Thursday, 28 June 2012

David Jones at the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff

The David Jones exhibition currently on display at the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff focuses on his graphic work rather than his better known paintings. Here we have woodblock prints and etchings, book illustrations and personally produced Christmas Cards, and his later inscriptions, with combined his love of the word and the drawn line. These works encompass two periods of his work. The formative years of the 20s, and the mature ones of the 50s and 60s. Jones’ art underwent a series of major shifts during his lifetime as he exhausted or abandoned one particular technique and searched for, discovered and learned another. He was a restless soul, never settling for long in any one place, and often residing in the houses of friends or family, or in retreats such as the Benedictine Monastery on Caldey Island off Pembrokeshire Coast of Wales, rather than setting up his own home. Art was, for him, a holy calling, and one which he pursued with solitary and ascetic single-mindedness, to the exclusion of other concerns or pleasures. His fragile health and a succession of nervous breakdowns arising from a sensitive, self-questioning temperament also sometimes precipitated major shifts in his modes of artistic expression. Failing eyesight meant that he no longer possessed the firmly concentrated vision required for etching by the end of the 1920s, for example. From the 30s onwards, he concentrated more on his writing, writing his major, book length prose-poem In Parenthesis, which was published in 1937, and which addressed his war experiences, locating them withinin a wider spiritual and mythological framework. He also began to compose his great work of Blakean mythopoesy Anathemata, which draws together ancient matter from Britain and the Mediterranean to create a sense of deep history and cultural subsoil upon which the present is overlaid. His experiences in the First World War trenches of the western front, where he was stationed with the Royal Welch Fusiliers from 1915-18 also contributed to subsequent ill-health, both physical and mental. But whilst the form of his art may have undergone various and significant changes, its content and purpose remained constant. It was an expression of Jones’ universal sense of the sacred, of the echoes of ancestry in the present, and of the vibrant, complex interconnectivity of all life, in all times.

Jones’ own ancestry was a mixture of Welsh, English and Italian. His father, James Jones, was Welsh, from Holywell in the North, and worked as a supervisor at a printers’ shop. His mother, Alice Bradshaw, was from Rotherhithe by the Thames, her father a mast and block maker, and her family dockside workers. David was born in Brockley, Kent in 1895, in the heart of the garden of England, and he would return there at various points in his life to live with his parents. This was far from the Welsh mountains which he would later claim as his spiritual homeland, but his father always instilled in him a sense of his essential Welshness, and he was familiar with the country from visits to see his grandfather and other relatives. The pull of these different claims of ancestry and birthright, of the English pastoral, the working man’s craft, the myth-soaked Welsh landscape and the Roman classical heritage fed into the teeming detail of Jones’ pencil and watercolour works. Their baroque weave of detail, created with a pencil line whose traceries can be followed beneath the translucent coloured surface as if refracted through a still surface of water, gives the sense of planes of historical, geological and mythological time intersecting and combining. After the war, Jones found a specific vessel for his sense of the numinous quality of the world in Catholicism, a marked break from the low church sensibilities his father had brought with him from Wales. In this respect, he sided with his mother’s ancestors, with the church of Rome. His decision to convert to Catholicism may have been influenced by the visit he made in early 1921 to the artistic and religious community set up on Ditchling Common in Sussex by Eric Gill and Hilary Pepler in 1913. By the end of the year, Jones had gone to live there, and became a sort of surrogate son to Gill, now indisputably the charismatic leader of the community. Gill had three daughters, but not the male heir which his traditionally paternalistic outlook led him to desire. Jones, looking for direction in his artistic and personal life, was the ideal person for Gill to take in and to whom he could impart his own ideals and beliefs. Ditchling offered a retreat from the world, and a supportive environment for a young man still dazed by the battery of war. Its daily routine was dedicated to artistic work, craftsmanship and religious devotions. There was also an attempt to attain a degree of self-sufficiency, with animals reared and crops grown. Gill and Pepler had both been inducted into the Tertiary Order of St Dominic, as lay members rather than friars or monks, still able to live and go about their business in the world. Jones followed suit in 1923. He was obviously, as were so many, in thrall to Gill’s commanding presence and forthright, frequently expressed views.

