Will a tattoo ever hang in the Louvre?

Meet the unconventional art historians trying to discover what it means for an image to be marked on the body.

You smell room G34B before you see it. It’s the smell of formaldehyde. “It’s like nothing else,” says my guide, Gemma Angel. “It’s death, but very old death – not like in a dissection room.”

As we approach the corner of the corridor, a young woman comes round it, pushing a cart as tall as she is. “What’s in there?” asks Angel. “Prosthetic limbs,” comes the answer. “From the Paralympics display.”

G34B might be the most fascinating room in London, inside one of the most quietly unusual of the capital’s buildings. Blythe House in Barons Court is deliberately anonymous, a forbidding slab of red brick among quiet streets. To enter it, you need a very good reason – Angel is an academic researcher – and an appointment. We are buzzed through the clanking gates and past a sign that reads: “State of vigilance: HEIGHTENED”.

Inside, it looks like a Victorian institution, the kind of place where the insane or poor or otherwise undesirable might have been housed. Its high windows and squeaking linoleum floors positively demand a children’s nursery rhyme played in a minor key. It would make a very good setting for one of those episodes of Doctor Who where the producers haven’t got the budget to create an alien planet.

The reason for the secrecy around Blythe House is a good one: this is where several London museums, including the Wellcome Collection, keep their overflow when it is not on display but still needed for academic study. On our way in, we walk past canoes and eclectic paintings; the general air is of the world’s most historic jumble sale.

Then we turn the corner and Angel unlocks the door to G34B. It is the building’s “human remains” room and it demands a moment of silence. I see the skull of a foetus, the cranial sutures still not fused, and study my reflection in the billiard-ball smooth steel of a replacement hip joint. Under tissue paper in a box at floor level, I see something humanshaped. “Oh, I always say hello to the mummy,” Angel says cheerfully, lifting up the makeshift shroud to reveal a jaw hanging open in a soundless scream.

What we’re here to see appears at first glance less striking than many of the other inhabitants of the room. In glass cases and plastic sleeves are 300 slivers of skin from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Each one bears a tattoo. They are of varying levels of intricacy and artistry. Some are crude, black squiggles; others are detailed portraits that capture something of the sitter.

Studying them has been Angel’s life for the past three years, as she works towards a doctorate at University College London. (It will be awarded by the history of art department but her research crosses several disciplines.) She wants to know the identities of the men whose skins live on in room G34B; who harvested their tattoos and how; and what we can learn about the lives of people who had no way to document their experiences other than by recording them on their bodies.

My first meeting with Angel had taken place a few weeks earlier in the café of the Wellcome Collection on the Euston Road. I’d emailed her after seeing that she was speaking at a science event at the nearby Bloomsbury Theatre, where she was described simply as a “historian of tattoos and melder of art and science”.

What on earth does a tattoo historian do, I had wondered. The answer is much the same as an ordinary art historian, except the canvas is living (or dead) human skin.

Thanks to her mass of curly red hair, I spot Angel across the café easily. Dressed for the cold in a woollen jumper and jeans, she is not visibly tattooed – but later in the conversation she shows me a Gothic-lettered chest piece that reads: “Nothing human is alien to me.”

It is one of a small collection. She acquired her first tattoo, a Japanese character meaning “strong”, when she was 16. “I didn’t get another one until I was 21,” she says. “That was a turning point for me, because I spent two hours under the needle, so I had more time to contemplate the process and I talked to the tattooist as well. It really appealed to me – to submit yourself to a painful but personal transformation, moulding your body to fit your idea of yourself.”

At the time, Angel was studying for a fine art degree at Leeds. She and her self-taught tattooist “clicked”, she says, and he offered to show her the basic techniques of the trade. She worked at a studio in Manchester while finishing her degree; then she took a Master’s in Manchester in visual anthropology, studying the use of touch in special-needs schools. It’s one of the more eclectic CVs, filled out by a stint as a massage therapist, but there is one unifying component: skin.

***

“Guess what that is.”

I can feel my brow furrowing as I regard what looks like an L-shaped piece of parchment with a small doodle on it. Disconcertingly, in the hinge of the shape, there is a clump of hair. “It’s an armpit,” says Angel, tucking it away.

She holds up a pair of eyes, preserved separately, and grins. “These are from buttocks. I think it’s so that when you turn your back, it’s like, ‘Lads, I’m still watching you.’”

