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Left: “Self-portrait” (1928); right: the frontispiece from “In Parenthesis” (1936), both by David Jones (©The Estate Of David Jones)


Above my bedside table, the first thing I see in the morning is a David Jones woodcut, the second scene from The Chester Play of The Deluge (1927). An angel shows the plans for the ark to Noah. It’s God in Genesis, but Jones wanted an angel. Jones, a poet, painter and engraver, saw the moment as like the appearance of the Angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary. But if the Annunciation is a coup de grâce, the giving of the plans to Noah is a summons to work. The rest of the woodcut is hard graft. Hauling, hewing, sawing, planing. A compass and set-square lie ready by Noah’s feet for the tricky bits. Jones knew just how tricky.

As a young man in the army, in trenches at the Somme, Ypres and Passchendaele, he had been “grotesquely incompetent, a knocker-over of piles, a parade’s despair”. Later, an apprentice carpenter at Ditchling Common, the artistic commune presided over by Eric Gill, he was just as bad. He was abject at measurement and arithmetic, always using the wrong tool, and a turner of screws in the wrong direction. His favourite line of scripture was about the heavenly Jerusalem “built as a city strongly interjoined”. Unable ever to get the joins right, he gave up carpentry, but always admired the Noahs of the world.

He had worked on The Deluge through 1926, a year that had started with the Thames flood. In January, water filled the lower floor of the Tate where H.S. “Jim” Ede, assistant curator and a close friend of Jones, was keeping some of Jones’s watercolours — and 19,000 of Turner’s — safe. The ark-tight carpentry of the cabinets kept every last sheet dry. Jones himself was not in London, but at Capel-y-ffin in the Black Mountains, Gill’s new outpost, in a former Benedictine monastery halfway up its own Mount Ararat.

All of this — scripture, lessons in the wood workshop, the Tate flood, the mountains, the pouring Welsh rain — went into the ten woodcut scenes of The Deluge. Jones never made much distinction between what was mystical, mythical, biblical or historical, between the everyday and the numinous.

When his parents took him to the seaside at Deal as a small boy he had been pleased to think that this was where Caesar — whose life he knew from Stories from Ancient Rome in the Books for Bairns series — had landed. When he saw the body of a dead lieutenant at Fauquissart in 1916 the morning after a raid he was reminded of the bareheaded young squire in Uccello’s Battle of San Romano in the National Gallery. Later, in his fifties, the view from his Harrow boarding house over the bunkers of a derelict golf course reminded him of the shell holes of the Western front and the burial mounds of ancient chieftains.

He was apt to get his dates mixed up, often being out by centuries, sometimes millennia. In 1966, he dated a cheque “1066”. The Battle of Hastings was just as real and near to him as the demands of paying a bill.

This sense of a man unmoored in time is richly explored by Thomas Dilworth in his new biography. Dilworth sets out his stall in the preface. Jones’s poetry, he writes, is “unusual . . . generally regarded as difficult”.

I should confess some bias: I’m mad about Jones, but though I’ve been reading him and collecting, in a small way, his engravings and watercolours for ten years, there is much of his work that I don’t understand. The pleasure of Jones is in never catching him, of always seeing something new.

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