Gill revered the old crafts, and was firmly set against the appurtenances of technological modernity – cars, radios, telephones, grammaphone players and the like. He turned his back on the modern world to a large extent, and preached Dominican values of asceticism, discipline and hard work (the extent to which he practiced them is another matter). All of this appealed to Jones, whose sense of a present time rooted in and infused with ancient history and populated by mythological archetypes was attuned to the spirit of Ditchling, set aside from the speeding course of the contemporary world and its streamlined rush into futurity. Gill encouraged him to put aside the drawing and painting he’d been doing at the Westminster School of Art and take up a craft. In learning new technical skills he would cast off habitual gestures and develop a new vision, along with a new means of artistic expression. Jones tried carpentry, but discovered that he really had no talent for it whatsoever. So he took up wood engraving instead, which turned out to be far better suited to his artistic temperament. He was commissioned by Harold Munro of the Poetry Bookshop in London to illustrate one of two alphabet books for children written by Eleanor Farjeon, The Town Child’s Alphabet, which was published in 1924, and all the original plates for which are on display. Jones’ illustrations acted as a farewell to the city (which is clearly London), and he depicted it as a friendly place, full of characters who would cheerfully stop and give you the time of the day or point you in the right direction. He creates a magical, Mary Poppins London out of choking smog and hard labour, a utopian ideal of town or city life which reminds me a little of the 60s world Mary, Mungo and Midge. It’s a world which seems even more fantastic from a 21st century perspective, with its drayhorses, coalmen, lamplighters, one-man band ‘jazzmen’, and trolleybus drivers. The outlines of Jones’ people and the settings in which they work are bold and clearly drawn and the illustrations bright and uncluttered. With their spare caramel brown and chalky blue colouring on the white page, they look designs for ceramic plates or bowls, akin to those Eric Ravilious produced for Wedgwood in the 30s. They offer an appropriately optimistic and cheerful view of the modern world, parcelled up and neatly compartmentalised for children to enjoy. Their evident comfort with modernity is at odds with Gill’s rejection city life. I particularly like the T is for train driver illustration, which depicts a tube train emerging from a tunnel, a study in arches and curved perspectives which perfectly captures the excitement of the underground world through a child’s eyes.

The community at Ditchling broke up in 1924. Gill fell out with his co-founder Hilary Pepler, largely over financial affairs. He’d also attracted a great deal of attention by this time, with many writers, journalists and artists coming to hear his readily dispensed wisdom and firmly held and asserted philosophies, and to witness his ideal of the sacred creative life in action. He evidently enjoyed his growing status as an anti-modern guru, but eventually decided it had gone too far, and was impeding his work. He took his extended family (his own and two others) and headed for the remote country of the Black Mountains in Wales, settling in a crumbling old Benedictine monastery at Capel-y-ffin. Jones went with them. He was almost a part of the Gill family now. He had become engaged to Gill’s daughter Petra, a betrothal which Gill’s biographer Fiona McCarthy suggests might have expressed a seigneurial right of filial bestowal on the father’s part – an arranged marriage, in effect. There had been a dark cultish aspect to the commune at Ditchling, with Gill’s views and influence increasingly dominant over his family and other residents. The remoteness of Capel, and the gothic atmosphere of the monastery seemed to make this more pronounced, although Gill himself frequently escaped to other parts, and at this time found other outlets for his prodigious sexual appetites. Gill was a paternalistic head of the ‘family’, whether it was his own or the wider one of the community at large, and the offering of Petra to Jones was a way of drawing him in and sealing the bond of kinship. Iain Sinclair tries to evoke some of the atmosphere of the approach to Capel-y-ffin in Landor’s Tower, his exploration of the cultural and historical matter of the Black Mountains, the land of his own ancestry. He imagines Jones’ state of mind, and clearly feels a degree of affinity with the artist and his sense of uneasy connection with this dark landscape. Gill and his entourage turn up at the Welsh country station of Pandy like ‘Russian folk, a travelling circus’, animals straggling alongside. ‘David was the only one standing still’, Sinclair writes, ‘trying to understand, the where and the why, the how of this potentially fatal decision: the flight into Ewyas’. Driving along rough country roads in the back of a lorry towards the old monastery, ‘headlights caught the glittering eyes of a sheep trapped between hedges, they slowed to a walking pace as the panicked animal skittered uselessly from verge to verge…the countryside was strange and dark and deep, not a farmhouse light to be seen; late in the year, their move seemed more than ever a banishment, a mad flight from the duties and complexities of civilisation, a wilful descent into paganism and perversity’.