Studying old tattoos involves certain precautions. The collection Angel is working with has been preserved with formaldehyde, so we have to turn on a nozzled fume extractor that she calls the “elephant’s trunk” every time we take a piece of skin out of its wrapper. Despite the trunk, the smell of preservative hangs in the air and I can feel a headache being born somewhere in my sinuses. My hands are sweating uncomfortably in their latex gloves.

What I’m not feeling is queasy – and this surprises me, because touching other people’s buttocks and armpits, once they’ve been detached from the people themselves, ought to be slightly disorientating. However, the tattoos look so much like they are on parchment that it’s hard to remember they once sweated and tingled and hurt. The only moment of connection I have is when Angel holds up an intricate chest piece – complete with nipples – against her torso, to show off its impressive size. “Big guy, huh?” she says.

Oh, God, I think, there are more than two of us in this room right now.

In pictures, the tattoos don’t produce this effect. Angel worries that they look “flat” and has tried to photograph them in ways that preserve their architecture. One chest piece has the navel still attached. “That’s hard to preserve,” she says. “It’s like the tip of your nose – it’s just attached to cartilage. They usually just have holes.”

Another couple of samples are recognisably from torsos, because the nipples are still visible, either as rosy areolae or simply as bubbles in the surface. A long stretch of skin is impossible to place until it is held up to the light: suddenly, a row of four little circles of thinner tissue becomes apparent. These are the knuckles.

Over the years, Angel has become increasingly interested in the collection as objects, as skin, but originally her brief was to focus on the tattoos. In working out the identities of the men, one of the few pieces of information available to work with is the French military insignia that make up some of the designs. During her archive research, Angel stumbled on a photograph of a naked man bearing two of the tattoos in the collection; the symbols used elsewhere on his body showed that he’d spent time in prison.

As she says: “Suddenly, this person became three-dimensional and it was a little bit like recognising the face of an old friend in a crowd.” Who was he? Frustratingly, the photo was headless. “I really wanted to see his face. I find it interesting that he’s been photographed in life and then his skin turns up in a collection. What’s the relationship between these two historical documents?”

Angel hopes that by searching through military records she will be able to discover more about the first owners of these tattoos. However, she is resigned to the likelihood that even after she has finished, much about the collection will remain unknown, probably including its precise origins and whether the donors consented to their tattoos living on beyond their death.

“I doubt they were grave-robbed,” Angel says. “But it’s possible that some of them were taken opportunistically in a military hospital. With some of them, you can tell that the body had started to decompose before they were preserved, so that gives you an indication of the conditions – it might have been a field hospital, or somebody [might have] brought a body to the morgue and thought: ‘I know someone who’s interested in collecting these.’”

That sentiment isn’t as rare as you would think – several medical museums around the world have preserved tattoos in their collection, alongside the obligatory dwarf skeletons and tumours in jars. At the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, a roughly removed tattoo sits next to a Bible bound in human skin; there is also a specimen from Angel’s collection on public display at the Wellcome Collection in Euston. The Barts Pathology Museum in Farringdon, central London, has several “wet preservations”: skin suspended in jars of formaldehyde.

What motivated these collectors? While some may have been driven by the desire to study the tattoos, it seems likely that in many cases it was more about a fetishisation of skin – and especially the skin of the “underclass”.

Angel doesn’t know for sure where her collection came from but suspects include the Académie Nationale de Médecine in Paris, because of the French military badges on some inkings and the language of the lettered tattoos. The doctor who sold them to the 19th-century collector Henry Wellcome said they were the skins of “sailors, soldiers and criminals”. Angel adds: “But look at the collection – there’s no way one person collected and preserved all these objects. There’s too much variation in the skill and technique.”

So how do you harvest a tattoo? These days you’d use a dermatome, a gadget invented in the 1930s that slices off a fine layer of the epidermis and is now used for skin grafts. In the 19th century, you had to use a scalpel and care; many of the Wellcome specimens are of different thicknesses or marked with slashes, or have scalloped edges from being stretched and pinned during preservation. Some are thick and soft like leather; others are scratchy and stiff like card; some are translucent when you hold them to the light. “I know they’re not my skin,” says Angel, running a gloved finger over the bumps of hair follicles under faded black ink. “But that’s how I think of them: my skin.”

