There’s a self-portrait David Jones painted in 1931 when he was in his mid-thirties. In Human Being he depicts himself almost as a boy, an unworldly youth with a thoughtful, quizzical look in his eyes who radiates a sense of inner strength. His hands are delicate, sensitive, almost feminine.

At Pallant House Gallery in Chichester last week I stared at this memorable image for some time, trying to figure out the man who is the subject of Vision and Memory, a major exhibition of his work showing there until February. There was much about Jones that I found a strange, complex and difficult to understand – whether in terms of the historical, religious and mythological allusions that fill his paintings (and his poems) – or in the sense of knowing the human being behind the work.

David Jones, Human Being, 1931
David Jones, Human Being, 1931

Born in 1895, David Jones became one of the most singular of British modernist artists of the inter-war years, yet his work, suffused with Arthurian and Celtic references, is often compared to older traditions – of Samuel Palmer or William Blake, for instance. Even at art school he was praised for ‘leaving everything out except the magic’. His vision was shaped by childhood immersion Roman and British history, the Arthurian romances and stories from the Welsh epics (he was half-Welsh by birth: his father hailed from a line of farmers and craftsmen from the Clwydian Hills of North Wales). However, he himself grew up in suburban Brockley on the south-east edge of London.

His experience in the trenches during the First World War (he was wounded in the Battle of the Somme) confirmed in Jones a growing religious faith, and soon after the war he converted from Anglicanism to Catholicism. In the early 1920s he joined the community of artists and craftsmen who belonged to the guild of Roman Catholic craft-workers founded at Ditchling in Sussex, by the strange and controversial sculptor, typeface designer and printmaker, Eric Gill. Later, Jones followed Gill when he moved the settlement to Capel-y-ffin in Wales.

David Jones’ life was complex and troubled: he suffered two mental breakdowns and, despite evident sexual yearnings, remained celibate his whole life. He was, in the words of Rachel Cooke in the Guardian, ‘Mystical and modernist, religious and romantic, of town and country; he belongs to no school.’

David Jones, 'Nam Sibyllam'
David Jones, ‘Nam Sibyllam’

In many ways, the most significant work in this exhibition is a painted inscription, Nam Sybillam, Jones made as a gift for his friend TS Eliot in 1958. Jones had been greatly affected by The Waste Land, and Eliot, the great poet of modernism, would eventually publish Jones’ poem of the First World War, In Parenthesis, calling it a masterpiece. What Jones admired in The Waste Land and replicated in In Parenthesis was Eliot’s use of myth to underpin and interpret modern experience, and his collage-like juxtaposition of different voices, traditions and times in the poem.

Jones’ inscription incorporates lines from The Waste Land (‘April is the cruellest month’ up the left hand edge of the design) as well as Eliot’s epigraph to the poem, rendered in contrasting Roman capitals:

Nam Sibyllam quidem Cumis ego ipse oculis meis vidi
in ampulla pendere, et cum illi pueri dicerent:Σιβυλλα
τι θελεις; respondebat illa:αποθανειν θελω

The quotation is from the Satyricon by Gaius Petronius; in Eliot’s own translation it reads:

I have seen with my own eyes the Sibyl hanging in a jar, and when the boys asked her ‘What do you want?’ She answered, ‘I want to die.’

Why did Eliot choose this quote from Petronius for his epigraph – and why was it significant for Jones? Petronius is referring to an Ancient Greek oracle, Cumaean Sibyl, who was granted immortality by Apollo, for whom she was a prophetess. She came to regret her wish because she just grows older and withers, but never dies. The Waste Land being a poem concerned with the spiritual and cultural death of the Western world, Sibyl’s fate of a life utterly without meaning offers a suggestive metaphor.

What Jones shared with Eliot was a deep familiarity with ancient myths and legends, especially spiritual and religious ones. Like Eliot, Jones had been deeply influenced by Jesse Weston’s book From Ritual to Romance, from which the last two lines of the inscription are taken: they speak of ‘la terre gaste’, the waste land of Arthurian legend, with snatches from Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, the Middle French Parceval and the early Welsh folk tales of The Mabinogion. Eliot had studied Sanskrit and was well versed in Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity, as well as the Greek myths, and the Holy Grail myths. Jones’ paintings and his poems, like The Waste Land, are inter-textual works that draw upon references that span thousands of years.

