Canvas Bloodily Immolated on Calvary

david jones3

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Time is Ripe for a David Jones Revival, the long neglected figure in the history of British Modernism. Poet and visual artist, draughtsman, printmaker, illustrator, painter, engraver, calligrapher and a genuine 20th-century visionary, David Jones’ (1895-1974) creative life was largely determined by two experiences. During World War I he served on the Western Front, an event that he regarded as epic and imbued with religious, moral and mythic overtones, in which Divine Grace manifested a continual presence. The second experience was his conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1921.

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david jones

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David Jones served in the trenches as a Private soldier from 1915 until 1918, was wounded at The Battle of The Somme, and spent more time on active service than any of the other First World War poets. He began writing poetry more than ten years after the 1918 Armstice, publishing his first major work in 1937. He continued painting, drawing and writing poetry throughout his comparatively long life in between episodes of depression caused by what would now be called post traumatic stress. He called his illness “Rosi”, referring almost fondly to the “rosi” in “neurosis”.

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David-Jones-Elephant-1928-National-Museum-of-Wales

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One of the most intense of his wartime recollections was of watching a Catholic mass for the first time. He was out alone in the Ypres sector scrounging for firewood in the woods when he became aware of a mass in progress in a ruined farmhouse. He watched the proceedings through a chink in the wall. He spotted the priest “in a gilt‑hued planeta, two points of flickering candlelight, white altar cloths and a few huddled figures in khaki”. The matter of factness of the scene impressed him. This almost businesslike routine had been going on for centuries. In 1921 Jones converted to Roman Catholicism. He said that “the mass makes sense of everything” and much of his poetry and paintings are religious, biblical and liturgical.

david jones 21

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After his conversion and for the rest of his life, Jones regarded his artistic and poetic vocation as a kind of priesthood, living and working very simply and alone. Despite all this acclaim, Jones was a humble man who never sought fame, which is probably just as well. For his last 20 years, until his death in 1974, he inhabited a single room in Harrow, welcoming visitors but otherwise pursuing his work in isolation. He called that room his “dug-out”, but in truth it was a monastic cell.

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David-Jones-The-Dove

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We need to view him as fundamentally a maker. He formed things with his hands as he shaped things in his mind, combining the visual and verbal with creative intensity not seen in Britain since the time of William Blake.

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Jones visualized his Art as sacramental, holding affinities to the sacrament of the Eucharist: “the insistence that painting must be a thing and not the impression of something has affinity with what the Church said of the mass, that what was oblated under the species of bread and wine at the supper was the same thing as what was bloodily immolated on Calvary”.

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trustees of the David Jones estate; (c) A. J. Hyne; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

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When Igor Stravinsky made his last visit to England, he declared that it was largely a pilgrimage to visit David Jones. He visited him in the 1950s in the boarding house in Harrow, where he lived from 1947, after his second breakdown, until 1964. According to Stephen Spender, he remarked that it was ‘like visiting a holy man in his cell’. Recounting the same visit, Spender pictures Jones as a figure of saintly innocence, playing ‘a worn record of plain-song Gregorian chant […] with hands clasped across his knees and an expression of bliss on his face’.

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The Chapel in the Park, 1932

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The Chapel in the Park 1932 David Jones 1895-1974 Purchased 1940 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N05054

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TS Eliot regarded In Parenthesis, Jones’s modernist poetry/prose epic, dramatising, distilling and mythologising his experiences on the Western Front during the First World War, as “a work of genius”. Auden similarly judged The Anathemata, published in 1957, as “very probably the finest long poem to be written in English this century”. Nonetheless, I personally find David Jones’ poetry highly rewarding, yet forbidding in its complexity, so, I’d rather dwell on some of this unworldly figure’s and visionary artist’s paintings which I find absolutely fascinating.

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Sanctus Christus de Capel-y-ffin, 1925

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Sanctus Christus de Capel-y-ffin 1925 David Jones 1895-1974 Presented by the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1983 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T03677

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Capel-y-ffin was the former monastery in the Monmouthshire Black Mountains where Eric Gill and his family moved in August 1924. David Jones first visited them there the following December, and the building at the left of this drawing loosely resembles the monastery, in its winter landscape. Eric Rowan (loc.cit.) compares this drawing to a wall painting of the Crucifixion made by David Jones at Capel-y-ffin in the same winter.

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The Garden Enclosed

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david jones 13

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After he was received into the Roman Catholic church in 1921, Jones went to live with the artist Eric Gill and his family. The two figures in this picture represent Jones, and Gill’s daughter Petra. The picture was painted to mark their engagement in June 1924, when Petra was not quite eighteen. The title alludes to the Song of Solomon, chapter 4, v.12 ‘A garden inclosed is my sister, my spouse’. An enclosed garden is also frequently used as a symbol for the virginity of the Virgin Mary. The geese, sacred to the classical goddess Juno and associated with young girls, flee from the embracing couple, alarmed by their passion. The doll on the ground may symbolise lost childhood.

