Review of The Art of David Jones: Vision and Memory by Ariane Bankes and Paul Hill
Lund Humphries, 2015
If William Blake remains the paragon of the English visionary artist steeped in Biblical, mythical and historical narratives, then David Jones (1895 - 1974) does, at the very least, deserve to be recognised as one of his most notable successors. What makes them both extraordinary artists is their mesmerising facility with both words and images, so that to isolate either one of these talents as the more interesting or rewarding object of study is to run the risk of seriously misrepresenting the scope of what each of them achieved. However, in The Art of David Jones: Vision and Memory, that is the very risk taken by its authors, Ariane Bankes and Paul Hills: they concentrate on Jones' visual art, with his prose and, more importantly, his poetry as subsidiary reference points. In their defence, the authors readily concede that “it would take a much longer book than this to encompass fully Jones' theory of culture, the depth of his erudition and the subtlety of his artistic expression in diverse media.” For that reason their more achievable goal has been to provide an “accessible introduction” which establishes “the significance of David Jones as one of the most original artists of the mid-twentieth-century”. Whilst this is an admirable objective — and certainly, Jones does deserve a more prominent place in the pantheon of English visual artists than he currently occupies –it still begs the question whether an “accessible introduction” can be an accurate, rounded one if his images are given considerably greater attention than his words.
This is particularly the case given that Jones was the author of two of the most outstanding long form modernist poems in the English language. First published in 1937, In Parenthesis saw Jones draw on his own experiences as an infantryman in the First World War to produce a fictionalised account of the travails of Private John Ball (with a nod to the famed mediaeval Lollard priest of the same name), in a work which is by turns profoundly mythopoeic and uncompromisingly blunt about life in the front line. It won its author the prestigious Hawthornden Prize as well as plaudits from the literary world's great and good, including T. S. Eliot, who proclaimed it “a work of genius”. After several years during which the Second World War, a nervous breakdown and the development of his pictorial art intervened, Jones published The Anathemata in 1952, a work which none other than W. H. Auden judged to be “very probably the finest long poem written in English this century”. Decidedly more abstruse overall than In Parenthesis, The Anathemata saw Jones create a historico-cultural palimpsest filled with archetypal traces of his ancestry (father’s family proudly Welsh, mother a Londoner born and bred) along with motifs derived from his Roman Catholic faith in a masterpiece which has as its central meditative theme ‘the matter of Britain’.
Not, it should be said, that one has to search long and hard to find references to In Parenthesis and The Anathemata in the book under review. They are there, but often simply as thematic cues for drawing our attention to yet another of the artist's drawings, paintings or engravings, added to which is the authors' collective opinion that although Jones was someone who showed “extraordinary talent from an early age as a draughtsman, a sculptor, an engraver of real distinction and a painter of rare imaginative reach,” it was owing to his poetry that he “developed a more literary idiom” with the result that his work became “heavily freighted with mythic and historical reference and allusion, sometimes to the detriment of the freshness and clarity of vision he had achieved earlier”– a view which I, for one, completely disagree with. But enough said on that matter. What about David Jones, the pictorial artist?
As a young boy growing up in London, Jones was naturally adept at drawing, a talent which saw him, by fourteen, enrolled at the Camberwell Art School. There, as well as developing his artistic skills, Jones took a course in literature which fuelled an eclectic appetite for anything from The Mabinogion to Coleridge by way of Norse sagas and Shakespeare. In 1915, aged nineteen, he joined up and, as an infantryman with the Royal Welch Fusiliers, was shipped over to France. Invalided out of the army in 1918 following an attack of trench fever (having previously been injured in Mametz Wood during the Battle of the Somme), Jones then enrolled at the Westminster School of Art. There are several examples in the book of his artistic skills up until this point, including a precociously accomplished picture of a dancing bear that he saw in the street and sketched when he was seven, and some deft vignettes of life in the trenches. However, it was whilst he was at the Westminster School of Art that he was first exposed to the work of the Post-Impressionists, the Camden Town Group and the Vorticists, and thereby had his artistic frame of reference considerably expanded. Then, in 1921, he met the artist who would have the most profound effect on his life and art in the years to come. Eric Gill is a controversial figure today, following revelations about his sexual proclivities and abusive wrongdoings. Suffice it to say that, notwithstanding the opprobrious aspects of his private life, Gill was an immensely gifted and inspired sculptor, designer and printmaker. When Jones met him he was the focal point of The Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic, an artistic community based in Ditchling, Sussex. Such was his impact on Jones as a creative mentor and father figure that by December 1921 the young artist had moved into the Ditchling community. As its name suggests, the Guild was a Roman Catholic grouping with mediaeval-meets-Ruskinian ideals about the simple virtues of work impelled by faith, with more than a dash of Arts and Crafts smocks and sandals thrown in. During his time as a member of the Guild, Jones was introduced to the teachings of the French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain, whose insistence that art was a process of creating signs and symbols which invested life with an epiphanic quality he would adopt as an essential tenet underpinning his own work.
