David Jones, 1895-1974

Here is an artist in the Renaissance sense: a man preoccupied with exploring his personal relationship with the world and trying to make sense of it in painting, carving, print-making, illustration, calligraphy, essays and poetry. Throughout all of these activities, Jones was a philosopher and visionary, contemplating the strange world of the first half of the 20th century, where the Boer War accompanied his childhood, the First World War saw him fighting on the Western Front, the Second World War coloured his middle-age and threats and skirmishes, such as Suez, clouded his later years. Perhaps it is not surprising that Jones had to battle with mental breakdown, twice in his life. His one sustaining belief, supported by the Catholicism to which he converted in 1921, was in the sacramental power of art.

Jones first attended the Camberwell School of Art in 1909, where he studied under A.S. Hartrick, ‘an accomplished artist, (who) knew Van Gogh and Gauguin, whose portraits he painted, and was on friendly terms with Degas and other French artists’[1]. Hartrick was himself a painter, lithographer and illustrator, who had studied at the Slade and the radical Académie Julian, in Paris. He undoubtedly introduced the young Jones to the expressive power of the man-made mark, whether in black and white, colour, oil or watercolour. It was probably some time later that Jones also began to explore the value of metaphor. Indeed, having enlisted with the Welsh Fusiliers and serving in the Great War from 1915-1918, his long period of fighting infused him with a sense of the mythical and spiritual, shaping and transcending the merely personal. It was the experience of War which led Jones to Catholicism and thus to his life-long exploration of the sacramental meaning of an individual existence. As Professor Paul Hills wrote, in 2010, at its best, ‘David Jones’s art brings different realities, corporeal and spiritual, into dialogue’[2].

After the War, in 1919, Jones resumed his studies at the Westminster School of Art, under Walter Bayes and Bernard Meninsky; he also encountered Walter Sickert, whose stints as painting master at the Westminster were very influential. Meninsky’s dedication to life drawing and Sickert’s painterly touch were important; but Jones was discriminating in what he took from his teachers. He self-consciously charted a course between everyday realism and abstraction and, in the same year as he returned to his art studies, he also joined the Seven and Five Society, a small group of artists who committed themselves to sincerity of expression, rather than ‘mere eccentricity of form or colour’[3].

Jones’s search for sincerity of expression, no matter how difficult this might be, found its articulation not only in the visual arts. For many years, he was working on an epic prose poem about his experiences in the Great War, In Parenthesis. Admired by T.S. Elliot as a work of genius, this poem, ‘of allusive, syntactic and semantic complexity’, was not published until 1937. It reveals an artist trying to make sense of a War which had been experienced as ‘an on-rushing pervasion, saturating all existence’. Through this poem, Jones was seeking, ‘redemption in the common infantryman’s ability to establish a strategy of survival .. even in the most harrowing of circumstances’[4].

Part of the ‘strategy of survival’, was to work with like-minded people; hence, the importance of the Catholic Church and the Seven and Five Society. Taking this a step further, in 1921, Jones also found his way to Eric Gill’s community of artists and craftsmen, in Ditchling, Sussex, where he became a ‘postulant’ in the Guild of St. Joseph and St. Dominic[5]. In 1925, he followed the Gills to Capel-y-ffinn, in the Welsh Black Mountains, and, when the Gills moved again to 'Pigotts', the farmhouse in Buckinghamshire, Jones once more joined them, intermittently, until 1932.

Jones’s early visual work was dominated by wood and copper engravings, often to accompany books printed on the St. Dominic’s Press, set up by Gill, and the Golden Cockerel Press, later favoured by Gill. His first illustrated books for the Golden Cockerel Press were Gulliver’s Travels, in 1925, followed, in 1926, by The Book of Jonah and The Chester Play of the Deluge, in 1927. In the latter year, Jones joined the Society of Wood Engravers, established in 1920 by artists who were committed to the task of engraving their own work, rather than handing over drawings to professionals, as had been common in the 19th century. For Jones, the hard physicality of engraving seemed capable of expressing the arduous task of personal revelation. Less to his liking was the addition of colour to some of these prints, by hands other than his own. Perhaps this is why, from the 1930s, he increasingly turned to painting.