David Jones, Table Top, 1928
David Jones, Table Top, 1928

At the same time, as a young man, Jones was tuned into to the new ways of modernism in art, as well as poetry. He incorporated the Cubist reordering of space of early Cezanne into his own art, and by 1930 he was exhibiting in the company of Ben Nicholson, Ivon Hitchens and Henry Moore as a member of the 7&5 Society. Table Top, painted in 1928, adopts Nicholson’s technique of separating form and colour, so that objects seem as if they are floating in space.

The first rooms in the Pallant House exhibition focus on this most productive period for Jones – as engraver and painter of shimmering watercolours between 1926 and 1932. His skill as a draughtsman can be clearly seen in his early,
exquisitely designed and carved wood engravings and copper engravings. Produced as book illustrations, they demonstrate how much Jones understood the power of word and image combined.

David Jones in uniform
David Jones in uniform

Jones had barely begun studying at Camberwell Art School before the First World War began and he enlisted in the Royal Welch Fusiliers. After a spell of training his batallion was deployed to France in December 1915. Jones would serve three years on the Western Front and, despite being badly wounded at the Somme, he would remember his time as ‘a parenthesis’, a period throughout which he served as a foot soldier: in his own words, ‘not only amateur but grossly incompetent, a knocker-over of piles, a parade’s despair’.

Trench sketch, 'Soldier in front-line trench, 1916, chap cooking'
Trench sketch, ‘Soldier in front-line trench, 1916, chap cooking’

But he loved the camaraderie with his fellow Tommies and resisted a commission, preferring the company of foot soldiers like himself, either Welsh or Cockney, whose rich language and comradeship he would later capture in his epic poem In Parenthesis:

    Each one turns silently, carrying with careful fingers his own daily bread. They go, as good as gold, into the recesses of the place and eat what to each would seem appropriate to breakfast; for that dealing must suffice till tomorrow at this
time. You could eat out of their hands.
There was an attempt with tea and sugar. There was fumbling with fire and water and watched-pot.
Fall of trench dampt the fire, fall of fire spilt the water,
there are
too many hands to save the boil.
Slow-boy laid hold on calcined dixie-handle – that made him hop – laugh – why, you’d laugh at Fanny.
It was Jack Float, who in the end brought boiled water, borrowed from the next platoon right, tepid with carrying; so that after all after a fashion, they drank their morning tea.

 ‘November 1916, Rats shot during the pulling down of an old dugout in Ploegsteert Wood’
‘November 1916, Rats shot during the pulling down of an old dugout in Ploegsteert Wood’

He kept a sketchbook in his pack and found time to capture his friends and the surreal wasteland they inhabited in swift, deft sketches (which were not seen publicly until long after his death). The small number of sketches exhibited here offer an intimate portrait of life in the trenches – even including a pair of rats shot in Ploegstreet Wood ‘during the pulling-down’ of a dug-out’.

Fusilier, October 26, 1915
Fusilier, October 26, 1915

In Parenthesis, first published in 1938, described those eight months in 1915 and 1916 when Jones was an infantryman on the Western front, incorporating into its blank verse ‘the complex of sights, sounds, fears, hopes, apprehensions, smells, things exterior and interior, the landscape and paraphernalia of that singular time and of those particular men’: the feeling of fatigue, of marching four abreast for hours, of sleeping standing up in the rain, of a camp in the pitch dark:

a cantankerous liveness disturbed the hovering dark; out of this June half-night neighing horses reared on you, trailed their snapt tethering, cantered off; and dark hoof-thudding, circled concentrically the heavy fields … their whinnying so pitiable.

[…]

Slime-glisten on the churnings up, fractured earth pilings, heaped on, heaped up waste; overturned far throwings; tottering perpendiculars lean and sway; more leper-trees pitted, rownsepyked out of nature, cut off in their sap-rising.

