“A deeply textured trove of learning and reference”: The Gift of David Jones – By Francesca Brooks

Francesca Brooks on Ariane Bankes and Paul Hills, The Art of David Jones

Ariane Bankes and Paul Hills, The Art of David Jones: Vision and Memory, Lund Humphries, 2015, 176pp., $80
Ariane Bankes and Paul Hills, The Art of David Jones: Vision and Memory, Lund Humphries, 2015, 176pp., $80
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It was in the afternoon sunshine at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge that I first saw David Jones’s painted inscription Quia per incarnati in the flesh. In this eccentric work of painted calligraphy, with quotations from the Latin Mass crowding for space, each letter has its own life and character. When I had first seen it reproduced in black and white in Jones’s long, late-modernist poem The Anathemata (1952), ‘Quia per incarnati’ had looked like a stone carving recently unearthed from the deep past. Seen in Kettle’s Yard, however, it was clear why Jones considered his painted inscriptions to be his “own form of abstraction”: it looked like nothing I had ever seen before, ancient or modern.

Even though this Anglo-Welsh artist and First World War poet was widely acclaimed by the luminaries of his day, including T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden and Kenneth Clark, Jones has slipped into something like obscurity since then. Yet at times, among those who know of him, it can feel like Jones is a password or a secret key that grants access to untold revelations, treasures and insights. Say his name, profess devotion, and before you know it a lost print is being pulled down from a bookshelf, a memory is shared, a book finds its way into your hands, or a promise of some pilgrimage is made. There is always a story to be told about how and where Jones was discovered, because, with all the revelation of a religious conversion, Jones must be discovered.

This is the gift of The Art of David Jones: Vision and Memory; offering itself as a moment of discovery for new generations, the book promises to invite uninitiated audiences into this circle of visual, material and sacral revelations. Published to coincide with a major retrospective at the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, and co-written by Ariane Bankes and Paul Hills, Vision and Memory explores the diversity and the formal and thematic unity of Jones’s corpus, as well as doing important work to place him within his wider art historical contexts. Jones is presented as an engraver; a painter of watercolor landscapes and portraits; a unique, private painter of inscriptions, history, myth, and sacramental symbol.

Looking at one of Jones’s remote, Welsh landscapes it is all too easy to think of him, rather romantically, as a “solitary perfectionist” (as Kathleen Raine called him). After a visit to Jones in his hotel at Harrow-on-the-Hill in the 1960s, the scholar, translator and poet, Michael Alexander, characterized him as a Celtic hermit: “poring over ancient religious texts, preserving, illustrating, and interpreting them for posterity.” In a photograph from the National Portrait Gallery collection, we find Jones surrounded by books, wood carvings, totemic objects, and hand-painted inscriptions in Latin, Welsh, and Old English; he certainly appears to be a man living peculiarly out of time. In Jones’s work everything is imbued with the symbolism and resonance of his Catholicism — he converted when he was in his twenties — so that a glass of flowers arranged before a window becomes Flora in Calix Light (1950), transubstantiating before our eyes. While Vision and Memory preserves this sense of Jones’s singularity and unique vision, it also explores his work as a professional artist in London in his secular contexts.

Vision and Memory charts Jones’s first commercial exhibitions in London and his involvement with the Seven and Five Society, a post-war group which famously included British abstract artists such as Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, and Henry Moore. Also explored are Jones’s contributions to the cultural and intellectual life of the city through circles of artists and critics, including the crowds associated with the Ede’s Hampstead house, and St Leonard’s Terrace. Jones is shown to be not just a rural landscape painter and recluse, but also a veritable artist of the city, who cultivated friendships throughout his life.

The connections made between David Jones and the work of the Masters he admired on regular visits to the National Gallery and the V&A are also enlightening. What Jones’s luminous watercolors owe to the shimmer of light breaking through an El Greco sky, or the lucent fabrics draped over his elongated figures, is a suggestive and exciting question. On the subject of his passion for the voluptuous flesh of Rubens’s oil paintings, Hills describes how Jones admired “the ease with which Rubens combined the domestic with the mythological, imbuing the portraits of his wife with the aura of Venus or Flora, or Ceres.” The visual echoes of, say, Rubens’s portrait of his wife Helene Fourment (naked except for a fur robe) in Aphrodite in Aulis (1940-1), demonstrates just how much Jones learnt from his time spent wandering London’s galleries; Jones’s Aphrodite also coyly clasps a robe to her ample flesh.