Jones’s paintings, mainly in watercolour, are lyrical, profound, subtle and questioning. Increasingly, his images embraced the natural world as an emblem of the spiritual. One central theme came to predominate: the sacrifice and incarnation of Christ. He also explored landscape, still life and the human figure; Greek legend, London lore, rural folk-songs, Welsh myth, religious liturgy, allegory and symbol. Jones’s style became more complex, with soft washes of colour held in a net of graphic marks; textured and layered, tone and retiring colour almost breathing of another world, beyond the veil cast over it by the human hand. Time and again, the balm and the terror of the Christian commitment are alluded to or placed centre-stage. For Jones, his art had become a sacrament.

It may well have been this quality which drew the attention of ‘Jim’ Eade who was a Curator at the Tate Gallery until his resignation in the mid-1930s. Thereafter, Eade and his wife lived in Morocco, the USA and France until, in 1956, they moved to Cambridge and there renovated four derelict cottages to create Kettle’s Yard, a place that was at once, home, museum, gathering place for friends and students. ‘Each room’ was to possess, ‘an atmosphere of quiet and simple charm .. a living creation’, a place of, ‘simplicity and loved qualities’[6]. Here, the close friendship between Jones and Eade flourished. Jones visited frequently - and Kettle’s Yard today possesses and beautifully displays one of the most important and uplifting collections of the painted work of David Jones[7].

For much of his later life, Jones was also preoccupied with calligraphy and painted inscription, thus bringing together his interest in both the visual and the poetic. He used words in Latin, Welsh and old English, in order that their meaning would never become merely literal, but would be evocative, even elegiac.

In 1952, Jones published his second major prose poem, The Anathemata, illustrated by nine images and a rich store of annotation. This account of the pagan and Christian roots of Britain is placed against the background of world history; it is an epic story of the intimate life of one man set within the canvas of cosmic evolution. As Jones himself remarked, this work concerns the numinous, the, ‘things that are the signs of something other’.

David Jones was a quiet artist, something of a hermit in later life. His work is only now beginning to recover the recognition that he undoubtedly deserves (the David Jones Society was established in 1996 and publishes an excellent blog on Jones, artist and poet). He reminds us that, it will profit a human community nothing to, ‘gain the whole world of political and social and economic rights and equalities’, if it, ‘loses the habit of art’[8].

© Dr Hilary Taylor, 2012


[1] Aidan Nichols, Redeeming Beauty: Soundings in Sacral Aesthetics, 2007, p.138.

[2] Paul Hills, introduction to, David Jones, 1895–1974. The Post-War Years, Monnow Valley Arts Centre, March 2010, p.2.

[3] In the mid-1930s, under the guidance of Ben Nicholson, the Society dedicated itself exclusively to Non-Objectivity and, in 1935, at Zwemmer’s Gallery, the group held the first exhibition of wholly abstract art in Britain. At this point, Jones, with others, left.

[4] Robert J. Yates, David Jones, for the War Poets Association, 2005.

[5] A community of artists and their workshops, partly inspired by Catholicism and partly by medieval craft guilds. Its guiding ambition was to establish, ‘Men rich in virtue studying beautifulness, living in peace in their houses’.

[6] From a letter to Jones from Eade, in 1956.

[7] Kettle’s Yard also holds an extensive correspondence between Jones and Jim Eade, from 1926-1965. Other artists who gathered at Kettle’s Yard included Ben and Winifred Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and Ian Hamilton Finlay. As well as artists, the Eades welcomed actors, dancers and writers.

[8] Aidan Nichols, Redeeming Beauty, Op.cit., p.140.