Thomas Dilworth, David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet (Jonathan Cape, £25.00).
When David Jones suggested that the engraver and painter Eric Gill had ‘a different kind of otherness’ he might quite easily have been writing about himself. As Thomas Dilworth’s subtitle suggests David Jones’ ‘otherness’ took many forms. Kenneth Clark called Jones the painter, ‘absolutely unique, a remarkable genius’; T.S. Eliot called Jones the writer, ‘one of the most distinguished writers of my generation’. And the encomia rolled in after the publication of his first book, In Parenthesis, often called the very best poem about the First World War, but sometimes called the very best book about the First World War.
Jones enlisted with the London-Welsh regiment in January 1915, and went on to take part in the Battle of the Somme. Although ‘a parade’s despair’, Dilworth concludes that, as a soldier, Jones became ‘canny, efficient, adept at survival’. In part, this was the result of Jones’ artistic abilities which got him assignments to go out at night and make maps of no-mans-land. But Jones was on the front line at the Somme, about which he commented as late as 1971, ‘my mind can’t be rid of it.’ Jones began In Parenthesis whilst laid up with flu in the spring of 1928. It began with some ‘little brief pieces of writing’ which accompanied drawings of infantrymen. What these brief pieces became is what Eliot called a representative of ‘early epic’, that is an oral epic in the way that the Odyssey is. In Parenthesis also reaches back and forth in history; because, as Jones puts it in the introduction, ‘at no time did one so much live with a consciousness of the past, the very remote, and the more immediate and trivial past, both superficially and more subtly.’ Dilworth recounts Jones meeting a ‘shit wallah’ carrying two full buckets. Jones commented to the man, ‘You’ve got a dirty, bloody job.’ To which the man replied, ‘Bloody job indeed. The army of Artaxerxes was utterly destroyed for lack of sanitation.’
Like Homer, Jones makes the characters in the poem live and move and have their being. Jones cares deeply about these men and their ‘intimate, continuing, domestic life’ and this care for such men often manifests itself in a tender particularising of death; ‘he sinks on one knee/ and now on the other,’/ his upper body tilts in rigid inclination/ this way and back.’ And part of Jones’ genius is not simply that he is a great poet of landscape and action; In Parenthesis was acknowledged by Herbert Read, who had also served in the First World War, as a chanson de gestes’ a song of deeds, ‘retaining all the authentic realism of the event.’ In In Parenthesis, Jones is a great poet of voices, not simply in the ventriloquizing of voices, although he does that. But Jones interweaves these voices into a mesmerising pattern. In The Sleeping Lord, the last collection Jones published in his lifetime, Jones created a series of poems in the voices of Roman soldiers living in Palestine.
David Jones was also an artist of the first rank. Kenneth Clark, who, in 1936, thought Jones ‘the most gifted of all the younger English painters; in the 1960s, called Jones the best living British painter. Jones entered the Camberwell School of Art when he was 14, in 1909, After the war, he went to the Westminster School of Art, and didn’t ‘leave’ until 1921, having effectively been told to leave by the principal, Walter Sickert. At this point, he joined the artist, Eric Gill, in the artistic community Gill had created in Ditchling in Sussex. This was a move which lead, in part at least, to Jones becoming a Catholic. Dilworth is very good at teasing out the intense and sometimes fraught relationship Jones had with Eric Gill; and, in turn, with Jones’ relationship with Gill’s daughter Petra, to whom he became engaged.
The reproductions of Jones’ drawings, etchings and paintings are one of the great pleasures of this book; and the delicacy of Jones’ work, along with the way in which he fills a space with density and detail make it difficult to reproduce well. The detail in his own pictures, Jones sometimes thought ‘literary’, and the pictures do sometimes need to be ‘read’. Dilworth writes well about the art, describing the pictures with great skill and sensitivity and showing exactly why Jones was not only technically very accomplished but was also a considerable innovator in his painting, with a Cezanne-like sense of the picture as an artefact.
Dilworth’s analysis of Jones’ psychological state has more mixed success. There were clearly sexual dilemmas in Jones’ life. He underwent what was clearly a traumatic circumcision at the age of 14. And his relationships with the women he obviously loved, Petra Gill and Prudence Pelham, and much later Valerie Price, were dogged with lack of sexual confidence. Jones finished the First World War with what we would now describe as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. And the climate for mental health at this period was not good; Eric Gill, for example, who was so important to Jones, thought Jones’ depressions were ‘moral failing’. However, there were those in Jones’ circle who were sympathetic, and who looked after him when the depression, which Jones nicknamed ‘Rosey’, struck. In the early part of the biography, Dilworth’s comments on Jones’ psychology do not always feel fully digested or integrated, and there are occasional moments of psychobabble. Dilworth analyses Jones’ psychology much more successfully when he is writing about the long hospitalisation Jones underwent in 1947. Here, Dilworth skilfully moves through both Jones diagnosis and treatments at the hands of the psychiatrist, Hugh Crichton-Miller, who founded the Tavistock Clinic. However, in the sixties, Jones was still suffering depressions and in the pharmacological climate of the time took a cocktail of drugs including Nembutal, Benzedrine, lithium and phenobarbitone.