‘March 1916, Front line trench on the La Bassée front’
‘March 1916, Front line trench on the La Bassée front’

In July 1916, he was badly wounded during his battalion’s assault on Mametz Wood during the Battle of the Somme in which 19,000 men were killed – ‘the many men so beautiful’ as expressed in the title of Part One of the poem:

And to Private Ball it came as if a rigid beam of great weight
flailed about his calves, caught from behind by ballista-baulk
let fly or aft-beam slewed to clout gunnel-walker
below below below.
When golden vanities make about,
you’ve got no legs to stand on.
He thought it disproportionate in its violence considering
the fragility of us.
The warm fluid percolates between his toes and his left boot
fills, as when you tread in a puddle–he crawled away in the
opposite direction.

It’s difficult with the weight of the rifle.
Leave it – under the oak.

[…]

You’re clumsy in your feebleness, you implicate your tin-hat
rim with the slack sling of it.
Let it lie for the dews to rust it, or ought you to decently
cover the working parts.
Its dark barrel, where you leave it under the oak, reflects
the solemn star that rises urgently from Cliff Trench.
It’s a beautiful doll for us
it’s the Last Reputable Arm.
But leave it -under the oak.
Leave it for a Cook’s tourist to the Devastated Areas and crawl
as far as you can and wait for the bearers.

David Jones, Suburban Order, 1926
Suburban Order, 1926

After demobilization, David Jones returned to 115 Howson Road in Brockley, his parents’ house and the house in which he had been born. He went back to art school, and a period began during which he was exposed to artistic currents that shaped his own work. The postwar years also saw him searching for religious belief (adopting Roman Catholicism in 1921) and exploring history and myth for ideas that would help him shape his artistic vision.

In 1927 he had his first London exhibition, and amongst the recent works on show was Suburban Order from1926, a view in watercolour and pencil from the back of Howson Road over the suburban gardens of Brockley. This was one of several views of his parents’ house and neighbourhood he made in this period which reflect his response to aspects of modernism in both London and Paris.

Aeroplane over Hampstead Heath, 1927
Aeroplane over Hampstead Heath, 1927

David had formed a significant friendship with Jim Ede, assistant to the director at the Tate. Jones became a member of a circle of artists, intellectuals and critics who gathered at Ede’s house in Hampstead. Aeroplane over Hampstead Heath, painted in 1927, is an exuberant record of his trips to Hampstead, its ‘dynamic configuration and perspective reflecting something of the syncopated energy of the city’ (Ariane Banks).

Eric Gill, 1930
Eric Gill, 1930 (detail)

Meanwhile, another crucial relationship was formed with Eric Gill, and Jones soon became a permanent member of his ‘religious fraternity for those who make things with their hands’ at Ditchling. It was there that Jones became an accomplished illustrator and wood-engraver under Gill’s tutelage, and benefitted from deep discussions with Gill about the nature of art and its relationship to the world.

The Waters Compass Me About, from 'The Book of Jonah', 1926
‘The Waters Compass Me About’, from The Book of Jonah, 1926

On display are example of the intricate wood engravings commissioned to illustrate publications such as Gulliver’s Travels, The Book of Jonah and The Chester Play of the Deluge, along with his copper engravings for The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

The Book of Jonah included 13 wood-engravings by Jones, the Old Testament story of Jonah and the whale speaking deeply to Jones’ understanding of sin and redemption as shaped by his experience in the Great War. In ‘The Waters Compass Me About’, Jones depicts Jonah descending into the sea after being thrown overboard from the ship on which he had sailed, vainly attempting to evade God’s instruction to deliver a message to the people of Ninevah that they must repent their ways or their city will be destroyed. In the top right hand corner the gaping mouth of a whale can be seen heading towards Jonah, whose underwater surroundings are indicated by a myriad of finely engraved fish and other sea creatures.

