REVIEW by Katya Johnson

NWR Issue r6

The Art of David Jones: Vision and Memory

by Paul Hills & Ariane Bankes

David Jones (1895–1974) is better known as a poet than an artist. His first book-length poem, In Parenthesis, published by Faber & Faber in 1937 – a mythopoeic response to his experience of trench warfare – is a classic work of High modernism, and was praised by contemporaries such as TS Eliot. His second full-length work, The Anathemata (1952), as with the work of his better known modernist peers (Joyce, Pound and Eliot) dwelt on the image of modern man through the telescope of historical and religious processes. However, for the whole of his life, David Jones was also a working artist; though he was primarily a watercolourist, he engaged with a variety of media and forms including wood engraving, book illustration and runic painted inscriptions. The Art of David Jones: Vision and Memory (2015) by Paul Hills and art critic Ariane Bankes, is the first first full book-length treatment of his artwork since the Tate Britain exhibition catalogue published in 1981. It provides a fascinating insight into the extraordinary life of a key yet under-studied figure in the history of British modernism and forges illuminating connections between his artwork and his poetry.

As a painter of the mid-twentieth century, especially prolific between the 1920s and 1950s, David Jones employed a highly distinctive visual language that clearly bridges both the abstraction of the cubists, literary modernism and British neo-Romanticism – a blossoming of the post-war period. Even a quick glance at his oeuvre will reveal an impressive stylistic uniformity connecting works throughout his career: a visual lyricism which rendered everyday subjects with a magical lightness of touch. A typical David Jones watercolour takes an ordinary, even conventional subject – a vase of flowers or prospect over the sea – and distils it into a fantastical composition of pale pigments and flowing pencil lines, reminiscent of the dreamscapes of Chagall or the serenity of a Matisse oil. Yet despite the underlying romanticism and fragility of these works, the sense of spatial dislocation inherent in them as well as their simplified forms, sharply recall the influence of British Modernist practitioners such as Eric Gill, Ben Nicholson and Paul Nash.

The first half of The Art of David Jones narrates the story of how Jones came to develop his personal vision as an artist in close reference to the biography: during his times as a student at the Camberwell School of Art, as a foot soldier in the trenches and as an apprentice to the spiritualised guild of craftsmen-artists founded by sculptor Eric Gill. Such a chronological approach suits the content of his work, which was so clearly linked to his life. Jones painted what he had contact with and what seemed significant to him: whether that was friends he admired such as the poet Harman Grisewood and socialite Lady Prudence Pelham, or landscapes that enchanted him in Wales such as Caldey Island and Capel-y-ffin. His artwork in this section can at a superficial level be regarded as a diary of his life and the people he met along the way.

The second half of the book catalogues Jones’ departure from realism towards the more literary, symbolic world that his later paintings inhabit. In order to do so, the authors discuss his major themes after his nervous breakdown in 1932. These were his revival of interest in the Old Masters, chivalric and Celtic cosmography, and the Arthurian legend of the Sangrael. The more complex and difficult works dating from the early 1930s include paintings such as ‘Illustration to the Arthurian Legend: Guinever’, 1940, and the frontispiece to In Parenthesis which depicts an embattled military hero standing among a fallen, fractured landscape of barbed wire and bleak wintry trees. Finally, the book offers a chapter analysis of what many critics regard as the artist’s most intriguing period: his cycle of calligraphic inscriptions. Presented in a liturgical style and making use of an esoteric intertextual script of Welsh and Latin words, these inscriptions occupy precisely the boundary line between text and image that fascinated Jones his entire life.

The Art of David Jones is a beautifully produced, scholarly work of art criticism recommended to anyone with an interest in the poet or the history of British and continental modernism. It offers a rich overview of the artist-poet’s career that is firmly embedded in the cultural history of Britain’s interwar and postwar years, as well as keen insight into the unique nature of his genius: ceaselessly experimental, erudite and most often compared to his forebear, artist-visionary William Blake.

Katya Johnson is a PhD candidate in English & Creative Writing at the University of Aberystwyth and a blogger-in-residence at New Welsh Review


previous review: The Actors’ Crucible: Port Talbot and the Making of Burton, Hopkins, Sheen and All the Others
next review: River of Ink


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