by Roderick Conway Morris

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Reviving the Art of David Jones

By Roderick Conway Morris
CHICHESTER 10 February 2016
David Jones Estate
Human Being, a Self-Portrait by David Jones, 1931



The British artist, poet and critic David Jones was something of a prodigy. In 1909, at age 14, he won a place at Camberwell College of Arts and Crafts in London, where his first teacher held his work up as an example to older students, saying: 'Look at that, you see, Jones leaves everything out except the magic.'

His art, especially his watercolors, continued to win him acclaim as he grew older. In 1936, the critic Kenneth Clark, then the director of the National Gallery in London, wrote that he was 'in many ways the most gifted of all the young British painters.'

The next year, Jones's first significant foray into verse, the long poem 'In Parenthesis,' inspired by his experiences as an infantryman in World War I, was described by T.S. Eliot as 'a work of genius.'

Yet his choice of genres worked against his long-term popularity. He wrote few short poems suitable for anthologies. And most of his painted works are watercolors, which are too delicate for permanent display, and their subtle colors make them difficult to reproduce.

The centenary of World War I brought renewed interest in Jones's poetry. Now, an exhibition, 'David Jones: Vision and Memory,' offers a stimulating retrospective of his paintings, drawings, engravings and calligraphic works. Curated by Paul Hills, who knew Jones during his last years before his death in 1974, and Ariane Bankes, the show is at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, England, until Feb. 21 and then opens at the Djanogly Gallery in Nottingham from March 12 to June 5.

Jones was born on the edge of southeast London to a Welsh-speaking printer father and a mother of English and Italian descent. 'From about the age of 6,' the artist later recalled, 'I felt I belonged to my father's people and their land.' But he also drew deeply on his English and Latin heritages, as the artworks throughout this exhibition reveal.

From childhood, Jones was enthralled by Arthurian and Celtic legends, and his knowledge of English literature expanded during his time at Camberwell, where the subject was compulsory. The rare self-portrait that opens the first section of the exhibition, 'The Town Child's Journey,' though painted in 1931, is of a slightly shambolic youth (His teacher at Camberwell, A.S. Hartrick, described him as 'an incurable romantic'), yet seems surprisingly true-to-life, to judge by a photograph of the artist taken four years earlier.

Also on display is Jones's portrait of the sculptor Eric Gill, whose community of Catholic artists at Ditchling, in East Sussex, Jones began to visit regularly in 1921. That same year he would convert to Catholicism and in 1922 he moved to Ditchling, where he learned wood carving and engraving.

His affinity for these is evident in miniature boxwood reliefs of the Crucifixion; a profile of Gill's daughter, 'Head of Petra'; and a droll wood engraving of him and one of the pioneers of the revival of this craft on a bucking steed: 'David Jones and Hilary Pepler Mounted on Pegasus.'

Jones's mastery of wood and copper engraving and his highly imaginative designs led to commissions to illustrate books, notably for collectors' editions of 'Gulliver's Travels'; 'The Book of Jonah'; 'The Chester Play of the Deluge,' a medieval telling of the story of Noah; and Samuel Taylor Coleridge's 'The Ancient Mariner.'

Wonderful examples of these open the next section of the show, 'Voyaging Out.' They include 'Noah Receives God's Commands,' in which an angel delivers to the Old Testament patriarch a ship-building blueprint, with diagrams and, at the foot of the sheet, a ruled scale (in cubits, no doubt).

In 1924, the Gills and their entourage moved to a former monastery, Capel-y-ffin, in South Wales, giving Jones the opportunity to return to what was for him the dream-bright land of his forefathers. Here, his interest in landscape began to blossom, as he set about doing watercolors and gouaches of the Black Mountains. He also made regular painting trips to the Benedictine monastery on Caldy Island. Some of the finest of these — 'Hill Pastures, Capel-y-ffin,' 'Tenby from Caldy Island' and 'Surf,' from 1926-29 — are on display.

An excursion to southwest France in the spring of 1928 enabled Jones to extend his horizons and palette into more exotic, sunlit pastures, giving rise to images like 'Roman Lands,' 'Montes et Omnes Colles' (whose title is taken from Psalm 148), and views of Salies-de-Béarn. He was disturbed to find Lourdes infested with vendors of tacky souvenirs ('like finding a Woolworth store on the summit of the Mount of Olives'). But this did not prevent him from making a memorable image of the town that recalls El Greco's backdrops of Toledo.

In 1928, he began writing his book-length poem 'In Parenthesis,' based on his years on the Western Front with the Royal Welch Fusiliers. His painting continued unabated, as his travels took him to the Gills' new home at Piggots Farm in Buckinghamshire, to Northumberland and his parents seaside house at Portslade, near Brighton, and to Wales.

'The folk tradition of the insular Celts seems to present to the mind a half-aquatic world,' he later wrote. 'It introduces a feeling of transparency and interpenetration of one element with another, of transposition and metamorphosis.' A better description could hardly be found of some of his pictures in this period, with their blue-green, diaphanous, dreamlike qualities. Among the impressive array here on show are 'The Artist's Worktable,' 'The Glass Door,' and 'The Violin.'

Despite his fascination with the past, Jones was a resolute modernist both in his verse and his art. He exhibited with the progressive Seven and Five Society, with the likes of Ben and Winifred Nicholson, Christopher Wood and Henry Moore, his paintings selling better than those of any of his fellow artists.

But the strain of revisiting his time in the trenches while composing 'In Parenthesis' and his relentless production of drawings and paintings precipitated a nervous breakdown in 1932. It was not until 1936 that he began to paint again.

As the final sections of the show reveal, Jones continued to create important works later in life. These included complex mythical images such as 'Guenever' and 'Aphrodite in Aulis' (on loan from the Tate), and intricate symbolic studies of glass chalices filled with flowers, like 'Flora in Calix-Light.'

Among the most remarkable were around 80 painted inscriptions, of Latin, Welsh, Anglo-Saxon and English texts, now among the most instantly recognizable of his works. They are in a literal sense 'the Word made flesh,' and it is an index of their mysterious potency that to be in their presence is a quite different experience than seeing them in reproduction.

First published: New York Times International Edition

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023