The Garden Enclosed, 1924 by David Jones
The Garden Enclosed, 1924

It was there that he painted the mysterious and unsettling Garden Enclosed. Deeply attached to Gill, his wife Mary and three daughters, Jones became engaged to the Gills’ younger daughter Petra in 1924. In this strange oil painting he portrays himself embracing Petra in the walled garden at Ditchling. The title refers to a verse from the Song of Songs: ‘A garden enclosed is my sister,
my spouse, a spring shut up, a fountain sealed’. The girl resists her lover’s kiss, a doll lies discarded on the garden path (perhaps signifying  the end of childhood), and a flock of geese flee the scene in alarm. Looking at this picture, full of a sense of unease, you have to wonder how much Jones knew about Petra’s circumstances, repeatedly raped by her father as a child. Their engagement was broken off in 1927.

Capel-y-ffin, 1926-7
Capel-y-ffin, 1926-7

When Gill and his entourage moved to Capel-y-ffin in the Black Mountains in 1924, Jones followed. For the next three years, Eric Gill and his followers lived in a former monastery, built in the late 19th century by Joseph Leycester Lyne, who had tried – unsuccessfully – to reintroduce the monastic tradition into the Anglican church.

What Jones discovered at Capel-y-ffin was the enduring stillness of nature, the only sounds in the secluded valley being the rush of water in mountain streams, the cry of a curlew, or the wind soughing through the trees. Cradled by the hills and mountains of the Welsh border country, a land rich in myth and history, the place helped shape his unique artistic language. (For more see David Jones at Capel-y-ffin on the Caught by the River blog, and the clip below from Kim Howells’ TV series on Welsh art broadcast earlier this year.)

It was during his time at Capel-y-ffin that Jones’ powerful feelings for the landscape around him were translated into beautiful watercolours that pulse with life, modernist in execution but radiating the same kind of timeless magic as a painting by Samuel Palmer. (in his youth Jones had made a pilgrimage to Palmer’s ‘valley of vision’ at Shoreham in Kent.)

In Capel-y-ffin, a pink path leads the eye through the wooded landscape of
Capel-y-ffin towards the distant view of Y Twmpa (The Tump), a hill that fascinated Jones. In the middle section, facing two small ponies. is a small
geometric building, and beyond is the former monastery of Capel-y-ffin, the main building depicted in simple forms, partly hidden by autumnal trees. The way in which the outbuildings that slope down the hillside have been painted in rectangular planes of colour, seems reminiscent of the landscapes Cézanne painted in Provence.

Hill Pastures, Capel-y-ffin, 1926
Hill Pastures, Capel-y-ffin, 1926
The Orchard, Capel-y-ffin, 1927
The Orchard, Capel-y-ffin, 1927
Y Twmpa, Nant Honddu, 1926
Y Twmpa, Nant Honddu, 1926

Several of the watercolours painted by Jones at Capel-y-ffin are included in the exhibition. Y Twmpa, Nant Honddu is a study in pale watercolours of Y Twmpa, the hill that fascinated Jones, as seen from the monastery.  The eye is led towards the distinctive form of the hill from the Welsh hill ponies in the foreground across a patterning of hedges and fields, farm tracks and woodland. For Jones, this was a timeless landscape, a living link to Arthurian Britain, a visual poem that brought the remote past into the present.

Sandy Cove, Caldy, 1927
Sandy Cove, Caldy, 1927

In the section entitled ‘Voyaging out’, the curators explore the paintings made by Jones in this period on journeys to other places – to Caldy Island off the coast of Pembrokeshire, and then with Gill to the south of France. Wherever he went he painted watercolours of river and sea:

The freedom in his handling of watercolour and gouache developed in tandem with his mastery of the essentially linear medium of engraving. With a dancing play of line he often counters perspective, reconfiguring his vision in a modernist idiom of shallow space and mobile forms.

These were the sort of paintings that were being exhibited under the auspices of the Seven & Five Society, the leading avant-garde exhibition group in London, and they were being highly praised by critics.

