David Jones – painter Desmond Sloane on an important British artist and poet

Painter Desmond Sloane rehearses the career of an important British artist and poet who fought in the trenches and whose work is too often overlooked.

‘Part of me, the artist within me, has never left the trenches.’ So wrote the artist and poet David Jones about his service as a front line soldier in the First World War. Jones was never an official war artist, and yet his wartime experiences dominated his life and work, in a way which was not true of, say, Paul Nash, or any of the other artists who were. In this sense, Jones is the quintessential artist of the Great War, and the centenary of its outbreak seems a good moment to remember him.

David Jones belongs to the rich tradition of British artist/writers – Blake, Rossetti, Lear, Wyndham Lewis – but he is probably the least familiar of these today. Nor was he well known in his own lifetime (1895–1974), as either artist or writer, although he had influential supporters. Kenneth Clark was a fan of his paintings, and John Rothenstein bought them for the Tate. His work was shown intermittently by commercial dealers, and also at the Tate in 1954. The Royal Academy offered him membership, which he turned down (‘a loathsome institution’). W B Yeats admired his epic war poem In Parenthesis, as did T S Eliot, who called it ‘a work of genius’. W H Auden considered a later poem, The Anathemata, to be ‘probably the finest long poem written in English this century’. Official recognition came in the form of a CBE in 1954 and a CH in 1974. But although he achieved a succès d’estime, acclaim by a wider public eluded him, as did financial security – ‘Whatever I do’, he complained, ‘I can scarcely make ends meet and I work till 2 a.m. always.’

However, interest in Jones has been picking up recently. A number of books about him have appeared, including a (not very good) biography in 2003. But as an artist he has not had the recognition he deserves. Attention has focussed on his writing rather than his art – his poems are dense, difficult, full of obscure references, the kind of thing that literary academics love to get their teeth into. Another problem is that much of his best visual work is in watercolour, a factor which has limited its public exposure. His paintings are delicate, evanescent works, difficult to display and, perhaps more importantly, to reproduce. Jones stated the problem himself: ‘the subtly differing colour-changes & barely visible smudges & bits of pencil line & accents of water-colour here & there which hold the whole thing together, if with some fragility, in the original, become just a pallid mess in ordinary reproduction.’

In some ways his strengths as an artist have turned out to be weaknesses as far as his long-term reputation is concerned. Even apart from his literary output, the range of his work is extraordinarily wide – drawings, oil paintings, watercolours, wood engravings, copper engravings, drypoints, carvings, inscriptions. He never stood still, was always developing his work in new directions, and yet it remained distinctive and could never be mistaken for anyone else’s. Like all really interesting artists he went his own way, was a member of no school. All this makes him a fascinating figure, but one who is hard to categorise, and therefore uncongenial to the kind of curators and art historians who like to slot people into neat pigeonholes. Shortly after Jones’s death the critic John Russell said of him that he ‘fits nowhere in today’s canons, but it is a wonderful thing to have him.’

His friend, the poet Kathleen Raine said of him that ‘he had a fragile hold on life and needed love and beauty’. There is a sense of his being a spectator of life, rather than a participant. He never married, never had a job (apart from his army service), never earned his living, never had a studio. For much of the time he depended on other people for  money and a roof over his head. When, at the age of 46, he moved into a rented bedsit in Kensington, it was the first time he’d had a home of his own. In 1914 Jones had already spent 5 years at art school (supported by his parents), and was uneasily aware that he would soon have to leave and make his way in the world. This was not something for which he was well suited by temperament, and enlistment in the army provided a welcome alternative. Horrible though his frontline experiences were (he was wounded in the Somme campaign), there were aspects of army life which suited him very well – the anonymity, the camaraderie, the lack of responsibility. He retained a penchant for army slang and military metaphors throughout his life, and the image of the soldier (20th century, Roman, medieval) appears repeatedly, in his writing and his painting.

The end of the war saw Jones back at art school, but he began to feel that this would not give him the apprenticeship he wanted. He said later: ‘I thought and I still think that art schools are pretty hopeless’ (though he spent seven years in one). It was not until 1921 that he began to find a way forward. In that year he converted to Roman Catholicism and met the sculptor Eric Gill, who was then living among a guild of Catholic craftsmen at Ditchling in Sussex. Jones was impressed by Gill, and soon joined his group. The Ditchling community was ideal for Jones. It provided a refuge from the rough and tumble of the outside world, but also linked him to the London art scene via Gill’s connections with galleries and patrons.