Gemma Angel at the St Barts Pathology Museum.

***

Matt Lodder is looking at me through heavyrimmed spectacles, a tiny anchor winking from below his left eye. His knuckles are tattooed, not with “LOVE” and “HATE”, but with the legend “KNOW MORE”. His PhD thesis at the University of Reading was titled “Body Art: Body Modification as Artistic Practice” and it’s clear that he’s a tattoo enthusiast as well as an academic.

“There are two things everyone knows about tattoos,” he tells me over lunch. “And they’re both wrong.”

The first thing that everyone “knows” about tattoos is that they arrived in the west after Captain Cook met the natives of Polynesia in the 1700s. In reality, western tattooing stretches back to the 14th century at the latest: at our first meeting, Angel showed me a picture of a medieval pilgrim who had been tattooed, rather than picking up the traditional cockle shell, to commemorate his visit to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

The second “fact”, that tattoos were always associated with the working class, is rather marvellously disproved when Lodder points me towards a sepia photograph of the Victorian-era Princess Valdemar of Denmark in a sweeping gown – with a honking great anchor on her arm. She had it done on a visit to the Far East, where she also had “interesting experiences, including visiting a Chinese opium den”, making her a neat precursor of those teens who go to Thailand and come back with a gap-year Tweety Pie tattoo.

Our very own George V had a similar idea when he made a “grand tour” of Japan as a young man, arriving back home with a large, blue-and-red dragon on his arm. He was accompanied on the trip by the future Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, who also got inked. Their actions sparked a miniature craze among the British aristocracy, leading to the urban legend that even Winston Churchill’s mother had a tattoo. (This turns out to be true; she had a snake on her wrist*.)

For the aristocracy of Europe who followed the trend, part of the tattoo’s appeal was its exoticism and transgression. Yet the young Prince George can’t have shocked his family that much, because his father, Edward VII, had a Jerusalem cross on his chest, the legacy of a visit to that city in his youth.

Later, by email, I ask Lodder when the perception that tattoos were the domain of ne’er-do-wells emerged. “Since right back in the Middle Ages, tattoos have been acquired by members of all social classes and have never been the exclusive domain of any particular social status, occupation or gender,” he replies. “When tattooing was at its most popular with the upper classes in Britain, between the 1880s and 1890s, criminologists such as [Alexandre] Lacassagne in France and [Cesare] Lombroso in Italy were writing that tattoos, like certain facial shapes and postures, spoke to the depravity and primitivism of the criminals they studied.

“Even as one newspaper in the 1920s was publishing articles saying tattooing was now respectable and fashionable and to be found under the starched collars of lawyers and bankers, another was decrying the practice as deviant and disgusting.”

That divided attitude has had one obvious consequence, Lodder adds. “ ‘Tattoos are not just for sailors any more’ appears as a headline in every decade since the mid-19th century.”

***

The mission of both Lodder and Angel is to drag the study of tattoos away from its early criminological roots towards something more modern. In this, they are not alone, although they could be forgiven for feeling somewhat lonely. Lodder estimates that fewer than two dozen academics are seriously studying tattooing worldwide.

“There has been no really good, solidly researched, book-length history of western tattooing since [Wilfrid Dyson] Hambly’s in 1925,” he tells me. Lodder is now writing one, grounded in art history, which is due to be published in 2014. “Most, if not all, of the recent published research tends towards prurience and voyeurism. I haven’t seen a tattoo history article in a large, well-cited history journal for years and I don’t think there has been a journal article on tattooing from an art-historical perspective – that is, treating tattooing itself, in its everyday context, as an art form –probably since the 1980s.”

There will be some who question whether there need to be any tattoo art historians at all: surely the subject is the domain of anthropologists, if anything? That has been the approach to it throughout most of the 20th century and the association between tattooing and “primitive” tribes has provided fertile ground. We now know lots about the use of tattoos – and other body modifications such as lip-stretching and scarification – in non-western societies but very little about the motivations of the estimated one in every five Britons who is tattooed.