Tenby from Caldy Island, 1925
Tenby from Caldy Island, 1925

The monastery at Capel had once been an offshoot of a Benedictine community on Caldy Island, off the Pembrokeshire coast, and Jones paid several visits of some months each to Caldy, where he worked on his engravings or walked out along the bays and inlets of the rocky coastline. He later wrote:

It was in the Vale of Ewyas and on Caldy Island that I began to have some idea of what I personally would ask a painting to be, and I think from 1926 onwards there has been a fairly recognisable direction in my work.

Landscape, Salies-de-Bearn, 1928
Landscape, Salies-de-Bearn, 1928

This direction was continued in paintings he made while he stayed with the Gills in their summer retreat above the spa town of Salies-de-Bearn in the foothills of the French Pyrenees.

According to Ariane Banks, for Gill, Salies ‘epitomised everything wholesome that had been lost in Britain: a small self-sustaining town living on ancient trades and traditions, conservative and devout’. For Jones, positioned on the Gills’ balcony, it was the southern light and warmth, and fleeting impressions of sun and shade that captivated him.

Montes et Omnes Colles, 1928
Montes et Omnes Colles, 1928

Later, Jones moved to stay with friends near Lourdes where he painted Montes et Omnes Colles (which belongs to the Whitworth in Manchester). The landscape reminded him of Wales and he handles the shapes of the hills in the same way as in the Capel watercolours. Sinuous lines extend the hills to the top margin of the picture and a shaft of light descends from the clouds. The title is taken from Psalm 148: ‘Praise him … mountains and all hills’ and the painting seems to capture a sense of celebration in nature. In a 1930 article, Eric Gill observed:

To David Jones a painting is neither simply a representation, nor simply a painted pattern. … What concerns him is the universal thing showing through the particular thing.

Roman Land, 1928
Roman Land, 1928

A sense of the historical and spiritual resonance of place is central in Jones’ work, and so he was excited to find himself in the ancient territory of Roman Gaul. He expressed these feelings of sensing the past in the present in Roman Land, about which he commented:

The plough team, drawn by oxen … seemed to sum up the whole feeling of France as part of the Imperium and that is why it is called Roman Land.

You don’t have to follow him down that line of thought to appreciate this timeless scene in which the rich rust of the soil is contrasted with the blue-green of the vegetation, or the patchwork of fields, the rounded shapes of the hills, and the avenue of trees stretching along the road to the building at its centre.

Homestead in Buckinghamshire, 1931
Homestead in Buckinghamshire, 1931

There’s another place that figures in several of the paintings in this exhibition. Towards the end of 1928, Eric Gill abandoned Capel-y-ffin for a farmstead called Pigotts in Buckinghamshire. As ever, David was a welcome guest, and he came to love the jumble of farm buildings arranged around a central courtyard with a pigsty at its centre.  He painted it several times, in pictures that reflect his affection for this homely, shambolic place.

David Jones, The Artist’s Worktable,1929
The Artist’s Worktable,1929

The years from 1928 to 1932 were intensely creative for David Jones. He was working in watercolour as well as painting oils. He painted portraits (and that haunting self-portrait discussed earlier), still lives, views through a window, and more landscapes. In these same years he was writing his epic account of his
experience in the Great War, In Parenthesis. Whether in poetry or in painting, there was always the sense of unseen spiritual forces radiating through the material world. His distinctive style of modernism was suffused with references to history, myth and legend in works that attempted – in the words of the exhibition’s title – to weave together vision and memory.

In The Artist’s Worktable he depicted in delicate brushwork the tools of his trade
set out below his bedroom window and framed by the fluttering transparent curtains which would become a recurrent motif in further paintings of this period.

Sea View,1930
Sea View,1930

Jones was inspired by the sea and made several paintings between 1927 and 1932 while staying with his parents at Portslade, just outside Brighton, in a bungalow ‘built literally,’ he recalled, ‘on the sea margin so that if the weather were at all rough, surf and spray broke on the seaward balconies’. It was here that he began to write In Parenthesis, at the same time painting the seascapes seen through the veranda windows – in oil (as in Sea View), or in watercolours such as The Terrace and Manawydan’d Glass Door.

