David Jones (artist-poet)

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David Jones
David Jones (artist, poet).jpg
David Jones
Born Walter David Michael Jones
(1895-11-01)1 November 1895
Brockley, Kent, England
Died 28 October 1974(1974-10-28) (aged 78)
Harrow, Middlesex, England
Occupation Poet, Artist, Essayist, Critic
Literary movement Modernism
Notable works In Parenthesis (poem), Cara Wallia Derelicta (inscription)
Notable awards Order of the Companions of Honour

Walter David Jones CH, CBE (known as David Jones, 1 November 1895 – 28 October 1974) was both a painter and one of the first-generation British modernist poets. As a painter he worked chiefly in watercolour, painting portraits and animal, landscape, legendary and religious subjects. He was also a wood-engraver and designer of inscriptions. As a writer he was considered by T. S. Eliot to be of major importance, and his The Anathemata was considered by W. H. Auden to be the best long poem written in English in the twentieth century. His Christian beliefs and Welsh heritage helped form his work.


Jones was born on 1 November 1895 in Arabin Road, Brockley, Kent, now a suburb of South East London, and later lived in nearby Howson Road. His father, James Jones, had been born in Flintshire in north Wales, to a Welsh-speaking family but was discouraged from speaking Welsh by his father, who, in common with many Welsh-speaking parents of the time, believed that habitual use of the language might hold his child back in his career. James Jones had moved to London to work as a printer's overseer for the Christian Herald Press, and it was here that he had met his wife, Alice, a Londoner born and bred. They had three children: Harold (who died at nineteen of tuberculosis), Alice, and David.

Jones exhibited artistic promise at an early age, even entering his drawings into exhibitions of children's artwork. He wrote that from the age of six he knew that he would devote his life to art. In 1909, at fourteen, he persuaded his parents to allow him to abandon traditional education for art school and entered the Camberwell Art School. There he studied under A.S. Hartrick, who had worked with Van Gogh and Gauguin, Reginald Savage and Herbert Cole, and who introduced him to the work of the Impressionists and Pre-Raphaelites.

With the outbreak of the First World War, Jones enlisted with the Royal Welch Fusiliers and served on the Western Front from 1915 to 1918 with the 38th (Welsh) Division. He served longer at the front than any other British war writer. His experiences in the trenches were to prove important in his later painting and poetry, especially his involvement in the fight at Mametz Wood.

In 1919 he won a Government grant to study again at Camberwell Art School, from which he followed its headmaster, Walter Bayes, to the Westminster School of Art in central London, where he studied under Bayes and Bernard Meninsky.

In 1921 he became a Roman Catholic. In 1922 he joined Eric Gill's Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic at Ditchling, Sussex, but not as a guild member. There Desmond Chute taught him to engrave in wood. In 1923 he first worked as an illustrator, for The Game published by Gill and H. Pepler. He returned to London in 1924, but in 1925 often visited Gill at Capel-y-ffin and the Benedictines at Caldey Island, and in the same year did illustrations for Gulliver's Travels for the Golden Cockerel Press.

In 1927 Jones returned to live full-time with his parents at Brockley, and also spent time on the coast at Portslade near Hove. That year he exhibited seascapes and drawings of Wales at the St George's gallery. He also joined the Society of Wood Engravers.

In 1929 he exhibited at the Goupil gallery, including watercolor landscapes of France. From 1928 to 1935 he was a member of the Seven and Five Society.

In 1933 he suffered a severe nervous breakdown.

His works were shown at Chicago in 1933, the Venice Biennale in 1934 and the World's Fair, New York, in 1939. In 1937 he published his long narrative, In Parenthesis, an epic poem based on his first seven months in the trenches. The following year it won the Hawthornden Prize, at the time the only important British literary award.

In 1944 an exhibition of his work toured Britain.

In 1947 he suffered a second severe nervous breakdown.

Evan Jenkins and David Jones discuss their rhymes in the workshop of a shoemaker (1959)

In 1952 he published The Anathemata, a dramatic-symbolic anatomy of Western culture.

In 1954 an Arts Council exhibition of his work toured Britain, visiting Aberystwyth, Cardiff, Swansea, Edinburgh and London (Tate Gallery).

In 1974 he published The Sleeping Lord, a collection of mid-length poems.

He died in Harrow, Middlesex, in 1974. His grave can be found in Brockley and Ladywell Cemeteries, Lewisham, SE13, near Brockley.


After the war, Jones entered the Westminster School of Art, where he developed an interest in Post-Impressionism and studied under the British artist Walter Sickert, among other influential teachers. He also became increasingly attracted by Roman Catholicism, and in 1921 he converted, choosing "Michael" as his confirmation name. The priest who received Jones into the Church, Father John O'Connor (in fact the model for G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown character), suggested that he contact the Catholic artist Eric Gill. Gill ran the Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic, based on the medieval guild model, in Ditchling, Sussex. Jones joined the guild and learned wood and copper engraving as well as experimenting with wood carving. Jones soon began producing book illustrations for the St. Dominic's Press, and he would later illustrate for The Golden Cockerel Press, for which he engraved the Cockerel itself in 1925.