There is even less academic literature on the distinct styles of tattooing that have developed over the 20th century, such as “neo-tribal”, “old school” and “biomechanical”. You might not know the names but you would probably recognise each type instantly: neo-tribal tattoos are those solid bands of black, often wrapped around the biceps and intended to reflect Polynesian designs, such as the ones worn by Maoris. Oldschool pieces typically have solid black outlines and frequent motifs include nautical stars, swallows, anchors and hearts. Biomechanical often produces a trompe l’oeil effect of peeled-away skin exposing robotic machinery underneath. It can also echo the style of the Swiss surrealist H R Giger, best known for his work on Ridley Scott’s Alien.

Alongside the development of these distinct styles has come the rise of the celebrity tattooist, whose name becomes a style in itself. Louis Molloy, who designed David Beckham’s back piece, sells T-shirts branded with his artwork and stars in a reality TV show called London Ink. His studio in Manchester tells me that it’s impossible to get an appointment with him until January 2014 at the earliest. (Incidentally, the “frequently asked questions” page on his website shows some of the frustrations of the modern tattoo artist. “[A] frequent request is the ‘I want my mum’s, dad’s, sister’s, brother’s, granny’s, grandad’s, next door’s cat’s, dog’s, parrot’s ashes mixed in with the tattoo colour so they will ‘always be with me’,” it reads. “NO! We don’t do it and you are putting your health at risk if you do so.”)

Angel, with her previous work as a tattooist, finds the position of those such as Molloy intriguing. Can they ever be considered artists, or are they tradesmen and women? She inclines towards the latter view, arguing that tattooists are constrained by their client’s choices and that even the most successful ones rarely get full creative control over their work.

She also poses an intriguing question: in the case of figures such as Beckham or Wayne Rooney, whose tattoos are an integral part of an image that is worth millions to advertisers, should the tattooist be entitled to a cut?

***

Last year, Somerset House in London devoted an exhibition to the 67-year-old Japanese tattoo artist Horiyoshi III, who has spent four decades working in a country where tattooing is still tainted by its association with the Yakuza, or mafia. (I was astonished to discover, when booking a trip to Japan, that I wasn’t welcome at many of the traditional inns or ryokan, because I have a tattoo – even though it’s only a smallish, pink-and-black star and I firmly believe that no gangster would be seen dead with it.)

The Horiyoshi exhibition paid tribute to his work in silkscreen painting and showed photographs of his tattoo work, which often uses the same motifs. Did the gallery consider having some of his living canvases wandering around, so that his designs could be seen in the flesh?

“Actually, the exhibition was curated by Horiyoshi’s apprentice, who is covered in tattoos by him,” Stephanie Lilley of Somerset House tells me. “They look incredible.”

I get in touch with the man in question, Alex Reinke, who confirms that he has a full Horiyoshi bodysuit and that it took the artist 80 hours, spread over four years, to create it. Like his master, Reinke practises only irezumi – tattooing that features traditional motifs and is carried out using hand tools if asked. Because his family name means “fox” in Old German, Reinke has taken the tattooist’s name Horikitsune, meaning “the carving fox”.

He tells me that in Japan, there are fewer hang-ups about whether tattoos can be art, because there has always been much more overlap between the motifs and styles of folk art and those of tattoo masters. “Tattooing is seen as much more of a tradition, whereas in the west you see new designs and themes that are normally reserved for the tattoo world,” he says. “That’s why it wasn’t so odd to see Horiyoshi’s stuff in a gallery.”

Yes, I tell him, I suppose there’s a cultural difference: you can’t imagine someone with a Mona Lisa tattoo. Reinke laughs. “You do see that! In the old days, when tattoos were seen as primitive, people mostly got anchors and so on but now – because more people are getting tattoos, people like you and me – if someone really likes the Mona Lisa, that’s what they’re going to get. I’ve seen several Mona Lisa tattoos.”

Nonetheless, the Horiyoshi exhibition was a relatively rare instance of the tattoo world being accepted by a mainstream western art establishment. Take the case of Ed Hardy, one of the best-known and commercially successful tattoo artists of recent times. His new-school nautical designs adorn clothing lines and beauty products and have been hugely influential on the work of other tattooists – and on the wider perception of what tattoos look like.

Hardy’s work looks deliberately commercial and mass-produced but he’s just playing with many of the same concepts as Andy Warhol or Jeff Koons did. Yet, Lodder says, “I doubt I could get an article about an Ed Hardy back piece into any of the major art history journals at the moment.”

