David Jones was one of the most outstanding writers and artists of his day. Chiefly known for his engravings in wood and metal, he was also a watercolourist and celebrated modernist poet whose written work was hailed by the likes of Eliot and Auden as the product of a hidden literary genius.
With the huge success of a Pallant House Gallery’s autumn exhibition and a major new book on Jones published by Lund Humphries in recent years, his art has seen a recent surge of public interest.
portrait of David Jones (left); wood engraving featuring Jones and a young boy flying on Pegasus through the clouds (right)
Born in 1895 in south London, Jones’ considerable early artistic talents meant that he was allowed to leave school to begin studying at the Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts when he was 14. With the sudden outbreak of the First World War he enlisted as a private in the Royal Welch Fusiliers in 1915. Jones fought in the trenches for a full 3 years whilst writing his first prose-poem In Parenthesis, later celebrated by T.S. Eliot as a modern day masterpiece.
Time spent at the Western Front and in the heart of the conflict was to have a profound effect on the symbolism of his later work, alongside his Welsh heritage and his deeply felt spirituality. After the war Jones studied briefly at the Westminster School of Art under the tutelage of British artists Walter Bayes, Bernard Meninsky and Walter Sickert before converting to Roman Catholicism and leaving London to work under the infamous engraver and stone carver Eric Gill.
Jones first joined Gill and his community at Ditchling in 1921, becoming a member of the Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic. The commune aimed to combine domestic life, the labours of arts and crafts, and spiritual faith in a single location, a garden of paradise established in reaction to the industrial slaughter and the mechanization of man that the recent war had come to represent. While Jones’ style remained thoroughly his own, Gill offered guidance on the techniques of engraving in wood and copper that proved instrumental in the creation of the more conceptually advanced prints of his later years.
When Gill left Ditchling for the Welsh village of Capel-y-ffin in 1924, Jones followed him, continually refined his engraving methods and developing an ever clearer artistic style and vision. Religious imagery became a major recurring theme of his work, as did typography and lettering, indebted to Gill but far softer, looser and more lyrical in appearance.
For a time he was also engaged to one of Gill’s daughters; though by 1927 the relationship was over (and he would never later marry), it has been suggested by commentators that her distinctive willowy features may have inspired many of the female figures in Jones’ prints.
Jones was best known for his wood and copper engravings, methods he excelled in and a number of which were produced for The Golden Cockerel Press (whose very own cockerel design he carved). Typified by mystical and religious imagery, his work amalgamated sacred and mythological symbols to great effect.
(above) ‘Life in Death’ from David Jones’ copper engravings of ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’; (below) engravings from the same suite showing the stricken bird in ‘The Albatross’ (left) and the fated crew in ‘The Death Fires’ (right)
Best celebrated are his many religious wood engravings, his illustrations for Gulliver’s Travels, and his copper engravings made for the 1929 edition of Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, widely considered his most visionary work in the medium.
‘powerful symbolism and spirituality…’ – ‘Unicorn and Broken Column’
After the publication of his last great written work The Anathemata in 1952, Jones was made CBE in 1955 and continued to make art until his death in 1974. Acclaimed by Sir Kenneth Clark as absolutely unique – a remarkable genius, he produced images of powerful symbolism and spirituality. Overshadowed in the past by Gill’s notorious legacy, his immense body of work has since received the critical attention it deserves.