The art of David Jones

David Jones (1895-1974) was one of those I was in awe of back in the day when I was first trying to make sense of poetry (I'm still trying). In particular, his book-length poems, or fragmented wholes, In Parenthesis and The Anathémata, inhabited the same mysterious country as the Cantos or the Maximus Poems: long works, poems that "included history" that I couldn't really understand but somehow connected with in disconnected ways.

Not too many of my contemporaries were even attempting such vast syntheses of language, form and culture, Allen Fisher being one notable exception.

What I identified with in Jones was his insistence on the materiality of language and all its associations; as he wrote in the preface to The Anathémata: "But, for the poet, the woof and warp, the texture, feel, ethos, the whole matière comprising that complex comprises also, or in part comprises, the actual material of his art."

Jones was, of course, not only one of the major British poets of the twentieth century, but made a triple mark: simultaneously, as a painter (notable mainly as an unparallelled watercolourist), and thirdly as a graphic artist, particularlty as a wood engraver. In other words, he emulates Blake. But I didn't really know his visual work so well, and it has to be said his watercolours in particular do not come across terribly successfully in the sub-standard reproductions that were all I had access to for a long while.

The major exhibition, The Art of David Jones: Vision and Memory at the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester (the first such since the Tate in 1981), was a chance for me to further my education in this regard.

Functioning as a taster or hors-d'oeuvre for this is a smaller show of paintings, drawings and prints at the Ditchling Museum of Art & Craft, The Animals of David Jones. And as this was on the route to Chichester, we called in, turning off the A27 just past Falmer. The road climbs to the height marked by Ditchling Beacon and then descends through woodland opening on to sheep pastures. I've never experienced that wonderful view of the Downs, veiled though it was in mist – it felt like a different world from the Sussex I've inhabited for the past eleven years.

Ditchling is the village where Jones spent four formative years of his life in the early 1920s with his mentor, the sculptor and engraver Eric Gill, and the museum there, a modest, modern building next to the churchyard, is dedicated to the furtherance of the traditions established then. I don't go much on the Anglo-Catholic ethos myself, but that insistence on materiality starts here. Eric Gill's rediscovery of the technique of "direct carving" (as opposed to making moulds or models, the final objects to be manufactured by technicians) had an immediate effect on the likes of Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, and, I think, on Jones' approach to writing too, which came much later in life than his visual work.

Jones' evocations of the natural world begin with amazingly mature drawings of a bear and a lion done when he was seven years old. He was a precocious artist already at a time when he was struggling to learn to read.

But as I said, this was just a taster, and the exhibition in Chichester is much vaster and more comprehensive. Comprising more than 80 works in all media, it spans his entire life as an artist. Most impressive for me were the large paintings, mainly watercolours. "Watercolour" may evoke tasteful, wispy scenes or decorative pictures of flower vases, but these are something else, especially when experienced close up. Ranging from the early, intricate, complex landscapes to the later mythological subjects of the 1940s and after, including the magnificently mysterious "Guinever", "Trystan ac Essylt" and "Vexilla Regis", and still-lifes with compressed religious symbolism, they have few parallels in the work of any other artist.

Also shown are many examples of his engraving, including book illustrations. And those inscriptions, comprising Latin, Greek, French, Anglo-Saxon and English text, where he seems to be encoding the entirety of Western Christian and pagan civilisation. I had never realised these were actual paintings too, the distinctive lettering often done in watercolour on a background of Chinese white.

The catalogue, published by the gallery in a handsome large-format paperback with excellent reproductions, is pretty well indispensable if you're interested.

On our return to Hastings, we called in at the Arundel Wetland Centre, where there were numerous ducks and geese. It was quiet, and the mistiness of the previous day had lifted. The two of us were the only customers on the boat ride at noon, drifting calmly along the glassy water between reed and sedge banks and those species of tree that tolerate having their roots in water. Our boatman, who said he was born in Hastings, told us the term for the intermediate stage where woodland starts to reclaim marsh is a "carr" (surviving as surname or place name). Exotic ducks were mostly absent here: just groups of mallards, the drakes outnumbering the females and starting to look edgy. In the now blue sky above wheeled two buzzards. But cloud was beginning to bunch up from the west again as dusk approached. It had been a satisfying two days.

The Animals of David Jones is at Ditchling Museum of Art & Craft until 6 March 2016
The Art of David Jones: Vision and Memory is at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, until 21 February 2016


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