Tattooists do have a few unexpected supporters in their quest to be taken seriously, though. The Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones, no fan of newfangled media such as computer games, is much less reticent about inking. “Is it art?” he asked after a visit to the London Tattoo Convention in 2011. “The answer is a flaming dragon of a yes . . . Just by visiting a tattooist such as the celebrated Danish artist Eckel, you can change who you are. The change is permanent. You are a work of art.”

Fittingly, at the same time as professional tattooists are coming to terms with the possibility of being artists, the art world is finding tattoos more and more intriguing.

Over the past two decades, at least a dozen international artists have used tattoos to explore ideas of performance and permanence. In earlier works, such as Santiago Sierra’s 160cm Line Tattooed on 4 People – in which four heroin-addicted Salamanca prostitutes gave their consent to be tattooed for the price of a “hit” – the marking itself is often incidental. Instead, the focus is on the act, on the ethics of changing someone else’s body in a permanent way. But more recently artists have begun to focus on the execution and meaning of the tattoo, as well as the mere fact of its existence.

One of the most interesting themes in such work is the idea of “writing on the body”, creating a permanent record or memorial using the medium of flesh. In 2003, Shelley Jackson began a 2,095-word novella, Skin, tattooed on volunteers one word at a time. The words were assigned in strict order, sometimes including punctuation such as brackets and commas; only once the volunteers had sent back a photo of their completed tattoo were they permitted to see the rest of the novella. At the last count, 1,875 of the 2,095 words had been assigned and, unless one of the participants divulges the story, the only way to read it will be to get them all together in a room.

That idea of becoming an artwork is also central to the Irish performance artist Sandra Ann Vita Minchin’s Ars Longa, Vita Brevis. She is spending 120 hours having Vase of Flowers by the 17th-century Dutch painter Jan Davidsz de Heem tattooed on her back. She then plans to sell the piece to a collector and have it preserved after her death.

Funnily enough, the model Kate Moss has joked about doing the same thing with the two swallows inked on her lower back by Lucian Freud. As he was painting her portrait in 2002, the artist told her that he had learned to tattoo – using a scalpel – when he was in the merchant navy during the Second World War. There followed one of the more surreal conversations of the celebrity age as they discussed the notion of Freud giving the supermodel a home-made tattoo.

“I said I liked birds,” Moss told Vanity Fair magazine in 2012, “and he replied, ‘I’ve done birds. I’ve got it in my book.’ And he pointed down at a painting of a chicken upside down in a bucket. And I said, ‘No, I’m not having that.’”

Eventually they settled on swallows, a classical nautical motif, historically worn by sailors who had travelled a certain number of miles. Moss has since joked: “If it all goes horribly wrong, I could get a skin graft and sell it.” Yet the macabre thing is that she probably could. After all, Freud’s portrait of her, sold while he was still alive, went for £3.9m. How much would an original Freud on her be worth?

Then again, she would have to find a buyer, which would be difficult, as many people are understandably squeamish about having bits of people hanging on their walls. Perhaps they remember stories such as that of Ilse Koch, “the Bitch of Buchenwald”, a particularly sadistic concentration camp supervisor who allegedly liked to collect the tattoos of her prisoners.

These days, if you wanted to buy or exhibit someone’s tattoo, consent would be vital. I phone the Human Tissue Authority to ask what I would need to do if I wanted to donate my tattoo to posterity. The spokeswoman’s initial surprise at my query yields pleasingly quickly to acceptance.

“That would be OK as long as there was adequate consent given by the individual to the establishment or museum,” she tells me. “It would need to be written and attested, so typically in a will or other legal document,” she says. “And the museum would need to have licence to display that material – but most of the big London museums, like the Science Museum or the Natural History Museum, do.”

So I ask the Science Museum whether it would be interested if I turned up, desperate to donate my tattoo. “We have a collecting board who decide on acquisitions,” says its press officer Laura Singleton, giving every impression that this is the most routine query in the world. “The curators would put forward a case and we would see what else we had in our collections and what the cost would be.”

I take this as a “maybe”.

***

All the academic study of tattoos eventually coalesces around a single question: what does it mean for an image – or a word – to be marked on to a human body?

To the anthropologist, that one question opens up others about human relationships, the stages of life and the idea of belonging to a group.