Hill Pastures - 1926

Petra eventually called off the engagement. As Sinclair puts it, she ‘reclaimed a stolen virginity and Jones was excluded from the garden he was struggling to design’. This is a reference to the shocking revelations in Fiona McCarthy’s biography, arrived at through a decoding of Gill’s copious diary entries, that he had had incestuous relations not only with his sisters but probably with his daughters too. Petra’s rejection (also a rejection of her father’s authority) led Jones to leave Capel for the monastic retreat of Caldy Island (although the would later be best man at her marriage to a man of her own choice in 1928). Jones’ view of women, in his art and by and large in his life too, was from hereon a distanced and idealised one, quite the opposite of Gill’s obsessively priapic perspective. There are many Goddesses in his paintings, whether they be in the form of the Virgin, Aphrodite, Persephone or Iphigenia. Sometimes these impressive, coolly impassive figures are literally placed on precarious pedestals, the other elements of the picture gathering around them as if to pay obeisance. The one genuinely sensual, eroticised portrait which Jones painted, a Female Nude in watercolour and pencil from 1929, was withheld from exhibition during his lifetime, implying an implicit disapproval. His view of women was akin to his approach to his art – chastely reverential and filled with a sense of sacred purpose.

The Book of Jonah - 1926

The parting with Petra marked a breaking away from Gill’s influence, too, and his mentor left a deep and lasting impression. The very fact that he’d brought him to Wales, into the wild heart of its harshly beautiful landscape, reconnected Jones with his spiritual home. This can be seen in his 1926 painting The Lancers (or Ponies on a Welsh Hill Slope), the copper engraving of which is to be found in the exhibition. The round curves of the two ponies’ flanks, bellies and necks finds formal echo in the contours of the mountainous hills beyond, which as a result seem to have a breathing life of their own. Jones displays an instinctive, deeply felt sense of the living contours of the landscape. The time spent in Wales seems to have unleashed Jones’ creative impulses, tapping into some deeply bored well of inspiration, and the period of the mid to late 20s was a particularly productive one. Examples from two series of wood engravings are included in the exhibition. The Book of Jonah (1926) and The Chester Play of the Deluge (1927) are both very dark, as befits the subject matter, with large areas of the woodblock left to impress expanses of black ink, carved figures emerging as fragile, skeletal white outlines from the murk. The leviathan in Jonah is particularly effective, a black void set against the differentially rayed lines of waves, sunbeams, hazy sky and rain, the negative twin of Melville’s white whale Moby Dick. The oceanic scenery of both draws on his time looking out of the window of his cell on Caldy Island, ‘trying to iron out the sea’, as Iain Sinclair puts it.

The Chester Play of the Deluge (1926) - The Dove

The Dove, from the Deluge, is masterful in its simple contrast of boldly outlined forms. The waters fill most of the frame, with swollen, blocklike clouds hanging heavily like boulders in the narrow strip of sky at the top. In the foreground, the jaggedly cruciform branches of the olive tree, from which the descending dove is plucking a branch, reach up from the waves like a figure finally breaking the surface after a deep and lengthy plunge and taking a huge, life-giving gasp of air. It’s outlined with a blurred white halo, making it stand out softly from the sea with a spectral shimmer, a symbol of radiant newness. The submerged height of the mountain can be seen beneath the recumbent moon shape of the ark, and is suggestive of great depths. Its angled shadow is reflected by the rays of sunlight fanning out from beneath the sea’s horizon. The small, irregular oval of lapping water marking the emergence of the mountain’s peak upon which the ark perches could almost be the distended disc of the rising sun, visible through a world made momentarily translucent. The carved wooden block from which what is generally considered to be one of Jones’ finest prints was taken is also present here, giving an insight into the craft techniques used to create the final image.

Nativity with Beast and Shepherds (1927) - Christmas Card

The Lancers, his picture of two Welsh hill ponies, had shown Jones’ affinity with animals. This is further seen in other works in the exhibition, including the picture Reclining Cat, which captures his favoured domestic creature at languorous ease. One of the first extant drawings from his childhood is a depiction of a bear, dating from around the turn of the century when he was 8. A sketch of a comical camel (is there any other kind?) from a book of observational drawings made at London Zoo is included here. These were studies which were helpful in creating the menagerie crowding onto the ark in his Deluge woodcuts. There are also a couple of Christmas cards which he designed to send to friends, Animals Kneeling (1927) and Beasts Rejoicing (1929), both displaying a keen eye for individual character in the non-human. They are notable for their avoidance of the strong temptation towards anthropomorphosis to which many artists succumb when using animals as subject matter. Jones had great compassion for animals, viewing life as sacred in whatever form it took. His pencil and watercolour paintings are also wound about and garlanded by profuse growths of flowers, vines and undergrowth which almost seem to be further extending buds, tips and tendrils as you look. He may have been a Catholic, but there is a definite Pagan cast to his art, in keeping with his keen sense of connection with his Welsh and Roman roots.