In 1949, Jones started work on the long poem The Anathemata. This is a highly complex work, which even T.S. Eliot thought would only reveal its meaning on a third reading. Dilworth comments that its ‘subject…is Western culture’, and it is perhaps this huge subject, which hits the reader from the opening page, which makes the text seem forbidding. For Jones, the poem was about the ‘matter of Britain’ with a focus on Arthurian legend, but also on the Mass and the Eucharist. There are also copious notes, about which Jones himself was ambivalent. The Anathemata was published in 1952 to critical reception of deafening silence, or comments which simply aligned it with the modernisms of Joyce and Pound, whom Jones had not read. However, Joyce, and in particular the ‘Anna Livia Plurabelle’ section of Finnegans Wake, had been a touchstone for his writing ever since he had first come across it. Jones valued modernism for its sense of parataxis; that is the accretion of matter, without the connections necessarily being obvious. Jones did receive praise from Graham Greene and W.H. Auden. And Dylan Thomas, whom Jones met in March 1953, not long before Thomas’ death, commented, ‘I would like to have done anything as good as David Jones has done.’
In 1959, a selection of Jones’ essays and reviews were published under the title Epoch and Artist. The book includes ‘Art and Sacrament’, one of the most important statements on the nature of sacramental art to appear in the twentieth century. Kenneth Clark commented that he didn’t ‘know when [he had] had a book from which [he] had learned so much.’ On its republication in America, the book received a lengthy review in the New Yorker; whose critic, Harold Rosenberg, describes Jones as having produced ‘some of the most acutely relevant writing on contemporary form and value to have appeared in years.’ Yet all his life Jones lamented his not having gone to university.
Throughout this period too, Jones was painting and in this period produced the magnificent ‘Trystan ac Essyllt’ considered by many to be among his finest pictures. He was also working on his inscriptions, with their Latin, Greek or Welsh, which he viewed as having the advantage of being seen rather than merely read. Dilworth comments that Jones’ use of Chinese white to areas of the background causes the letters to ‘hover in three dimensional space’. In this area, too, Jones has been hugely influential; his lettering acting as a fore-runner for lettering as a contemporary art form.
In 1949, the ever-peripatetic Jones moved to the boarding house, Northwick Lodge in Harrow where he stayed for sixteen years. Northwick Lodge was representative of one of those early and mid-twentieth century institutions which, for mostly good reasons, have disappeared. Owned by Harrow School, it had an atmosphere of ‘shabby gentility’. Dilworth is good in describing Jones life there and the other residents, who ranged from ‘young men finishing professional studies’ to ‘single misfits’. Jones social circle, however, included his long-term friends and supports such as Tom Burns, Jim Ede, and two who went on to edit his writing, Rene Hague, and Harman Grisewood, and the radio producer, Douglas Cleverdon, as well as Eliot, Henry Moore, John Betjeman and others among the first ranks of the eminent cultural figures of the time. Jones was also befriended by Elizabeth, the Queen Mother who bought one of his pictures. And Jones was visited by Stravinsky, who wanted a libretto from him; from which Jones backed away.
Such social success did little or nothing for his finances. Jones lived in considerable penury, in part, because the sales of his paintings were usually in the hands of Rex Nan Kivell, who consistently refused to pass on moneys to Jones, and whom Dilworth describes as ‘not only a thief but also a fence.’ On a slightly more farcical level, but no less deleterious to Jones’ finances, was Faber’s failure to place his work on their poetry list until 1970; The Anathemata was placed in their ‘Autobiographies and Memoires’ category. Dilworth traces this misplacement back to T.S. Eliot himself. Jones was also unable to claim a state pension because when people came round to offer him one, he was unable to prove that he was Walter David Jones, which was, actually, his birth name. Jones also hated selling his pictures, and would often refuse to do so; he refused to sell the Queen Mother the painting she had really wanted. Dilworth notes that between 1944 and 1956, Jones had a yearly average of £105 in his bank. In the late sixties, however, Jones did finally achieve some financial stability.
Dilworth comments, in the sixties, that the ‘drugs all but ended his creative life’. And also by Jones having to leave Northwick Lodge, which was subsequently demolished. However, as Dilworth himself proves, this ending is not entirely true. Taken up by William Cookson who founded the poetry magazine, Agenda, Jones produced, ‘The Fatigue’ based on the thieves at the Crucifixion, and ‘The Hunt’ based on Arthurian legend, ‘The Tribune’s Visitation’, along with the piercing ‘A, a, a domine deus’ which laments the indiscriminate effects of technology. These were all collected with others of his mid-length poems into his final poetry collection, The Sleeping Lord, published in 1974; writings, which Dilworth suggests, emerged when Jones was actually not taking his drugs. But the sixties, were a time of huge personal losses to him. One of which was the loss of the Latin Tridentine mass in the Catholic liturgy. Others were of friends, including T.S. Eliot, in 1965, and his friend and patron, Helen Sutherland, in 1966. And much of the time his agoraphobia stopping him going out.
In March, 1970, Jones fell in his room, breaking the ball of his femur. In June, he moved into the Calvary Nursing home in Sudbury Hill, run by the Little Company of Mary, and where he stayed for the rest of his life. In May, 1974, Jones became a Companion of Honour. He died in November, 1974.
Thomas Dilworth’s biography, a long labour of love from the foremost Jones scholar of our time, is unlikely to be superseded. The portrait that emerges is one of a clearly complex man, who was an autodidact of extraordinary range and depth, one of the very greatest artists and writers of the twentieth century, but who was also deeply loved and respected by all who came into contact with him.