The Open Bay, 1931
The Open Bay, 1931

In October 1931 Jones returned to Caldy Island where he painted the watercolour The Open Bay in which the rhythm of the waves is captured in free, sweeping brush strokes. Colourful lines, painted with the tip of the brush, sweep and swirl across the painting. Often overlaid with a delicate tracery of pencil or pen, the calligraphy of these dancing brush strokes on pale, transparent washes became the hallmark of his work.

Portrait of a Maker, 1932
Portrait of a Maker, 1932

Jones had formed a close friendship with Harman Grisewood, an actor and producer at the BBC Third Programme, and in the summer of 1931 they shared a house on Caldey Island. With Grisewood he discussed poetry, painting and religion, and captured him in profile in a striking portrait in 1930 that has similarities to his self-portrait, Human Being. Grisewood remained a close friend, helping Jones in the composition of In Parenthesis and championing Jones’ work in the post-war years when he was controller of the BBC Third Programme.

Third Programme, In Parenthesis, 1955
BBC Third Programme broadcast of ‘In Parenthesis’, 1955 (The Listener)

Jones had been attuned to the natural world from childhood: animals were ‘what I most wanted to draw’ he later said, and animals feature in many of the exhibits at Pallant House. Wild or tame, they thread their way through his work, expressing his ‘affection for the intimate creatureliness of things’, and his ‘appreciation of the particular genius of places, men, trees, animals, and yet withal a pervading sense of metamorphosis and mutability’.

Leopard, 1930
Leopard, 1930

Cats were his favourite creatures – large or small. He would haunt London Zoo with his sketchbooks, capturing the feline grace of leopard, jaguar and lynx in drawings that, with a few deft lines and spare touches of wash in ochre and burnt umber, recall the cave paintings of Lascaux:

And see how they run, the juxtaposed forms
brighting the vaults of Lascaux, how the
linear is wedded
to volume …
Anathemata

Reclining Cat by David Jones
Reclining Cat, 1926

On a more domestic scale, I particularly enjoyed this plump and contented cat.

Nativity with Beasts and Shepherds, 1927
Nativity with Beasts and Shepherds, 1927
David Jones, Animals Kneeling, 1927
Animals Kneeling, 1927

There are examples of the Christmas cards which Jones would engrave, then print and send to friends throughout the twenties. Their nativity scenes feature tenderly drawn animals, too: cows and horses in one; birds, antelope and leopard in another.

David Jones, The Albatross, 1928
The Albatross, from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, 1928

In 1928, Jones illustrated Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, in which this striking image of the albatross appears.

David Jones, The Wonded Knight, 1929-30
David Jones, The Wounded Knight, 1929-30

The war had been over for a decade when Jones began to write In Parenthesis, his commemoration of those who had fought and died in the conflict. At this time, too he produced the engraving, The Wounded Knight, a work which unites his love of Malory and the Arthurian stories with the attempt to make sense of the death of so many comrades in the trenches.

In the publication that accompanies the exhibition, Paul Paul Hills describes this etching as:

Essentially a Celtic pieta in which the goddess Arianrhod doubles as the Virgin Mary, and Arthur – mortally wounded in the Battle of Camlann – takes the place of Christ. … The drypoint – scarred and scored like stone – has profound pathos. Like ‘In Parenthesis’ it commemmorates the fallen, the wounded knights of all eras.

In the preface to In Parenthesis, David Jones wrote that ‘for the old authors … the embrace of battle seemed at one with the embrace of lovers’.

A period of intense creativity came to an abrupt end in the autumn of 1932 when Jones suffered a nervous breakdown. Thereafter he suffered from agoraphobia and bouts of neurasthenia. After In Parenthesis was published to acclaim in 1937 he painted less frequently and devoted more of his time to writing.

Laetare Sunday, Thrush, 1948
Laetare Sunday, Thrush, 1948

In 1946 Jones suffered another mental breakdown, and during a year of treatment he spent time at Bowden House, a nursing home in Harrow. The grounds were densely planted with tall trees, and their soaring trunks and waving branches reawakened his lifelong love of trees. He drew them repeatedly, looking from the window of his room.