In Parenthesis frontspiece - 1937

Jones was also interested in animals on a symbolic level, and in particular in the Biblical ritual figure and subsequent metaphorical notion of the scapegoat. What has now largely become a figure of speech derives from a Jewish ritual which was enacted (and may still be) on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Two goats would be brought into the Temple. One would be offered up to God as a sacrifice, the other would bear the transferred sins of the Israeli people and be exiled into the desert wastelands beyond the city walls. Here, Azazel, the lord of the wilderness (an aspect of the Devil who would tempt Christ when he entered his terrain) receives it. Christ would become a metaphorical scapegoat, a divine bearer of the sins of all mankind rather than those of a particular tribe. The term has since implied and element of martyrdom, whether selflessly entered into or imposed. The front and endpiece illustrations David Jones produced for his First World War prose poem In Parenthesis use the scapegoat as a metaphor for the sacrifice of soldiers in the trenches. In the frontspiece, a tin-hatted, semi-naked soldier is caught in a tangle of barbed wire and netting but remains standing in statuesque pose. His arms are stiff and partially outstretched (although not so fully as to blatantly emulate the crucifixion) as if he has been hung on an upright pole as a grisly, tattered scarecrow. Rats run around his feet and he is set up within a blasted landscape of war resembling the wasteland depicted by Paul Nash in We Are Building A New World. It’s an oddly stripped-down, modernist landscape, all forms simplified to their skeletal essentials. The soldier’s face is blank and without emotion or pain, his eyes empty and devoid of pupil or iris. He’s a carved representation rather than a real figure of flesh and blood. In the endpiece, his place is taken by a real scapegoat, its hooves tangled up in the barbed wire like the goat found in a thorny thicket by Abraham, a ready replacement for his son Isaac as an offering to God. The spear piercing its side makes clear the holy nature of its sacrifice. The dying beast looks upwards to the clear night sky, in which a sickle moon and large, ‘naïve’ pointed stars (something of a Jones signature) glow. A beam from the brightest of these stars shafts down to pierce the creature’s eye, connecting it to he heavens just as the shaft of the spear connects it to the earth. In the wasteland of the western front, it is caught in a limbo between two worlds. On the wall of his room in the rest home in Harrow where he spent many of his later years, restricted by declining health, Jones pinned a picture of Laika, the space-faring Russian dog, who was a kind of modern, rocket-age incarnation of this ancient archetype.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner plate 3 - The Death Fires

The symbolism of the sacrificial scapegoat also informed Jones’ illustrations for Coleridge’s fantastical narrative poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. He provided 8 plates to illustrate this at the behest of Douglas Cleverdon, who ran a literary press in Bristol, working on them at the same time as he was composing In Parenthesis. They were published in 1929. Jones was just learning the craft of copper plate engraving at the time, and the illustrations, which use this technique, were thus of necessity as much as design lacking in formal complexity or intricate detail. They have a certain naïve, comic book quality which serves them well. There was certainly no attempt to emulate the richly textured light and shade of Gustave Dore’s renowned lithographic illustrations. Basic outlined figures with notional, simplified features lend the plates the flattened look of murals, with spare use of shading giving the impression of shape and depths to ocean waves, or of the haze of an unearthly supernatural heat. The exaggerated and simplified form of Jones’ characters lends them the appearance of Classical figures on vases or friezes, and also brings to mind Jean Cocteau’s personalised interpretation of those same influences. In drawing on ancient models, Jones’ illustrations take on a peculiarly modern appearance, fully in keeping with the artistic trends of the time. Perhaps this was not so surprising. He had, after all, been accepted into the very modern artistic community of The Seven and Five Society in 1928, taking his place alongside his friend Ben Nicholson (who had recommended him) and others such as Winifred Nicholson, John Piper, Christopher Wood, Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore. Jones’ Mariner, transfixed to the mast or hung from the rigging, is very much the scapegoat figure, and ancient, nautically bearded version of the soldier in the barbed wire thicket, with the same shrugging, spread-armed pose and downward, blank-eyed gaze. Several preparatory stages of plate 3, The Death Fires, are displayed in the exhibition, allowing us to see the build-up of detail in the composition. Beginning with the central element of the boat, the cluster of imploring crewmen are added on deck, then sun, moon and stars, and their surrounding shaded haze of sickly shimmer. Then there are Coleridge’s ‘water snakes’, creatures of uncharted oceans which Jones depicts as sinuous, many-legged and oddly benevolent looking monsters (in the poem, their appearance presages the dropping of the albatross from around the Mariner’s neck). They are aquatic arthropods, segmented insects of the deep rather than fearsome leviathans. A proof for a copper engraving displayed alongside the Rime illustrations remains as a tantalising hint of an unrealised project. Wounded Knight features another of Jones’ Goddesses, in this case the Celtic Arianrhod. She cradles the head of a dying knight, perhaps Arthur himself, in some otherworld, whilst horses dance on land and ocean wave in the background. Jones was to have illustrated La Morte D’Arthur for Cleverdon as a follow up to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. It would have been a project perfectly suited to his abiding artistic, cultural and spiritual concerns. But failing eyesight and health meant that he was unable to devote the concentrated vision required for the copper engraving process on such an involved piece of work. This is a great shame, as it could almost have been the book he was destined to illustrate.