Much of his time at Ditchling was given to wood engraving, strongly influenced by Gill’s pseudo-medieval style. Then, in 1924, Gill upped sticks to Capel-y-ffin in the Welsh Borders, and Jones followed. It was here that Jones found himself as an artist. Though he grew up in suburban London, he always felt a special affinity for Wales through his Welsh father, and his Welsh heritage was crucial to his sense of history and the importance of the Celtic dimension in British culture. He had no interest in modern Wales – the Wales of coal mines, steel works and rugby clubs. The Wales he loved was a country of myth and not of fact, and it fed his imagination and his work for the rest of his life.

After the move to Wales Jones began to free his style from the primitivist idiom borrowed from Gill. His early Welsh paintings still have something of the feel of wood engravings about them – they emphasise pattern and the decorative qualities of the design, with strong lines and carefully placed figures. But he soon evolved an idiosyncratic approach of his own, using pale colours applied discontinuously in dabs and strokes, giving an effect of vibrancy and movement. His work began to attract the attention of the art world. He was shown in West End galleries and, in 1928, joined The Seven and Five Society, at that time the most progressive group of artists in Britain – amongst others, the membership included Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, Ivon Hitchens and John Piper.

Although Gill’s influence on Jones’s work was short-lived, the sculptor’s ideas, and the ideas he transmitted from others, did have a lasting influence on his thought. Gill’s reputation has been damaged by lurid revelations about his sex life, but he is an important figure who deserves to be properly assessed. What Gill (and the Catholic Church) gave to Jones was a degree of certainty, an intellectual underpinning for his artistic instincts. Gill, like many Catholic artists, was captivated by the ideas expressed by the neo-Thomist philosopher Jacques Maritain in his book Art and Scholasticism, and he passed his enthusiasm on to Jones. Up to this time Jones had been, in his own words ‘completely muddle-headed as to the function of the arts in general.’ He now began to see how the developments in modern art that attracted him could be combined with his religious concerns. He later wrote that the aim of the Post-Impressionists was ‘to make a ‘thing’ – lets say a mountain … under the form of paint, and not an impression of a ‘mountain’ … this idea was … similar or analagous to what, I understood, the church held with regard to “the Mass”.’ In the Mass the priest re-presents Christ’s sacrifice under the form of bread and wine, just as a Post-Impressionist re-presents a mountain in paint, ‘as a made ‘thing’ a signum of a reality of some sort’. What is represented becomes a sign of something else, and if that something else is a sign of something divine, then the art can claim to have a sacred character or function. Maritain wrote that the impact made by a work of art is in proportion to its power of signification, the ‘more a work of art is laden with significance … the vaster and richer and the higher will be the possibility of joy and beauty.’ Maritain’s influence was not, however, entirely beneficent. His doctrine of signification was one source of the overloading of Jones’s later pictures with history and mythology.

Jones’s mature works, the ones that he regarded as perhaps his best, were painted in the late 1920s and early 1930s (in 1932 he suffered a nervous breakdown which stopped him painting for several years). He said that what he wanted in his paintings was ‘a certain affection for the intimate creatureliness of things – a care for places, men, trees, animals, and yet withal a pervading sense of metamorphosis and mutability’, and this is what he achieved. He painted the world as he saw it, but it was a world in a state of flux. The usual spatial relationships are overturned – distant objects float into the foreground, while near objects are fused into the background. Some parts of a picture are detailed, some left vague. Jones said (echoing Maritain): ‘our business here below is to make the universal shine out from the particular’. This is why individual objects in his paintings – a razor, a toothbrush, a pair of scissors – seem to have a life of their own, animated by some mysterious force.