For Jones trees held great significance: they embodied life and he saw them as part of a timeless landscape that stretched from the mythical past to the wasteland of the Western Front. ‘To the Woods of all the world is this potency – to move the bowels of us,’ he wrote.

The series of drawings of trees that Jones made at Bowden House combine intricate and delicate line drawing with washes of watercolour and slashes of chalk that enliven his trees, imbuing them with strength and capturing the fall of light and movement in their branches.

David Jones, Vexilla Regis, 1948
David Jones, Vexilla Regis, 1948

In Laetare Sunday, Thrush, Jones celebrates the fourth Sunday in Lent, with the tiny songbird high in the branches (you must look carefully) signalling the joy of Easter. In contrast, Vexilla Regis is a much more complex work, richly layered with symbolism: he came to regard it as one of his greatest achievements, so it is worth examining more closely in an attempt to understand his thinking.

It’s a superb study of three trees which dominate the picture’s foreground. But, amongst and beyond the finely-observed trees Jones has added a multitude of symbols whose meaning is not immediately obvious. It’s rather like a medieval painting in which the symbolism would have been readily understood by the artist’s contemporaries, but which requires some academic explication for a modern viewer. It remains, however, a beautiful tree study that can be enjoyed as such.

Quoting from a letter in which Jones went to unusual lengths to explain the painting, Ariane Bankes teases out some of Jones’ symbolism. The title, ‘Vexilla Regis’, means ‘The Standards of the King’, and refers to a Latin hymn sung in the Catholic church in which there are many allusions to the tree and the Cross. The three pre-eminent trees of the picture suggest Calvary, and perhaps cross-reference to Eliot’s poem The Journey of the Magi, also imbued with symbolist elements, in which the narrator says that on their journey they saw ‘three trees against a low sky’, an image that foreshadowed the future crucifixion. The trunk of the dominant central tree is pierced by nails, while at its foot lies a tangle of thorns in which a robin displays its red breast. Jones also suggested that the tree might represent the Yggdrasil of Northern mythology, the tree that stretches from earth to heaven: ‘for all these things are one in a way’.

In his letter, Jones wrote that the general idea of the picture was associated in his mind with the collapse of the Roman world. So to the right a Roman standard surmounts a pillar, and in the distance a Roman temple can just be made out. On a hillside beyond the trees stands a Druidic henge, while ponies and other wild animals roam through the woods. It’s a complex picture in which nothing is to scale, illustrating Jones’ belief in the continuity between the Roman and Christian eras.

Do  we need to understand all the references in a painting? In his letter, Jones wrote ‘I should like to make plain that none of this symbolism is meant to be at all rigid, but fluid.’

David Jones, Flora and Calix Light, 1955
Flora in Calix – Light, 1955

In the two decades following his recovery, Jones’ artistic output became dominated by drawings and inscriptions that give visual expression to his spiritual beliefs. He also completed his second long poem, The Anathemata, which also expounds his aesthetic philosophy and partly expresses his personal faith, and gave rise to a series of paintings of glass chalices.

The Anathemata cover, 1952
The Anathemata cover, 1952

Several of these works are on display. At the centre of each one is a large glass goblet resembling the chalice, filled with or surrounded by a dense patterning of flowers and thorns. For someone of Roman Catholic faith, it would be easy to tune into the symbolism of the best of these, Flora in Calix – Light, in which three stemmed glasses on a highly polished table set before an open window would suggest the arrangement of the crosses of the Crucifixion, the central chalice containing a radiant arrangement of flowers. For others, this pencil and watercolour work might simply represent a joyous celebration of natural beauty.

Dum Medium Silentium, 1952
Dum Medium Silentium, 1952

The exhibition ends with a section called ‘Word As Image’ in which a number of the painted inscriptions which Jones made between the early 1940s and late 1960s. Broadly, these are works which affirmed his Christian faith, but although the words Jones chose to depict are charged with significance, they were more than just text. Jones referred to them as ‘my form of abstraction’.