To an artist, the impermanence of a living canvas adds an extra dimension to a work. Jackson has written of Skin: “As words die, the story will change. When the last word dies, the story will also have died.” She has pledged to attend the funerals of her “words”.

To the 19th-century collectors of tattoos, they were a sign of pathology, a way to read criminality in the lower classes, as they might have done by the shape of a head.

However, in all of this, we know the least about the group whose decisions perhaps matter most: those people who get tattoos. Today, common reasons for getting tattooed encompass both conformity and rebellion, as having a small tattoo done is close to a statesanctioned method of exorcising teenage iconoclasm. James Murdoch, now a mogul of almost robotic demeanour, got a light bulb on his right arm before he dropped out of Harvard. Others, including many of those who are tattooed by Louis Molloy or Horiyoshi III, want in their own way to be part of something bigger, part of a living tradition.

As I stand in Blythe House looking at one of the images in Angel’s collection – a young girl in a bonnet, perhaps a sailor’s daughter, left at home long ago but perpetually frozen in time on his chest – another reason occurs to me. The late Shannon Larratt, who ran one of the internet’s biggest archives of photographs and text about body modification, once wrote: “When a child is given a marker, its first impulse is not to draw on paper but to draw on its skin.”

These men, many of whom were uneducated, illiterate and stuck on a ship where the next moment could bring death through shipwreck or battle, were writing their memoirs on themselves. Earlier, Angel had told me that, by having a tattoo, “Somebody has made a conscious impression on their own body of their character, their allegiances or their beliefs.”

I tell her my theory and she nods her head. “Oh, yes,” she says. “What we have here are documents.”

***

For more information about Gemma Angel’s research visit: lifeand6months.com Matt Lodder’s website is: mattlodder.tumblr.com 

* Update, 25 April: Matt Lodder informs me that between our interview and publication of this piece, a researcher has scrutinised photographs of Churchill in old age (where her wrists were showing, unlike earlier photos) and can see no evidence of a tattoo there. Perhaps her tattoo was an urban myth after all. Or perhaps it was somewhere less mentionable in polite company.

Tattoo collection photos courtesy of Gemma Angel/The Science Museum

Luisa, a 40-year-old nanny, photographed by Lina Bertucci.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 29 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What makes us human?

NATIONAL MUSEUM OF WALES, CARDIFF
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Everything is illuminated: Rowan Williams on the art and faith of David Jones

Haunted by his time in the trenches and disturbed by the modern marketplace, Jones formed a world-view full of symbols and connections.

In 1967, the poetry magazine Agenda published a special David Jones issue, including a number of unpublished fragments of his work. The first of these was the brief piece entitled “A, a, a DOMINE DEUS”, often reprinted as Jones’s most poignant statement of his sense that the world of technology was making the writing of poetry – and indeed the other arts – impossible: “I have watched the wheels go round in case I/. . . might see the Living God projected/from the Machine . . ./my hands found the glazed work unrefined and the terrible/crystal a stage-paste”.

He had elaborated on this two decades earlier in a note addressed to the doctor who was treating his paralysing depression and anxiety. We are living, he wrote, in a culture where objects are thought of in terms of their usefulness. An electric light bulb is designed to illuminate human dwellings or workplaces; if an artist wants to evoke something about light more generally, the light bulb is not a good metaphor, because it is merely a functional object. It is what it is because of the job it has to do. But we need images that are allowed to resonate more freely because they are not determined in this way – fires, stars, the sun. How then does the artist avoid “a kind of invalidity”, a corrupting distance from the actual world of his or her experience?

Jones often wrote about “the Break”, the cultural moment somewhere around the beginning of modernity when the European world-view shifted decisively. Instead of a world where things were unique but linked by an unimaginable density of connection and cross-reference, we had created one in which things were unconnected but endlessly repeatable and where everything could be exchanged in the market for an agreed equivalent: above all, for money. Jones saw his work – both as a visual artist and as a poet – as a sustained protest against the Break and an effort to show that the older picture could, after all, be brought to life.

