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The big picture

Artwork of Newburyport city clerk depicting Revolutionary-era Boston earns praise

NEWBURYPORT -- Set designers for an upcoming HBO miniseries about the Revolutionary War would think they had "died and gone to heaven," said one Boston historian. He was talking about Richard Burke Jones's latest work, an intricate "bird's eye" view of 18th -century Boston. Another described the drawing as the only one of its kind he knew of since Paul Revere's depiction in 1774.

Still, the normally mild-mannered Jones is sweating the details.

A lawyer by training, software engineer by happenstance and painter by passion, Jones, who also is Newburyport's city clerk, spent 10 months researching and then drawing his latest creation: a sweeping view of Boston as it likely looked in Revolutionary War times. Then he spent another five months, with oil on canvas, painting that bird's eye perspective as if hovering over Long Wharf and taking in the entire city, from Boston Common and the Old South Meeting House over to the Old North Church.

The panoramic scene, at twilight, shows lights coming on in many of the buildings, which are depicted in detail. The image also captures approaching British troops and the Boston Massacre.

But Jones, 56, is worried. What if one of the buildings is not historically accurate? Perhaps some expert somewhere will point to one structure out of the hundreds depicted and say, "That building was two stories, not three, and not made of wood."

Normally, such details would bother Peter Drummey. But not in this case. Drummey, who specializes in Revolutionary-era Boston at the Massachusetts Historical Society, said the bottom line here is the big picture.

This work "gives you an impression of what Boston was really like . . . how small and compact the city was, " said Drummey, who has seen a digital image of Jones's pen-and-ink drawing.

There is, Drummey said, no detailed catalog of Boston buildings from that time period, making it difficult to know with absolute certainty whether each of the buildings Jones depicted is historically accurate. Drummey helped HBO set designers research the Revolutionary era a couple of years ago, and was later consulted by Jones.

At Harvard College's Map Collection, librarian and author Joseph Garver, who also has seen a picture of Jones's drawing, said it differed from any others he is aware of that depict that time period because of its combination of sweeping view and detail.

Growing up in Newburyport, the middle of five children, Jones seemed an unlikely future painter. At least, that's the way his big brother remembers it.

"He was very athletic as a kid, played a lot of basketball," said Ted Jones, an Internal Revenue Service manager who still lives in Newburyport. "He used to ride his bike and play sports. And he loved baseball."

Then the sports fan went to the College of the Holy Cross and roomed with the cocaptain of the crew team. "A big guy who painted," said Richard Jones.

"It was like a dam broke open, and I have been going ever since, " he said.

His paintings paid tuition for his first year at Suffolk University Law School. The idea of a law career, he said, was only to support his "painting habit," an addiction solidified through a master of arts degree from Tufts University, which he attended after Holy Cross.

The journey since law school has been dizzying. He clerked in 1977 at the Ohio Supreme Court, headed back East to work as Newburyport's city solicitor for eight years, then went into private practice and picked up a second master's degree, this one in law. But then the lawyer/painter was "seduced" by the many possibilities of the Internet, enrolled in a third master's program for information technology, and morphed into a software engineer. Along the way, he married his college sweetheart, Sheila Kelleher, and the couple had three daughters, now 7, 8, and 14.

Through it all, Jones painted: first landscapes, then portraits and more recently, bird's-eye views that capture an earlier era.

"The older I get, the more I appreciate history," he said.

A few years ago, he did an aerial perspective of Newburyport's waterfront, circa 1860. Some of his paintings hang in private and corporate collections. One is in the Newport (R.I.) Art Museum's permanent collection.

Last May, Jones was appointed city clerk by Newburyport's City Council.

His bosses speak of his even keel and dry humor, attributes that come in handy because Jones also serves as the city's parking chief, hearing disputes over parking tickets.

One other point: The painter is pretty humble -- except when it comes to his daughters.

Before climbing up to his cramped studio in the attic of the family's Newburyport Victorian, Jones proudly shows off the latest art project by his 8-year-old, Helen.

"These aren't the stick figures you would see from most second-graders," he said, tenderly turning the pages of her drawing book.

On a kitchen door, a calendar is filled with reminders of upcoming lessons and practices: basketball, field hockey, violin. And that's just a partial listing for his oldest daughter, Elizabeth.

There also are cello lessons for Helen, voice lessons for Julia, and Irish step dancing for both girls.

Which is why, when asked about his next project, Jones does not talk about needing to do a lot of soul searching.

"There are artists who need inspiration and a muse," he said. "I am just an artist who needs the time."

For more information about Jones' work, visit richardburkejones.com. Kay Lazar can be reached at klazar@globe.com.

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