He intended the individual letters and their arrangement to be looked at and considered in terms of shape and colour and their arrangement on the canvas. Earlier inscriptions are almost entirely in Latin, but he later drew on Welsh words
and early English poetry. Varying in language, Jones also used differing lettering styles to evoke both differences and continuities of history, place and culture. He also played with line and word breaks to defamiliarise significant words.

Inked or water-coloured over a painted background of Chinese White to give them the antique look of fine, time-faded parchment, the inscriptions are very pleasing to look at, even if I couldn’t understand the Latin or literary references. In all his inscriptions Jones worked without a pre-planned design: starting with only slight indications in pencil of the letters, he would adjust their weight and presence on the page by working round them with Chinese white.

A beautiful example of these works is Dum Medium Silentium, he made as a Christmas card for his friends in 1952. The colours are subtle and varied, including letters in black, grey, green, pale purple, pink and dark crimson. Lines from the English carol, ‘He came all so still’ in lower-case lettering surround Roman capitals that spell out the Latin which speaks of the ‘almighty Word’ coming in the quiet of the night. Spanning the second line is the single word ‘Silentium’, making stillness and silence the focus of the work.

In her exhibition review for the Financial Times Jackie Wullschlager wrote of the inscriptions:

Unable to read the jumble of Latin, Old and Middle English, we decipher these pieces as a mix of visual sounds and impressions. Compressed and resolved, they draw on Victorian samplers and Modernist fragmentation, herald minimalist austerity and Postmodern appropriation, and express something sacramental: the “almighty Word” made flesh, the mystery of appearance resonant for a secular, conceptual age.

In the years following his death in 1974, critics tended to regard the work of David Jones, with its literary allusions to history, myth and religion, unsympathetically. In his conclusion to the book published to accompany the exhibition, Paul Hill suggests that today the climate of opinion is changing:

In a world in danger of losing its collective memory, the need to reconnect with what Jones called ‘the inward continuities of place’ … is widely felt. … WG Sebald’s interweaving of personal memory, place and history has found a wide readership … and myth is more urgently addressed. Just as Jones, in his watercolours and engravings, drew upon the Arthurian stories, Anselm Kiefer, working on a vaster scale, references the Nibelung legends, as well as the depths of geological time, to confront the waste land of twentieth-century history.

David Jones at Capel-y-ffin, from Kim Howells’ TV series on Welsh art

David Jones: Vision and Memory: preview from Pallant House

I have wanted to visit the Pallant House gallery in Chichester for some time, envious of the major exhibitions that are put on there. Looking around the other spaces in the gallery after seeing the David Jones exhibition, I was impressed by  the permanent collection of modern British art. There are paintings here by Paul Nash (‘Skylight Landscape’, 1946), David Bomberg (‘Ronda Bridge’, 1935 and ‘The South-East Corner, Jerusalem’, 1926), Winifred Nicholson (‘Cumberland Landscape’, 1926), Ben Nicholson (‘Birch Craig, Winter’, 1930), Lucian Freud (‘Self Portrait with Hyacinth’, 1948) and Peter Blake (‘Girls with Their Hero’, 1959) – to name but a few that caught my eye.

Notably, there is a room devoted to The 7&5 Society (of which David Jones was a member). The 7&5 Society was formed in 1919 during a period of relative conservatism in British art. Initially consisting of seven painters and five sculptors, it was intended to promote a return to traditional subjects and forms of representation. But, despite these conformist beginnings, the society developed to become the most progressive group in English painting during the 1920s and early 1930s. A turning point for the Society was the arrival of the painter Ben Nicholson in 1924. Under his guidance the group was transformed into a pioneering organisation that was both modern and international in its outlook.

In the Pallant House display, landscape paintings by Ben Nicholson, his wife Winifred and the painters Frances Hodgkins and Christopher Wood demonstrate their preference for simple forms and vibrant colour, the childlike directness of some of the paintings echoing the work of the Cornish painter Alfred Wallis, championed by Ben Nicholson, three of whose works are on display.

Here is a selection of the paintings in the Pallant House collection:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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