REVIEW by Rosie MacLeod

17/07/2012

Jonah Jones, An Artist’s Life

by Peter Jones

Jonah Jones, An Artist’s Life is written by the subject’s own son, the S4C journalist Peter Jones. The reader detects him speaking with a Welsh vernacular behind the printed word.

The addictive writing style and punchy references – the book is punctuated with frequent family anecdotes and quotations from memoirs, letters and diaries – make it at once factually fruitful, warmly human and an altogether satisfying read.

The chapters are arranged in chronological order, following the life of Jonah Jones, sculptor, engraver, essayist and novelist and then some. It details each ‘chapter’ of Jones’ life very much as an artist. It starts with his upbringing in depressed post-WW1 Tyneside. If Eifionydd’s own David Lloyd George was busy building ‘Homes for heroes to live in’, Jones’ modest surrogate homeland of working-class north east England saw none of it. Peter Jones takes us through Jonah’s Second World War when he, although a conscientious objector, became an army medic and was sent to Belgium and Germany. The reader follows him through his spell in the Middle East and his long-desired move back to Wales. Having only ever caught two glimpses of his detached homeland in his life – one from Breeden and the other Bristol, he finally settled in the north of the country with his Israeli wife Judith Maro in the post-war years. Even in those chapters that describe the life of Jonah (known as ‘Len’ up until his army enlistment) before he was a practising artist, we manage to see strong (though far-between) glimpses of the influences that made him into the artist he grew up to be.

There are echoes of Franz Kafka and George Orwell in this remarkable life story. Our artist grew up in Tyneside, north-east England, an ‘island within an island’ (as the book describes it) with its own ‘Geordie’ or ‘Mackem’ dialect and traditions that set it apart from the rest of the archipelagic nation, and also to a Welsh family. Therefore, he was a minority within a minority, as was the king of grotesque symbolism (Kafka!), who lived not only as a Jew in Prague but also a German-speaking one. When working as an army medic, Jones found himself within a network of similarly aspiring and some partly established artists, who were conscientious objectors when war broke out but had since trained as ‘Red [cross] Devils’. This camaraderie and artistic, creative inspiration that somehow managed to evolve in spite of, or possibly because of, the horrific background of war is reminiscent of Orwell’s documented camaraderie and extended prose piece Homage to Catalonia, which recalls his observations in the Spanish Civil War.

The book is at times a highly thought-provoking social critique. After moving to Wales, Jonah Jones fell gravely ill with tuberculosis. Fortunately, he did so at the right time. The NHS had just been founded, a creation of Labourite Nye Bevan, and so he ‘benefitted’ from the invention (ie he survived). His working-class, socialist and Protestant family did not object to his marrying a Jewess but resented his Catholic conversion, although they ‘found the Quakers too middle class’ as well. Less often than one might have imagined did class differences impinge on Jonah Jones’ life. He enjoyed a genuine and long friendship with Lord Anglesey, whom he met when working on a memorial to the latter’s ancestors.

With first-hand and sometimes harrowing descriptions of our artist’s observations and experiences of food shortages in Belgium, the liberation of Belsen concentration camp – a sight that Jonah describes moving some of the most fearless soldiers to tears – his time as a scholar in Dublin at the time of radical politics and student movements, this book is great for anyone who enjoys a factual read and both political and social history.

Equally importantly, Peter Jones’ book effortlessly raises awareness of an often overlooked figure: the local artist. Can you name any of yours?

Buy this book at gwales.com



       


previous review: Poets from Sardinia
next review: Regeneration



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