Born in 1895, he had family roots that helped to shape his interests from the beginning. His mother’s father had been a London shipwright and his father’s origins were in North Wales. Both Wales and London kept a central place in his imagination throughout his life. It was not surprising that when the First World War broke out, he enlisted in the 1st London Welsh Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers. His 1937 masterpiece, the astonishing book-length poem In Parenthesis, describes the experience of foot soldiers in the First World War, revisiting his own experiences up to and including the disastrous engagement at Mametz Wood in July 1916. Jones was wounded in the leg during the battle (a wound described by the medical orderly as “a beautiful blighty” – serious enough to get him off the front line, yet not life-threatening). But he was back in the trenches in a matter of months.

The traumas of war stayed with him to the end. In Parenthesis, which he struggled with painfully over many years, is one of the most unsparing accounts of the life of infantry soldiers in the trenches and of the horrors of the Somme; but at the same time it meditates on any number of connections – echoes of conflict, from Troy to the struggles of the British against the Saxons in the 6th century to Malory’s Arthurian narratives, and, woven through it all, the founding act of bloodshed that is the death of Christ. Jones was raised an Anglican, but by the time he wrote In Parenthesis he was a Catholic, and believed passionately that the Church’s sacramental theology was what made sense of a world of symbolic connection, where nothing existed as an atom but where everything enriched the perception of everything else. For him, all art rested on the conviction that God had made a world of endless cross-reference, and that humanity was most fully human when it acknowledged this. Art was humanity doing what only humanity could do.

Thomas Dilworth’s welcome (and superbly produced) biography will clearly be the point of reference for Jones’s life for a long time to come. Dilworth has already written extensively about Jones, most recently a full and valuable account of the wartime years, and his research is exhaustive. He quietly corrects a number of errors in earlier biographical sketches and provides a wealth of detail at every stage – and he tells us that this substantial book is only part of a longer document that he intends to publish online. In all the detail, it is hard to pick out a single thesis; but in so far as there is one, it is that Jones is “the foremost native British modernist”, as Dilworth claims in his concluding paragraph.

This may sound strange, given what we know about “the Break”. But in fact, Jones himself believed that the modernist, post-impressionist aesthetic was a decisive break of its own kind – a break with representation as a sort of substitution, a recognition that a work of art is a thing in which something else is allowed to come to life, in a new medium: a picture is the scene or the human figure existing in the form of paint, as the Mass is the flesh of Jesus existing as bread. He insisted that his Catholic conversion began with his artistic conversion, and tried persistently, in his superb essays as well as his artistic output, to show what this meant.

The artistic conversion was dramatic enough. Dilworth reproduces some of the technically skilful and aesthetically awful work of Jones’s early art-school days, as well as some startling propaganda pictures from the war years: languishing virgins being threatened by hairy medieval Teutons, and so on. Jones needed to rediscover the extraordinary talent of his early childhood, when he produced sketches of a delicacy and vigour that foreshadow the very best of his mature work. Immediately after the war, back at the art school in Camberwell, he let his imagination be opened up by a variety of new impulses, ranging from El Greco to Samuel Palmer and Pierre Bonnard.

But Jones’s distinctive touch as an artist came to life when he threw in his lot with his fellow Catholic convert Eric Gill. He shared the life of the Gill family frequently for nearly a decade, in both Sussex and the Welsh borders, imbibing Gill’s distinctive artistic philosophy and gently but steadily distancing himself from it, and was for a while engaged to Gill’s second daughter, Petra. Gill mocked Jones for continuing to paint watercolours, insisting that carving and engraving were intrinsically more serious matters because of the manual work involved: watercolours were just decorative, the worst possible thing for a work of art to be, in his book. The Gill circle was a crucial stimulus for Jones, but ultimately one that allowed him to sharpen up his own understanding rather than adopt an orthodoxy. The watercolours, gouaches and engravings of the 1920s show a striking confidence. In 1928 he was nominated by Ben Nicholson for membership of the “7 & 5 Society”, probably the leading group of artistic innovators in 1920s Britain.

Jones’s acute and recurrent depression and worsening anxiety held back his output in the 1930s, though he struggled through to the completion of In Parenthesis. The later visual works – drawings, paintings, inscriptions – display an exceptional range of idioms and are increasingly characterised by abundant detail that is of filigree precision as well as unusual fluidity. There are religiously themed pictures: Vexilla Regis (1948), the great symbolic tree in the forests of post-Roman Britain standing for the cross as a sort of world-tree; the Welsh hill landscape framing the Annunciation in Y Cyfarchiad i Fair (1963), with its abundance of exquisitely observed small native birds. There are the “calix” paintings of glass vessels holding flowers, which deliver an effect of profound translucency. There are the inscriptions of Latin, Welsh and English texts, a unique corpus of work in which he defined a new approach to “monumental” lettering as an art form. These are perhaps the lasting legacy of his apprenticeship to Gill, yet they are anything but derivative.