Jones was surely right in thinking that these paintings were his most successful. Dancing colour is combined with intricate drawing, form is reconciled with content, unity is combined with movement. But this success was achieved at a cost. It is hard not to interpret a picture like Curtained Outlook, painted just before his breakdown in 1932, as a reflection of his troubled psyche – the world he depicts seems about to dissolve, inside and outside mingle, one plane merges into another, walls crack, curtains almost burst into flames. He never liked to repeat himself, was pushing himself in new directions all the time, was fiercely self-critical, and the strain was making itself felt. In 1928 he complained: ‘I’ve done so many utter duds – it’s so exhausting and depressing’. And in 1931: ‘[I’ve] been trying to paint but with no result save intolerable annoyance and rage’. Not only was he trying to paint, he was trying to write at the same time – in 1928 he had begun work on his war book In Parenthesis. He wrote in 1932: ‘I’ve done no painting – it’s awful – struggling with this beastly book and I really now think it’s awful rubbish.’

In Parenthesis was finished in 1932 (though it was not published until 1937), and shortly afterwards Jones suffered the first of the nervous collapses which plagued him for the rest of his life. What caused it? His fight to express his vision in paint and the sense that he was falling short must have played a part. He wrote later: ‘the 1932 group [of paintings] got nearest to what I had in mind – but a very long way from the goal. (I suppose that may partly explain my complete crash – I was conscious for some time before it came that I was straining every nerve to do something more than I had power to do).’ His uneasy social and financial position may also have contributed. He had begun to move in a world of Catholic intellectuals and wealthy art patrons, where he often felt out of place and an ‘imposter’. Yet he no longer felt comfortable in the lower middle-class suburban world of his youth. The asocial context of the army and communities like Ditchling suited him better than this social no man’s land. His confused sexuality probably played a role – his later pictures are littered with sexual symbols, which suggests that there were all sorts of unresolved conflicts lurking beneath the surface. The delayed impact of the war must also have been a factor, perhaps the most important, in triggering his breakdown. A friend wrote: ‘every impressionable person who fought in the front line trenches did suffer some permanent damage which went under the generic name of shell-shock.’ It is significant that the crisis came just after Jones finished the book which recalled his wartime service. The year before, he had painted a view of the sea called, prophetically, Manawydan’s Glass Door. The title is from The Mabinogion, a collection of Welsh heroic tales. It refers to the door the Welsh warriors are warned not to open, lest they see again all the terrible things they have experienced.

After the breakdown he lost his artistic momentum. Painting was difficult for him, as it tended to bring back his nervous trouble, something he found incredibly frustrating. ‘It seems so maddening that all I want to do and care about is paint and that is the one thing that makes me really ill. What a fate … it is absurd.’ He went to live in a hotel room in Sidmouth in Devon – while he stayed, as he put it, ‘in hiding’ at Sidmouth his nerves ‘were not so bad’ but they deteriorated as soon as he ventured ‘into the great world!’ Inevitably, he lost touch with the contemporary art scene. He wrote to a friend in 1936: ‘I have just received a communication from the Worshipful Company of 7 & 5 to the effect that I am not a member – having only registered 2 votes at the last election. What a pity I did not send in my dignified letter of resignation a year ago – but in a way it’s much nicer to be hoofed out.’

Jones eventually returned to London, in 1940. There he started to paint his ‘subject’ pictures. These are no longer paintings from life of straightforward objects (however unstraightforward the treatment). They are complex, carefully constructed pictures, highly detailed, with multifarious undertones and overtones. Jones had a wide, though unsystematic, range of knowledge – classical, Welsh, archaeological, theological – and he poured it into these pictures. The painting process became much more laborious than in the past, when paintings were often completed in a day or two. They could now take years, endlessly revised and worked over. Jones himself regretted this, but couldn’t seem to do anything about it: ‘What I want to do is one full of the complications and allusions but executed with the freedom and directness that used to be in my still-life and landscapes – that’s what I want to do before I die.’ He was trying to work out a form which would embody his vision – his sense of the past, of the process of redemption, of our mixed Celtic/Classical inheritance – but this became ever more difficult as his perception of things became deeper. In 1961 he lamented: ‘it’s an intolerable labour to turn out anything… I don’t believe it’s just laziness, I think it’s more the consciousness of the complexity of the problems – when one is younger one seems to see with a curiously simple yet clear vision, the things one wants to do – I’ve lost that.’