A tour of Jones’s National Gallery, according to Hills, would also include works such as Paolo Uccello’s The Rout of San Romano, El Greco’s The Agony in the Garden and Christ Among the Money Changers, as well as The Wilton Diptych. What Jones found in these paintings was a kind of archive of symbols and archetypes that were each capable of a recalling a tangled history of allusion: The Wilton’s Diptych’s white hart, for example, is an analogue for the wounded stag in Jones’s illustration for T.S Eliot’s The Cultivation of Christmas Trees. Yet Hills also reminds us that Jones did not just see the history of art as a “repository of images and styles that can be imitated, borrowed […] or stolen” but as a reminder of “the past as a living continuum.”

The chapter on “Rediscovering the Masters” finishes with the bold claim that, “Like Aby Warburg, David Jones as a critic, poet and artist pioneered a new way of engaging with the significance of art in history and culture.” If the past is a lens through which we can view Jones’s work, then its perspective is kaleidoscopic. A quick glance at the endpapers of the book, which reproduce a “Map of themes in the artist’s mind” from the Tate Archives, is powerful confirmation: in this mind-map of Jones’s literary, historical, and mythical sources, arrows of influence shoot off in all directions so that, for example, the “Arabian-Spanish complex” links to “French and German Romance” via the “Provencal Courts of Love.” Time, in Jones’s paintings, is multiple and complex.

This enrichment of our understanding of Jones’s place within art history is timely given that Jones is now widely acknowledged as having a “moment.” A hundred years after the First World War, each centenary year brings a handful of opportunities to spread the word about David Jones and have new conversations about his work. The Pallant House retrospective coincides with an exhibition of ‘The Animals of David Jones’ at the Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft, and in the summer The Welsh National Opera will premiere an adaptation of Jones’ account of the First World War, In Parenthesis, by the young, British composer Iain Bell. A conference at the University of York in July, David Jones: Dialogues with the Past, may well be a springboard for yet more projects in coming years.

At a more local level, David Jones was recently commemorated at his childhood home in the London suburb of Brockley with a maroon plaque, Lewisham Council’s equivalent of the famous London blue plaque. It is the Brockley connection that brings us to one of the key questions Vision and Memory raises: where does Jones belong? And what can a more nuanced sense of belonging bring to our reading of his work? Vision and Memory introduces us to a collection of Brockley paintings made in 1925 and 1926. In these paintings we move from the ordered interiors of The Dog on the Sofa or The Sitting Room, Howson Road, to the rows of suburban gardens in A Town Garden or Brockley Gardens (Summer), where the wild bloom of the trees gestures towards a landscape beyond the terraced houses of the neighborhood where Jones grew up.

This landscape beyond, we realize, is as multiple as Jones’s sense of time. Often described as an Anglo-Welsh artist and poet, the label doesn’t really do justice to Jones’s relationship to the “inward continuities” of the many different localities which inform site and place in his work. In Vision and Memory David Jones’s stylistic developments are introduced through their relationship to the climatic accidents, rhythms, textures, and palettes of the landscape surrounding him; each sojourn in a new place gifts Jones’s work with something different. For example, Bankes explains that “while the Welsh hill-rhythms around Capel played their part in loosening up his style, the bays and inlets of Caldy’s coastline presented [him with] the force of the elements and the immensity of the ocean.” A narrative develops of Jones as a local and located, landscape painter; as the Pallant House exhibition makes clear, Jones was also an artist with rich and productive connections to the rural and coastal landscapes of Sussex, having spent time living and painting in Ditchling, Piggotts, Portslade, and Brighton.

In the book’s concluding chapter on David Jones’s late painted inscriptions, “Word and Image,” the question is no longer where Jones belongs, but to whom. Existing somewhere between poetry and painting, these inscriptions were a private art made for friends to celebrate Christmas and birthdays, or to commemorate weddings, christenings, and even the occasional ordination. Jones produced around eighty of them in the period between the early 1940s and the late 1960s, and he often could not bear to part with the originals, preferring instead to keep them around him with his books and other treasured objects. Hills describes them as sharing “something in common with the folk art of embroidered samplers that were once hung in almost every Victorian home and every Welsh cottage” and their simple intimacy is an invitation for each of us to begin a dialogue with Jones’s work.

A special vocabulary is necessary for conveying the quality of a David Jones painting in words, a vocabulary that expresses the ineffable. Words such as “numinous” and “diaphanous” are repeated in the absence of a more sublime lexicon: Vision and Memory also struggles to reach beyond this problem. Looking at a David Jones painting, moving your eyes across what is described in Vision and Memory as that “deeply textured trove of learning and reference,” — the tangled pattern of line, color, allusion, and evanescent detail — has an effect akin to looking heavenwards in some grand, medieval cathedral. Bankes and Hills have found a subtle and evocative vocabulary for renewing discussions about David Jones’s work, and when words fail, Vision and Memory offers us a veritable treasure-hoard of full-color images to speak in their absence.