In the middle of all this, in the postwar period, he continued to write, producing another unclassifiable poetic masterpiece, The Anathemata (1952), an exploration of both personal and cultural history, with the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday at the centre of everything. Other “fragments”, many of them very long, were worked on over years but never found their connecting thread; most of these were not published until after his death.

Dilworth provides a comprehensive account of Jones’s struggles with mental health. He was fortunate enough to find a sympathetic therapist who strongly encouraged him to keep working; but later on, a formidable regime of antidepressant and other drugs left him less able to focus – “groggy and slow”, as he said – and his productivity declined sharply. A temperamental indifference to social encounters combined with tormenting agoraphobia to make him ever more of a recluse in a succession of north London boarding houses and nursing homes until his death in 1974.

Yet his friendships were immensely important to him – friendships with members of the lively and critical world of Catholic artists in the 1920s, with younger artists and writers, to whom he was unfailingly generous, and with the two young women, Prudence Pelham and Valerie Wynne-Williams, who were the recipients of his strongest (but unconsummated) attachments. The breaking of his engagement to Petra Gill had been a great trauma, and his lifelong celibacy seems to have been the result both of this shock and of a deep-seated conviction that his artistic vocation could not accommodate ordinary family life.

He was a wonderful letter-writer; anyone wanting to get to know Jones should start with Dai Greatcoat, the selection from his letters published in 1980 by his friend René Hague (Gill’s son-in-law). Funny, ­affectionate, eccentrically learned, curious, irreverent and sad, they give a good sense of why Jones was so deeply loved by those who knew him. He viewed the world – and his own work and calling – with a gentle and vulnerable bafflement, but also with patience and humility. He seems to have had no malice in his make-up.

Dilworth does not, however, shirk the embarrassing fact that Jones expressed a measure of sympathy for Hitler in the 1930s. This should not be misunderstood. What Jones says is that, having read Mein Kampf, he feels it is almost right, but ruined by hatred and racial triumphalism. Hitler appears to him more appealing than most of his opponents, who represent international finance and impersonal bureaucracy, or Marxist collectivism. He later admits that he was simply wrong. But it is a revealing wrongness: he accepts at face value a rhetoric that opposes the market, and he seems to see Hitler’s passion and violence as at least a more honest response to national or global crisis than the “business as usual” of mainstream politicians. And how far are Hitler’s “opponents” being tacitly understood as the cosmopolitan financiers of anti-Semitic myth? Dilworth does not absolve Jones for dipping his toe into this swamp; but he does note that Jones was – more than many of his Catholic colleagues – intolerant of the anti-Semitism of much traditional Catholic thought and shocked by the persecution of the Jews in Germany. It is another sidelight on his fundamental artistic problem: a disgust with managerial, commodified mod­ernity that, in his case as in some others, can make a quite different anti-modernity, the fascist refusal of public reasoning and political pluralism, fleetingly attractive.

The other delicate issue that Dilworth handles carefully and candidly is whether Jones was aware that Eric Gill had sexually abused two of his daughters (including Petra). His conclusion is that it is very unlikely, and this is almost certainly right. And yet, looking at Jones’s haunting painting of 1924 The Garden Enclosed, with its depiction of himself and Petra embracing awkwardly, Petra apparently pushing him away, with a broken doll lying on the path behind her, it is hard not to believe that he intuited something deeply awry somewhere. The background presence of Gill’s omnivorous sexual appetite can hardly not have been a further complication in an already complicated relationship.

Jones’s reputation has probably never been higher. There have been several important exhibitions in recent years and Dilworth’s assessment of his standing among British modernists is increasingly shared. His thoughts as an essayist on theology as well as aesthetics have been increasingly influential. This biography is a landmark. It would be good if it stirred an interest not only in Jones as an artist and poet, but in the questions he faced about modernity: what happens to art in a culture where each thing is no more than itself, or its market price?

"David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet" by Thomas Dilworth is published by Jonathan Cape (432pp, £25)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution