David Jones: painter, poet and mystic

26 September 2015 8:00 AM

‘Capel-y-ffin’, 1926–7 (watercolour and gouache)

David Jones (1895–1974) was a remarkable figure: artist and poet, he was a great original in both disciplines. His was an art of ‘gathering things in’ that engaged imaginatively with history and myth, with his Welsh heritage and the Christian religion. But art also comes out of conflict, and the tension between the two sides of Jones’s creative nature was the motive force that powered so much, both visual and written.

Thus it can be misleading to separate his writing from his painting, for they form and express a single vision. However, Jones is presently most celebrated for his writing, particularly his first world war epic poem, In Parenthesis. Before that was published, in 1937, he was known as a painter and engraver, described by Kenneth Clark as ‘in many ways the most gifted of all the younger English painters’. After In Parenthesis was hailed by T.S. Eliot as ‘a work of genius’, and by W.H. Auden as ‘a masterpiece’, Jones was feted as a writer, with his painting taking a secondary role. This is unfair, but the English have always been happier with literature than visual art.

As a first-generation modernist poet, Jones was neatly classifiable, but of course he fled the pigeonhole by being an artist of great distinction as well. This book is dedicated to reassessing Jones as painter and printmaker, and restating the case for his serious consideration. As such, one of its chief joys is the wide range of illustrations, while the accompanying text is both readable and informative.


Ariane Bankes and Paul Hills have sensibly divided the narrative and analysis of Jones’s life in art between them. Hills actually knew Jones in later years and Bankes has a long-standing admiration for his art; their combination makes a book at once authoritative and enthusiastic.

I found the chapter on Jones’s influences particularly valuable. It’s good to see Jones in the company of Pisanello and Botticelli, El Greco and Hogarth, the Wilton Diptych and Rubens. It’s also good to be reminded that A.S. Hartrick, rather a forgotten figure nowadays, was Jones’s tutor at Camberwell School of Art. Hartrick had known van Gogh and Gauguin and was thus one of England’s few direct links to the beating heart of Modernism; interestingly, he also inspired Victor Pasmore, another giant of modern British art.

Jones was a foot soldier throughout the first world war, was badly wounded in the battle of the Somme and nearly died from trench fever in February 1918. Post-war, he continued his studies and enrolled at Westminster School of Art under Walter Bayes. Pursuing a heartfelt religious belief he converted to Catholicism and joined Eric Gill, one of the leading Modernist sculptors, in his community of craftsmen at Ditchling in Sussex. Then in 1924 Gill moved to Capel-y-ffin, near Abergavenny, where Jones continued to visit him. Gill was a pioneer of wood engraving and encouraged Jones to experiment with the medium. In the densely imagined and densely patterned wood engravings for The Chester Play of the Deluge, Jones first found his voice.

But it was his paintings that really marked out his originality. Jones did not often paint in oils, preferring a mixture of pencil and watercolour. In early years, watercolour and gouache predominated; later on the drawn line became increasingly important. The linear tracery of the pencil works with — and sometimes against — the more painterly impulses of the watercolour, and the gentleness of his mark-making can disguise the consummate skill. His landscapes look rumpled: well-used, folded and creased, not flat but hilly and full of movement. The paint is stroked on or rubbed into the paper to create his characteristic flickering surfaces.

In later years Jones favoured insubstantial floating forms and opalescent colour, though the rhythm of the lines was still lyrical, owing something to Celtic ornament. He also made painted inscriptions of water-coloured lettering. These are beautifully composed and placed on the page, with unusual line-breaks and a mixture of forms and languages encouraging the viewer to look at the shape of the words rather than their sense. This was word as image, the closest reconciliation of Jones’s cultural duality, and one of the many high points in an exceptional career.