What he saw as the erosion of signs was a particular problem for him, as a follower of Maritain. He regarded 20th century Britain as a ‘late’ civilisation, which was no longer part of an enclosed common culture. The inheritance of image, idea, and myth from past centuries was no longer there for writers and artists to draw upon. ‘The artist deals wholly in signs. His signs must be valid … for him and … for the culture that has made him.’ Otherwise, it ‘sets up a strain … produces a neurosis.’ Perhaps this was one source of his nervous troubles, and to his sense that his work had lost the ‘nowness’ which had always been important to him. ‘I often feel old and terribly outmoded nowadays’, he said, and was dismayed by the lack of understanding he received.

As the years went by he became increasingly detached from the art world, indeed from the world in general. In 1947 he moved from London to a room in a boarding house in Harrow, in the outlying suburbs. He retreated from the commercial art world, broke with his dealer and refused to sell his paintings. Not surprisingly, he was short of money and complained incessantly about it – he was ‘obsessed with poverty’ noted one friend. He was dependent on supporters who either gave him money or persuaded official bodies to help him. Jones was quite happy to let other people sort out his financial problems in this way – it was one aspect of the avoidance of responsibility which was so characteristic of him. Jones ‘was used to being totally spoilt’, observed one friend, and another remarked that Jones thought it ‘perfectly right and proper that people with more cash than artists should give their patronage by giving money.’

Though he was painting less at this time he was writing more, though in Jones’s mind the two activities were complementary: ‘I try to write by the same process as I paint. The two acts seem to me to present just the same problems as to ‘matter’ and ‘form’.’ He said that he regarded writing In Parenthesis as a challenge to see if he could make ‘form’ and ‘content’ work ‘in writing as compared with the same problems in the visual arts’. Indeed, In Parenthesis is a book of scenes, conceived pictorially (it was originally intended as a set of illustrations with long captions). The text of In Parenthesis mixes the language of the trenches with images from Celtic legend, from Welsh sources, from Malory, Milton, the Song of Roland, and the Catholic liturgy. In other words it is a mingling of cultural sources and of past and present, just as Jones’s paintings are.

The culmination of his work as a combined writer/painter came in the inscriptions he began to make from the 1940s onwards, and which he developed into a significant independent art form. They offered a solution to the conflict between complexity and clarity which presented such difficulties in his pictures and his poetry. The inscriptions of their nature provided a simplification, as words are both abstract form and conveyors of meaning. His attitude to lettering was different from Gill’s, who liked the beauty of letter forms as such. For Jones they were also the means of conveying his manifold layers of meaning in visual terms. The letter forms he employed complemented the texts he used and carried in themselves the implications he needed. Just as passages in his writings refer to works in Latin, Welsh, Old English and Middle English, so the lettering in his inscriptions has Greek, Roman, Early Christian and Anglo-Saxon characters. They offer a clue to the artist’s thought, but the essence of the work is in the shape of the letters and their juxtaposition. The old problem of reconciling form and content is triumphantly solved.

But despite the late flowering of his art his mental health remained fragile. By the 1960s he was dependent on a regimen of sleeping pills and tranquillisers. The side-effects of lethargy and loss of focus contributed to his feeling of ageing. He said in 1965: ‘I feel about twice as old as I did a couple of years ago’. He referred to his room as his ‘dugout’ and rarely left it. ‘I never go much beyond the hallway out there’ he told a journalist. He saw only those who came to see him, though these were many. In 1963 he had a visit from the composer Igor Stravinsky, who commented afterwards that it had been ‘like visiting a holy man in his cell.’ Others had also been struck by the quasi-priestly character of Jones’s life in his later years. He was regarded by many friends as an ‘honorary celibate priest’. At the time of his Tate show in 1954 Helen Sutherland, the most important collector of his work, told him: ‘They [the pictures] did seem like an offering, a sacrifice – a broken spirit and a contrite heart … but broken like the bread is broken, to make a new wholeness – a holy communion after their kind.’

On July 2nd, 1935 Jones wrote to his friend René Hague: ‘On this day nineteen years ago I heard read by the Officer Commanding B Coy a document, a rescript from G.H.Q. announcing the initial success of the first attack on his trenches on the Somme. We were permitted to cheer. I can’t tell you the gnawing thoughts as well up in your bosom at this memory.’ If a by-product of the barrage of  First World War commemoration which will be unleashed on us is a revival of interest in David Jones, then that will be one small thing we can cheer about.

 Desmond Sloane

The Jackdaw, 2014

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