It was also whilst he was living and working in the Guild community that Jones learned the techniques of wood-engraving in both its sculptural and illustrative forms, the revival of which Gill and his associate Hilary Pepler had pioneered in England. The several examples of these shown in the book are perhaps inevitably reminiscent of Gill's sinuously stylised creations in the medium. Nevertheless, there is a terse intensity to many of them which makes them more than mere apprentice-work, particularly, for example, the three commissions that Jones received to illustrate books published by the Golden Cockerel Press. However, it was when he then moved on to try his hand at copper-engraving and drypoint that the resulting images began to take on more of the distinctive features of his mature style. By then he was spending a lot of time in Capel-y-ffin in the Welsh Black Mountains, to which Gill, “three families, one pony, chickens, cats, dogs, goats, ducks, geese and two magpies” had relocated in 1924. Here he was ensconced in his forefathers’ “land of enchantment”: we are told that “no one who loved Samuel Palmer as [Jones] did … could be indifferent to the beauty of the countryside.” No doubt this is the case; however, we are also told in a curious aside that “he had visited Palmer in Kent”, which seems somewhat less credible given that Samuel Palmer had died fourteen years before Jones was born. (From a later entry in the book, it turns out that the authors’ actual meaning was that Jones had, in his youth, made a pilgrimage to the 'Valley of Vision' in Shoreham, Kent where Palmer had painted his best known work back in the early nineteenth century – but still, to say that they had met remains a surprisingly careless error). In any event, watercolour would be the next medium that Jones would take up, as he set about depicting the Welsh borderlands in rhythmic, tumbling folds which have something of Stanley Spencer's schematic vitality coursing through them. As airily lilting as these scenes are, though, it is the watercolours completed during Jones’s periodic returns to his parents' home in Brockley during this time that are, perhaps, his most intriguingly personal statements, depicting as they do “the suburban rooms and gardens of his childhood world with wry humour and charm.” Without wishing to overdo the 'let's spot the stylistic correspondences between twentieth century English artists' angle, it must be noted that several of these, such as The Maid at No. 37 and Brockley Gardens (Summer), are reminiscent of Eric Ravilious's genial take on Home County mores, with a similar disquieting undercurrent. By 1928, during a brief return to France, Jones had produced a series of landscape studies. Something of their florid spaciousness was injected into his depictions of the Buckinghamshire countryside that same year when, once more, he trailed after the Gill family as they relocated to Pigotts, a farmstead a few miles from High Wycombe. By now, however, Jones was beginning to make a name for himself as much more than just an Eric Gill acolyte. Having had his first London exhibition in 1927, he had gained admittance to the circles of the Hampstead artistic set which included Ben Nicholson and other members of the Seven and Five Society. In this period, he would also sporadically retreat to a sea-front bungalow that his parents owned at Portslade near Brighton. A series of watercolours produced here depicts the seascape from the bungalow's front window, with ships making their way towards the horizon. Although the authors maintain that “David Jones' reputation as a painter rests largely upon his mastery of watercolour,” I find the ones chosen to illustrate this stage of his career frustratingly unresolved and of the kind that might grace a range of particularly insipid tea-towels. Granted, some of them display a labyrinthine assemblage of colour and pattern which intrigues the eye, but they are not enough, in and of themselves, to indicate Jones' 'mastery' of the medium.
However, for all that these works are problematically indeterminate there is, in their variegated layering, a suggestion of what would come to be Jones' much more recognisably accomplished style from the 1940s onwards. In the late twenties and early thirties his frequent visits to the National Gallery, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Royal Academy would cement his love of Early Renaissance masters, as well as El Greco, Tintoretto, Rubens, Hogarth, Blake and Turner, all of whom would influence his own subsequent work to varying degrees. Added to this, his interest in the ritual and mythological dimensions of war within a Christian context informed several of his illustrations for both In Parenthesis and The Anathemata; witness, for instance, his pencil, ink and watercolour frontispiece to the former, with its depiction of a British Tommy emerging in an approximately cruciform pose from amidst the confusion and detritus of trench life. In parallel with this was a deep investment in the Arthurian legends, which resulted in pictures such as Guenever from 1940. Characteristically strewn with hypnagogic figures and a vaguely discerned bricolage of symbols, this and similar examples reclaim these stories from the figurative literalness of the Victorians and return them to the liminal ambiguity of myth. They are also undoubtedly amongst Jones' most fascinating and enduring achievements.
Towards the end of the book are several examples of the inscriptions that Jones painted and had reproduced on cards which he sent to friends to mark special occasions. In appearance the actual inscriptions, often in Latin, resemble the meandering epigraphy left on Roman altars and dedication tablets. Passages of the lettering are often presented in different colours, punctuation is either missing or idiosyncratically arranged, and various words can sometimes lie vertically adjacent to the main body of text. These inscriptions have an incantatory quality to them and seem to resonate with Jones’ interest in “the Word as an incarnate presence in the Catholic liturgy.” During the 1950s he began to supplement Latin with Welsh and early English word formations, thus presenting his literary and ancestral preoccupations in ways that syntactically complement his pictorial art, whilst simultaneously harking back to the calligraphic skills learnt from Eric Gill. Once seen, these inscriptions are amongst the most instantly recognisable examples of Jones' whole body of work.
Overall there is a sense in which most of the work that David Jones produced – here again drawing parallels with Blake — is a non-aligned and sufficient discourse in and of itself. This is perhaps more so in his poetry than in his visual art, but even in the latter, to encounter some of the best examples is to be faced with a discrete lexicon of symbolic imagery which, though derived from a common cultural wellspring, Jones has appropriated and transmuted for his own startlingly idiosyncratic purposes. Whilst Bankes and Hills' book is a welcome addition to the literature on this artist, a comprehensive, extended study of Jones’ all-consuming creative investment is still awaited.--Mark Jones