The practical yet mystical magic of David Jones

The man who an early art teacher said "leaves everything out except the magic" is captured by two Sussex exhibitions.

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One of David Jones’s art teachers ­spotted early what made his pupil so distinctive. “Look at that,” he instructed the class. “Jones leaves out everything except the magic.” The magic in Jones’s work is twofold. There is his interest in myth, symbol and a high strain of Catholicism; and there is the magic of his watercolours and etching tools depicting or creating places that even when real are still other-worldly.

Jones (1895-1974) saw himself as more of a maker than an artist. As an acolyte of Eric Gill and from 1922 a member of his community of Catholic craftsmen in Ditchling, Sussex, he relished manual facility when combined with seriousness of purpose. Jones was a poet, painter, engraver and calligrapher and excelled in each discipline. Although in 1936 Kenneth Clark called him “the most gifted of all the young British painters”, Jones’s mysticism has subsequently led him to be regarded as a difficult artist. He stands very much in the tradition of William Blake and, like that of his Romantic forebear, his work is indeed sometimes impenetrable but it is always intriguing and invariably beautiful.

The conviction that drove his art was his belief in “the inward continuities” of time and place. It accounts for the timelessness of his work and why, for him, there was nothing incongruous about depicting a huge tree outside his window in Harrow as a symbol both of the tree of life and of the cross; or a still life of a cluster of flowers in a cup with a bramble stem recalling both the briar rose of Arthurian legend and the crown of thorns. Animals also feature everywhere: cats (from domestic tabbies to lions and lynxes), elephants, deer and birds were for Jones not just inhabitants of the living world but survivors from early history that would live on after man.

Jones’s work is being celebrated in two exhibitions in Sussex, at the underrated Pallant House Gallery in Chichester and at the beautifully revamped Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft. The shows bring together 120 of his works for an important reappraisal of his status. They mark, too, the centenary of his time serving on the Western Front, where, although he was wounded at the Somme, he served for three years – longer than any other major First World War poet.

The war was another of his “continuities”, with the common soldier (Jones refused to become an officer because he wasn’t “that sort of person”), a figure threaded through history and a witness to war’s glory and its degradation. He would not only draw fellow Tommies in the trenches but imagine them playing dice at the foot of the cross or, in a grove of columns, wooing Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Jones’s great war poem In Parenthesis is told through the person of just such a foot soldier, Private Ball, and it was revising the poem in 1932 that led to the first of his two major nervous breakdowns.

Although he is sometimes described as a modernist, what marks his art is less a style than a lack of heft. “I don’t care how static the subject is,” he wrote, “but it must be fluid in some way or other.” He did this in part by using watercolour relatively sparingly and by refusing to let the eye settle. He showed scenes as glimpses, as in Doors of Glass (1931), a seascape seen through French windows where the only things in focus are the door latches and a boat out at sea. The rest, inside and out, is treated with the same just-there touches. It is as if Jones was wary of making too strong a mark. It gives even the most stable subject – a still life; Pigotts, Gill’s house in Buckinghamshire; a portrait of a muse such as Gill’s daughter Petra, to whom Jones was briefly engaged – a blustery skittishness.

His line was necessarily more firmly anchored in his engravings – for The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, or the Book of Jonah. Even then, he patterned plate or woodblock to give a sense of incessant movement. The same is true of the beautiful small exercises in free-form calligraphy he made from the 1940s as gifts for friends: while the letters adhere to a baseline, it is a rippling one of his own devising.

It is this evanescence, or transience, that gives his work its dreamlike quality. Jones was a gregarious man who, mystic or not, came alive in company. When he dreamed, though, he roamed widely and when his imaginings emerged pictorially they, like Blake’s, encompassed both complex allegories and visions that can be touchingly simple and sweet.

David Jones: Vision and Memory is showing now at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester.

The Animals of David Jones is showing at the Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft, West Sussex.

Michael Prodger is Reviews Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 03 December 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Syria and the impossible war