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Aphrodite in Aulis 1940–1

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Aphrodite in Aulis 1940-1 David Jones 1895-1974 Purchased 1976 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T02036

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After fighting in the First World War, Jones went to art school in 1918. Long enthusiastic about Blake, in 1943 Jones saw Blake’s Body of Abel, shown in this display, much enlarged at a lantern slide lecture. His awareness of Blake’s ‘overwhelmimg’ qualities grew. As a watercolourist, engraver and poet, Jones has obvious affinities with Blake. Aphrodite was drawn during the Second World War. Its Classical and Christian allusions are comparable with Blake’s use of art when commenting on contemporary events. Aphrodite in Aulis fuses Christian and pagan energies, combining redemptive sacrifice with sexual bounty. The Greek goddess of love and fertility, chained to an altar, is flanked by a British and German soldier.

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Illustration to the Arthurian Legend: Guenever, 1938–40

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Illustration to the Arthurian Legend: Guenever 1938-40 David Jones 1895-1974 Purchased 1941 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N05315

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This drawing, which was done at Sidmouth, is an illustration to an episode in the ‘Book of Sir Launcelot and Queen Guenever’ in Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, Bk. XIX, Ch. 6. The artist has described the picture as follows (written statement of October 1958, in part based on a draft by Hugh Macandrew): ‘The traiterous Sir Meliagrance has captured Queen Guenever and her knights, and hearing of her abduction and the wounding and capture of her knights Sir Launcelot comes to her rescue. After being ambushed by the archers of Sir Meliagrance and enduring severe ordeal, shame and mischance Launcelot reaches the castle where the queen and her knights are captive. Meliagrance is in great fear and a kind of truce is arranged by the queen and Launcelot is admitted into the castle. When all are asleep Launcelot takes a ladder and, after breaking the window bars, climbs into the queen’s room.

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‘The marks on Launcelot’s feet, like stigmata, show that the knight has suffered greatly both in his journey to the castle and also in breaking down the bars. Chrétien de Troyes says that Launcelot “cared not for his wounds in his hands and feet” which inevitably suggests the wounds of the Passion, hence the attitude of the crucified Christ as seen on the Crucifix above the queen’s head is echoed in the movements of Launcelot.

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‘In this drawing and in “The Four Queens” there are fragments of a chapel and this chapel is in part associated with the ruined chapel of Capel-y-Ffin and in part with the church at Rock in Northumberland which appears in the Tate picture “The Chapel in the Park”. But in this Guenever picture it is seen as the, so to say, “garrison chapel” of the castle, the altar has been made ready for the next morning’s mass, with the mass-vestments laid out on it in the usual manner. In the Chrétien de Troyes version, when Launcelot approaches and leaves the queen’s bed he genuflects to her and the text says he does this “precisely as though he were before a shrine”. I think the association of these ideas may account, in part, for the inclusion of the altar. The St John’s Chapel in the Tower of London was also in mind.

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‘The men of the garrison of the castle are symbolised by the gun-team asleep with their halberds against the wall on the right, in a recess to the right of the chapel. The figures in the foreground are the queen’s wounded knights and her two maids; everybody is asleep except the little cat which is jumping off the queen’s bed as the wounded feet of Sir Launcelot come forward from the broken window-bars.

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llustration to the Arthurian Legend: The Four Queens Find Launcelot Sleeping, 1941

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Illustration to the Arthurian Legend: The Four Queens Find Launcelot Sleeping 1941 David Jones 1895-1974 Purchased 1941 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N05316

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The stories of King Arthur and his knights had long been of interest to artists and writers as a remnant of a mysterious, lost national past. This drawing illustrates a passage in which Sir Launcelot is abducted by four queens. Launcelot, however, lies dreaming of his love, Queen Guinevere, who appears as a swan. The recumbent figure wears a German helmet and is deliberately reminiscent of the bodies of soldiers that Jones had seen on the battlefields of the 1914–18 war. Thus Medieval themes and styles are used to comment on more recent conflict.

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Chalice with Flowers and Pepperpot, c.1954–5

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Chalice with Flowers and Pepperpot circa 1954-5 David Jones 1895-1974 Purchased 1976 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T02038

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‘Chalice with Flowers and Pepperpot’ is one of a group of closely related watercolour drawings dating from the latter part of David Jones’s career. All feature a glass goblet or ‘chalice’ of flowers placed centrally on a table with various domestic objects assembled around. Lord Clark (in Agenda, op cit.) has characterised these flower paintings as follows: ‘Some of the finest of David Jones’s recent paintings are not of literary subjects but represent simply a vase of flowers on a table. A pleasant subject, but we are not for long under the illusion that this is an ordinary still life. The vase, broad and capacious like a Byzantine chalice of the 8th century, stands facing us on a plain table. Although no exclusively Christian symbol is visible, we have at once the feeling that this is an altar and that the flowers in some way represent part of the Eucharist. There are wine coloured carnations and ears of corn, thorny stems of roses and blood red petals which drop onto the small white table cloth. Yet none of this is insisted on, and we are far from the closed world of symbolism. Every flower is there for a dozen reasons, visual, iconographical or even on account of its name …’

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For more David Jones, watch a slideshow of 21 paintings of his at  http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/artists/david-jones

and also visit Tate at http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/david-jones-1370

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