A Holy Man In Harrow

The life of the poet and artist David Jones

Books
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.

Dilworth tells the story of Jones going to visit Hilda Cochrane, who had bought his painting Sunday Mass: In Homage to G.M. Hopkins (1948) some years before, and asking her: “Do you like the bird?” She replied: “What bird?” There is indeed a tiny bird tangled in the hair of the woman in the background. I don’t know if I’d have seen it, certainly not in reproduction on the page, without Dilworth to point it out.

Dilworth, a Professor of English, has been writing on Jones for 40 years. He is an expert teaser of meaning from Jones’s elusive, allusive art. The poet once said that he was going to start signing his letters “The not understood D.J.” He wouldn’t have liked dumbing down or making history “accessible”.

He was bemused when readers were stumped by his two epic book-length poems In Parenthesis — about the First World War and all foot soldiers through history — and The Anathemata — an “Argosy” of civilisation from the Stone Age to the modern day. Why didn’t they get it? The man who cleaned his room in Harrow, Jones said, claimed “he can’t understand it! It’s as plain as a pikestaff.”

The problem was not one of schooling but of reading. One of Jones’s regrets was that he had had no proper academic education. He attended Brockley Road School, then at 13, the London County Council School of Arts and Crafts in Camberwell, and after the war, Westminster School of Art. In the army, his colonel thought he might be officer material, being well-spoken — his father was a printers’ overseer for the Christian Herald — and an able drawer of maps. Colonel Bell asked: “What is your school?” Jones replied: “Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts.” “Oh,” said Bell and that was that.

Jones had an education of a different sort. Dilworth is particularly good when tracing the books, poems and half-remembered songs that Jones had read or heard and what he took from each. In infancy, the cries of “Lavender, sweet lavender” from the sellers outside his window, the nursery rhymes sung by his mother, “Three Blind Mice”, “Johnny’s So Long at the Fair”, “Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush”, and the Bible and Book of Common Prayer read aloud by his father. At primary school it was Kipling, patriotic tales of Nelson from the Union-Jack Library, and Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome. “Doggerel,” said Jones, but “one never gets rid of these Roman things.” He used to recite them to calm his nerves on night sentry duty in France.

He later read Bede, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the Welsh tales of The Mabinogion, The Song of Roland, Chaucer, Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, Shakespeare, Milton, Gibbon, Coleridge, Robert Browning, William Morris, Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear’s The Dong With the Luminous Nose.  He identified with the Dong, who was unlucky in love:
 

     Long years ago
     The Dong was happy and gay,
Till he fell in love with a Jumbly Girl
     Who came to those shores one day.
 

Jones never married. There was a short-lived engagement to Petra Gill, daughter of Eric, and passions for Lady Prudence Pelham and Valerie Price, both of whom he painted. (Price he imagined as the Rokeby Venus, naked and gazing into a mirror, and hung the painting above his bed.) There may have been some sexual difficulty — “poor old hair-trigger Jones,” he said — but more likely extreme unease with his “physically feeble” body and unsettled mind. After the war, he suffered something like shellshock or neurasthenia for the rest of his life: “My mind can’t be rid of it.” Intense periods of work brought on nervous breakdowns and long depressions. He converted to Catholicism and cultivated a spiritual dedication to art and rejection of physical life.

He resented the intrusions of the modern world. Nothing was as good as it used to be, not even pudding basins: “They’re so shallow. The bloody sods will not make the things properly. It represents cultural decline.” Since he couldn’t cook, he must have used them for his distinctive haircuts.

Much of the “impedimenta” of modern life was “mediocre, shoddy and slick”. He had misgivings about abstract art for similar reasons: it had lost all “creatureliness” and with it everything human.

Previous biographers have made Jones a hermit. Dilworth reminds us that when he was on form he was a joy: chatty, funny, rude, breaking into bits of Cockney slang learnt from his father’s print compositors and Tommies in the trenches. (He had to read poetry in secret, because the Cockneys in the battalion thought poems were for sissies.)

He could talk for an hour on the telephone about Welsh missionary monks in the fifth century, and also pass the railway station at Lucker and say: “Christ, what a temptation to alter the signs by night.”

Dilworth reminds us of his friendships with the great and the generous. Jones was always hard up, keeping his trousers together with safety pins and wearing his coat in bed. Jim Ede and Kenneth Clark organised subscriptions and pensions. Harman Grisewood, who developed the BBC’s Third Programme, and Tom Burns, editor of the Tablet, indulged and encouraged him. He was fond of Eric Ravilious, Stanley Spencer, Evelyn Waugh and T.S. Eliot, who published his poems at Faber. Anyone he really liked he called a “chap” — there was no higher term of praise.

In 1941, he took tea with the Queen, who had read In Parenthesis and later bought one of his paintings for £30. When her daughter created Jones CBE in 1955, he told her: “I write the sort of books your mother reads.” (Privately, he said that Elizabeth II had “the taste of a naval officer’s wife”.)

He was pally with Clarissa Eden and gave her a copy of In Parenthesis, which Anthony read in bed in Downing Street. Igor Stravinsky came to see Jones in Harrow, arriving in a black limousine, to ask if he would write the libretto to an opera. Stravinsky said it was “like visiting a holy man in his cell”.

There was something other-worldly about Jones and Dilworth draws out his oddness and visionary intelligence in this moving biography. One wants to add a last marker to the title: David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet . . . Chap.