There is a quite a temporal leap from the Coleridge illustrations and the Wounded Knight to the final works on display in the exhibition, Jones having been preoccupied with the writing of The Anathemata and with his pencil and watercolour paintings. These works from the 50s and 60s are some of his inscriptions, deeply personal painted texts, carefully chosen or pieced together for their particular meaning to Jones, which were created either for his own pleasure or as gifts to be presented to close friends. Generally written in Latin with fragments of other languages folded in, and inked or watercoloured over a painted background of Chinese White, which gives it the antique look of fine, time-faded parchment, these treat the word itself as sacramental, a worthy visual subject in itself. They display a delight in the shape of letters and their contrast with and connection to their neighbours in words and sentences which bears comparison with Islamic decorative calligraphy. The inscriptions also draw together the twin strands of the literary and the visual in Jones’ art. The shadow of Gill, in the form of his stone-carved lettering, also falls upon these works. But whereas Gill was concerned in his carving to produce scripts which obliterated the personality of the creator, Jones’ words are far more individually expressive, with no intention of producing a uniform and utilitarian font. His letters curl and bulge, stand on elegant feet or end in viny curlicues, or are finished off with exuberant flourishes. Words vary in size, and sometimes grow or shrink along the line, which frequently wavers from strict rigidity. Particular words and sentences are given their own muted colours – purples, yellows, greens and blues – which gives them a distinctive character of their own, as if they had a synaesthetic as well as linguistic association. They have the feeling of life, as if they were breathing and pulsing, the word an integral part of the teeming world in which it is rooted and whose beauty and meaning it expresses. Included here are Cora Lucia, written for TS Eliot in 1953 and incorporating elements of his work; What Says His Mabinogi from 1958, which juxtaposes Latin and Welsh words (Jones’ mixed heritage finding lexicographical form) and takes its text from his own Anathemata poem; and Mulier Cantat from 1960, which combines Latin and English, setting Biblical texts about the Virgin and the Incarnation alongside quotes from James Joyce. Having begun his inscriptions in the 1940s, he produced his last in 1968 for the poet, essayist and critic Kathleen Raine. It is appropriate that Raine had written much about William Blake, and was a well known expert on the painter, poet and printer. Like Jones, Blake had brought the word to vibrant life on the printed page, making of it a thing of visual beauty and semi-organic form. Jones can be seen as part of a lineage of visionary British artists which runs through Blake (its prime progenitor) and on into the 20th century. An artistic ancestry which both expresses its own time but also seeks, and sometimes almost succeeds, to transcend it and capture a glimpse of the eternal. Time is a factor if you want to see the David Jones exhibition at the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff, however, as it’s only on until 15th July.


Barbara Hutsell said...

Thanks for this review. I wish I could attend the exhibit; was a catalog produced?

Jez Winship said...

There wasn't a catalogue, unfortunately. The book I have is a catalogue of a 1981 Tate Gallery exhibition, which has a good selection of paintings, prints and inscriptions. There are probably editions of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner with Jones' illustrations, too. Kettles Yard in Cambridge, which has numerous Jones works on display, also has a number of cards and postcards and associated books.