Gill split with the Guild of SS. Joseph and Dominic and moved with his family and some followers to Capel-y-ffin in southern Wales, to pursue a rural way of life. Jones spent much of the years 1924 to 1927 visiting the Gills and assorted hangers-on in a rambling former monastery there. He had already become engaged to Gill's middle daughter, Petra, whose long neck and high forehead continued as standard female features in Jones's artwork for the rest of his career, even though his engagement to her ended in 1927. Jones continued living in his family home in Brockley until the mid-1930s and some of his paintings depict the house and garden.

Jones's major illustrated books include wood engravings produced for editions of The Book of Jonah, The Chester Play Of The Deluge, Aesop's Fables and Gulliver's Travels as well as for a Welsh translation of the Book of Ecclesiastes, Llyfr y Pregethwr. He produced an important group of copperplate engravings for an edition of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. He also executed commissions for one-off engravings such as his illustration for T. S. Eliot's The Cultivation of Christmas Trees.

He professed great disappointment in the way that his illustrations for Gulliver's Travels had been subsequently hand-coloured by art students, and complained about the too-light reproduction of the wood engravings for The Chester Play of The Deluge. But he gave up engraving because of eye strain.

As a painter, his style changed over time from more free water colour landscapes, still lifes, and portraits to a unique mixture of pencil and water colour resulting in dense and busy works full of symbolism. His best-known paintings include early seascapes such as "Manawydan's Glass Door" and later works on legendary subjects, such as Trystan ac Esyllt (Tristan and Iseult).

He is also much admired for a genre that he invented later in life, which he termed "painted inscriptions", and these exert a continuing influence on calligraphers.


Although he had been trying to write about his wartime experiences since 1928, it was not until 1937 that Jones published his first literary effort. In Parenthesis, which was published by Faber and Faber with an introduction (in 1961) by T. S. Eliot, is a mixture of verse and prose-lines but the rich language establishes it as poetry, which is what Jones himself considered it. Jones's literary debut won praise from critics and from fellow-poets such as Eliot and W.B. Yeats, as well as garnering the Hawthornden Prize in the following year. Jones's style can be described as High Modernism; the poem draws on literary influences from the 6th-century Welsh epic Y Gododdin to Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur to the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Anabase by St. John Perse (translated by Eliot) to try to make sense of the carnage he witnessed in the trenches. An extract from In Parenthesis read by Jones himself in 1967 appears on the audiobook CD Artists Rifles.

His next book, The Anathemata, appeared in 1952 (again published by Faber). Inspired in part by a visit to Palestine during which he was struck by the historic parallels between the British and Roman occupations of the region, the book draws on materials from early British history and mythology and the history and myths of the Mediterranean region. The poem received largely positive reviews and was acclaimed by writers such as Herbert Read, W. H. Auden, Kathleen Raine and William Carlos Williams. Douglas Cleverdon produced dramatised readings of In Parenthesis and The Anathemata for the BBC Third Programme.

Until 1960 Jones worked on a long poem, of which The Anathemata was intended to form part. Sections of the work were published mainly in the magazine Agenda, and in 1974 were published as The Sleeping Lord and Other Fragments (again under Faber's auspices). A posthumous volume of previously-unseen materials was edited by Harman Grisewood and René Hague and published by Agenda Editions as The Roman Quarry.

On 11 November 1985 Jones was among sixteen Great War poets commemorated on a slate stone unveiled in Westminster Abbey's Poet's Corner.[1] The inscription on the stone was written by a fellow Great War poet, Wilfred Owen. It reads: "My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity."[2]

In 2002 the text of three short poems was published for the first time in Wedding Poems, edited by Thomas Dilworth. Two of these poems ("Prothalamion" and "Epithalamion", amounting to 271 lines) had been written while Jones was living in London during the Blitz, for the marriage of Harman Grisewood to Margaret Bailey. The third poem, "The Brenner" (24 lines), had been written on 18 March 1940 to mark the meeting of Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler on the Brenner Pass. According to their editor publication of these poems brought into print "all the known completed poetry by David Jones".


Jones wrote a number of essays on art, literature, religion and history. He wrote introductions for a few books such as a new edition of George Borrow's Wild Wales; he gave radio talks on the BBC Third Programme; he even tried his hand at an extended consideration of Coleridge's poem for a reprinting of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner featuring his own introduction and illustrations with a series of copper engravings. His essays were published in two collections, Epoch and Artist (Faber, 1959) and The Dying Gaul — another posthumous volume edited by a close friend and published by Faber in 1978. The most thorough exposition of David Jones's views on aesthetics and culture is his essay, "Art and Sacrament" (included in Epoch and Artist), which explores the meaning of signs and symbols in everyday life, relates them to Roman Catholic teachings such as the dogma of transubstantiation, and argues that human beings are the only animals which create "gratuitous" works, thus making them creators analogous to God. The best summary of these views is his short essay "Use and Sign" (in The Dying Gaul).

See also[edit]


Further reading[edit]

  • David Jones, Paul Hills (Editor), Tate Gallery, 1971.
  • The Engravings of David Jones: A Survey, Douglas Cleverdon, Clover Hill Editions, 1981.
  • Dai Greatcoat, a self-portrait of David Jones in his letters, Rene Hague (editor), Faber, 1980.
  • David Jones: The Maker Unmade, Jonathan Miles and Derek Shiel, Seren, 1995.
  • The Long Conversation, a Memoir of David Jones, William Blissett, Oxford, 1981.
  • The Art of David Jones: Vision and Memory, Ariane Bankes and Paul Hills, Lund Humphries, 2015.

External links[edit]