memory with impressions of the world around her and began to record the powerful personal stories of a life richly led. Her lack of training led to an interest in design and narrative detail, and many of her paintings had stories to tell. Springtime in 1892 recorded an amusing incident in Ida and William’s early years together. Returning from a shopping trip to town, they rode merrily, singing favorite songs, laughing and talking as Jack, their favorite horse, trotted along the country road. It was not until they arrived home that they discovered that the old buggy had lost part of its bottom – and their groceries. This painting is both a narrative and a symbol of the fresh delights of spring. A child picks flowers in the field, a swing hangs from a tree, flowers abound, and bright white fences are strung along vivid green fields. Realistic perspective is sacrificed to the emotional embrace of springtime.

Jones developed a category of canvases she referred to as her “antiques,” paintings from her child.hood that clearly depict the technology of an earlier era. Threshing Rig recalls her father’s traveling threshing business, using a unique horse-powered treadmill. A Load of Livestalk portrays a team of oxen hitched to a two-wheeled cart. On the reverse Ida explains that she copied the image from a faded photograph, nearly sixty years old, to document how oxen were kept for heavy hauling.

One of her most powerful stories captures a courageous moment in the life of her grandmother, Leah Warner. After Ida’s father had established himself in Ercildoun, he searched the South for his mother. He found her living in Hilton Head, South Carolina, and persuaded her to live with his family. Leah Warner lived to be more than one hundred years old and would prove to be Ida’s most profound connection to the era of slavery. Although she rarely commented on racial issues, Ida Jones completed at least two paintings that illustrate part of her grandmother’s story. One depicts the auction block where Warner was sold into slavery. The road is lined with prospective buyers, arriving in horse and carriage. In the background, Ida included the slave pens where her grandmother and others were kept before the sale.

A second painting, Before Freedom, revealed her grandmother’s bravery. The small watercolor depicts the spacious master’s house at the top of the hill, contrasted with the humble slave quarters near the fields. In the lower right hand corner, women rhythmically hoe the garden, while the drama of the painting occupies a small central focus. Ida’s grandmother is confronting the overseer, Eddie Fields, who sits upon his horse with his whip curved ominously over his head. He is about to strike her as she passes through the open gate on her way to work in the field beyond. On the painting’s reverse, Ida offered her narrative.

What Grandmother Said After she heard what the Law was About Slaves, she said the next time Eddie Fields hits me with that whip, Im going to beat him to death. so he hit her along with the rest of the slaves, you know what happened then. he was under the doctors care for 3 weeks.

Although no state law in South Carolina protected slaves from their master’s beatings, Ida’s grandmother may have been referring to a regional ordinance that protected slave women from excessive punishment. Ida worried about this painting, confiding in friends Roberta and Walter Townsend that she feared people would misinterpret her message. The Townsends encouraged the telling of her narrative and arranged for Ida to paint it while a guest in their home.

In 1950, Horace Mann Bond, historian and president of Lincoln University (see “Some Questions for Examining Pennsylvania’s Black History” by Julian Bond in the winter 1994 edition), made a chance call on Ida Jones, seeking information about the Underground Railroad in Chester County. Her parents’ home was rumored to have served as a station. Bond was astonished to find the spry, elderly woman in a house filled with paintings. He reacted quickly to his discovery by inviting Jones to hold her first one-person exhibition at the Vail Memorial Library at Lincoln University, which opened November 15, 1951.

Jones’s inaugural exhibition introduced her to the Townsends, avid collectors of folk art. Roberta Townsend recalled the dreary November day when she first encountered Jones’s brilliant work – and then the artist herself.

Oh, Ida Jones! What a surprise! Why there I am – five years old in a wagon in Sugartown where I was born. And my little brother! Fences and fields. Fresh greens and clear sharp blacks, lustrous whites. The scenes embraced us … A little giddy from the fun of it, we came at last to Ida herself. We knew right away that we would never be the same again.

In 1952, the Townsends organized a second exhibition in their home in Cheyney, Delaware County, which brought Ida’s art to the attention of many prominent collectors and dealers. It was not long before her paintings were exhibited in Philadelphia at the Pyramid Oub, Everyrnan’s Gallery, Ellen Donovan Gallery, and Philadelphia Art Alliance, as well as in many regional shows in Chester County. Paintings were purchased by noted New York dealer and critic Alan Wolfe, Fleur Cowles, associate editor of Look Magazine, and Narcissa Gellatly Chamberlain, wife of distinguished photographer and author Samuel Chamberlain. Roberta and Walter Townsend continued to encourage Jones by bringing her supplies, introducing her work to art dealers and gallery owners, even taking her on country drives in search of fresh subject matter.

Roberta Townsend described Jones as stylish and trim with a face expressive and full of life. She recalled her social ease and complete enjoyment of her life. “No Ida Jones show was stiff and solemn,” she wrote, noting how guests hovered around the artist in animated groups. Gallery owners delighted in having their patrons meet her, and one friend, Hazel Hampton, commented in a letter to Roberta Townsend, “It is hard to know which is more interesting, she or her art.”

In a collection of letters, now held by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, at the New York Public Library, Ida Jones revealed many of her work habits to Roberta Townsend. It is clear that she often executed more than one version of a painting, sometimes completing the same image in both oils and watercolors. She referred to her living room crammed with paintings, commenting, “Im sure I have 100 right here.” In her correspondence she frequently asked for materials, paints, and frames. Letters written as early as 1952 mentioned frequent periods of hospitalization, citing a chronic foot ailment, and referred to a serious illness that kept her bedfast for some time in 1956.

In the fifties, Ida Jones became a frequent patient at the Clement Atkinson Hospital, an extraordinary community institution whose founding revealed the racial attitudes pervad­ing Coatesville. Following graduation from Howard University Medical School in Washington, D.C., Whittier Atkinson returned to Coatesville in 1927 to practice medicine. He was denied hospital privileges at Coatesville Hospital because he was black. His experience echoed that of other African American doctors and nurses, including Ida’s niece, Helen Johnson Forman.

Atkinson used his personal savings to build a five-bed, one­-story hospital unit adjacent to his office. Five years later, he added a second story, increasing facilities to twenty beds, a surgical suite, x-ray room, and limited pediatric and maternity departments. He wanted his hospital to offer facilities that simulated the character of a home in affording patients the basic needs of security and affection, and to provide hospital practice to minorities who were denied privileges elsewhere. Ida’s niece became the doctor’s first head nurse. The hospital was deeded to the community in 1946, and expanded with a new wing in 1955. It closed in the 1970s.

During her stays at the Clement Atkinson Hospital, Jones contributed to its homey atmosphere, brightening the lives of the other patients and the staff with a constant outpouring of art. A newspaper article described how she used a positive attitude to restore her health, converting her hospital bed into a workshop to provide gifts for patients and friends. She wrote to Roberta Townsend that she had made at least sixty sketches while hospitalized. Her sense of humor remained keen, even when confined to bed. “If this place gets afire,” she wrote, “I bet I could outrun the doctor.” In another letter, she told of keeping up the spirits of fellow patients, “One patient laughed so much, I got half scared her tempature would go up.”

After 1957, plagued by ill health, Ida’s artistic output declined although she remained active until her death on January 31, 1959. Unlike the work of many folk artists which frequently disappears from the public eye, Ida’s paintings were actively collected and exhibited. Family and friends continue to prize Ida’s work, and many examples have been carefully catalogued by her daughter, Ida Jones Williams. Such attention has prompted three important posthumous exhibitions.

In 1974, the Delaware Art Museum in Wilmington, Delaware, mounted “Four Delaware Valley Primitives,” exhibiting paintings by Ida Jones and works by Horace Pippin, Henry Braunstein, and Edward C. Kimmel. Comparison with Horace Pippin (see “Pippin” by Judith E. Stein in the spring 1994 edition) is inevitable. Both self-taught, the artists created works that shared narrative quality, strong sense of two­-dimensional design, and straightforward use of color typical of folk art. Their lives overlapped in Chester County, but their worlds were decidedly different. Pippin’s paintings were drawn from the small town, urban environment of West Chester; Ida’s portrayed a distinctly rural lifestyle. Pippin’s reality was deeply affected by the dark experience or war; Ida’s light touch, although not naive, rarely ventured into human tragedy. It is unlikely that Ida Jones and Horace Pippin ever met. (Jones did not begin to paint until the year of Pippin’s death.) She, did, however, read of his success in a local newspa­per and was said to have commented with characteristic self-assurance, “Well, if he can do it, so can I.”

A second posthumous show was held in 1988 at the Afro­American Historical and Cultural Museum in Philadelphia. Most recently, the Chester County Historical Society, located in the county seat of West Chester, installed a comprehensive exhibit entitled “To Everything A Season: The Art and Life of Ida Jones,” which examined the intimate relationship between Ida Jones’s life and her environment that inspired her work.

Collectively, Ida Jones’ paintings are a remarkable journal of a rich life. They document her personal stories, resonate with the visual delights of her home and countryside, and share an embracing philosophy of life. Frequently, her paintings were gifts, celebrating birthdays, special moments and the love she shared with friends and family. To viewers, the art of Ida Ella Ruth Jones continues to be a gift, reflecting the admirable spirit of a woman in great harmony with all the seasons of her life.


For Further Reading

Black, Mary, and Jean Lipman. American Folk Painting. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., 1966.

Hemphill, Herbert W., Jr., and Julia Weissman. Twentieth-Century American Folk Art and Artists. New York: E.P. Dutton and Company, 1974.

Kallir, Jane. The Folk Art Tradition. New York: The Viking Press, 1981.

Lipman, Jean. American Primitive Painting. New York: Dover Publications, 1972.

Sheppard, Beverly. To Everything a Season: The Art and Life of Ida Jones. West Chester, Pa.: Chester County Historical Society, 1995.

Williams, Ida J. Starting Anew After Seventy: The Story of Ida Ella Jones, Primitive Artist. Hicksville, N.Y.: Exposition Press, 1980.


Letters cited in this article are contained in the manuscript collection of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library.


Beverly Sheppard is associate director of Chester County Historical Society, West Chester for which she is responsible for educational and public programming. She served as curator of the society’s recent exhibition, “To Even;thing a Season: The Art and Life of Ida Jones,” and author of the accompanying exhibition catalogue. A graduate of Bucknell University, Lewisburg, she received her masters degree in painting from Marywood College in Scranton. With her husband John Sheppard, she co-authored “Commemorating a Centennial by Revising a Vision” which appeared in the fall 1993 edition of Pennsylvania Heritage to mark the one hundredth anniversary of the founding of the Chester County Historical Society.