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David Jones: Vision and Memory

David Jones: Vision and Memory

David Jones (1895-1974) was a poet, a painter, engraver, illustrator and craftsman; a name synonymous with the modernist era but remains too little known.

Vision and Memory, the current exhibition at the Djanogly Gallery, Nottingham’s Lakeside Arts, is a major exhibition organised to coincide with the publication of the new monograph of Jones’s work and marks the Battle of the Somme, in which Jones was seriously wounded. The exhibition is a partnership between Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, (where the exhibition was previously displayed) and Djanogly Gallery, having been organised by Amgueddfa Cymru, National Museum Wales, and includes works from both public and private collections such as the V&A and Tate. The Djanogly Gallery at Nottingham Lakeside Arts at the University of Nottingham seems an appropriate space to display Jones’s work, particularly in light of the University’s connections and promotion of another writer and artist associated with same movement, D. H. Lawrence. Lawrence and Jones were both painter-poets, born into the late nineteenth century, and would be writing within the new literary epoch of Modernism. Jones’s art and literary works, like Lawrence’s, display an interdisciplinary and continued interest in aesthetics, the Arts and Crafts movement, and in the past or mythology. In this respect, the exhibition places Jones alongside his contemporaries, such as T. S. Eliot and Eric Gill, exploring his response to the modern visual world and depicts how his work is informed by memory  and time, engaging imaginatively with myth and legend. He was also well regarded by his contemporaries, receiving praise from Eliot and critical acclaim from W. B. Yeats.


His literary works In Parenthesis and The Anathemata highlight, in particular, the modernist fascination with and quotation from myth and historical literature, as seen in Eliot’s The Waste Land; his illustrations for Eliot’s work feature within the exhibition, as does his use of quotes from James Joyce. David Jones produced mythological paintings, chiefly in watercolour, and his prose-verse poems In Parenthesis and The Anathemata evoke figures from Celtic myth and legend and from his Welsh heritage. In Parenthesis is prefaced with a quotation from ancient Welsh heroic epic and combines epic myth with the actuality of Jones’s own experiences of the First World War, following Private John Ball’s journey across the channel, to life in the trenches and the battle of the Somme. The Anathemata explores the idea of tradition, namely the roots of culture and origins that modern Britain neglected by evoking images of the history of culture and recovering artistic and literary heritage.


These themes run throughout the exhibition and are shown to be major inspirations that shape all his work. The layout of the exhibition traces the shaping and emergence of Jones’s artistic career, from a sketch of a lion at the age of seven, his studies at Camberwell art school, to his work in various mediums such as wood carvings, watercolours and copper engravings. The exhibition emphasises his distinctive style, use of watercolour and gouache, symbolism, and his influences; animals, Arthurian legends, Celtic myths, nature and religion. The pictures of cats, namely of leopards and a lynx, show a style and sparsity of colour that is reflective of their repressed energy and movement. Placed near to these pictures are Jones’s wood carvings and Christmas cards depicting the Nativity, highlighting his growing religious faith, and an oil self-portrait entitled ‘Human Being’, painted in later life and, again, reflects upon memory and time, with its childlike and youthful vision of the artist.


Throughout the exhibition are his watercolours of still life, seascapes, landscapes, portraits, and engravings of religious motifs and imagery such as the Noah’s Ark series and images of the Passion of Christ which are placed alongside each other. The collective presentation shows both modern inspirations, reminiscent of the Cubist style and use of rich colour in Cezanne’s paintings, and of the Romantic inspirations of William Blake, with the engravings that correspond to his poetry and paintings of religious and mythic subjects. The landscapes, and the ways in which these pictures are laid out, show his interest in illuminated manuscripts and are similar to the maps invoked in C. S. Lewis’s and J. R. R. Tolkien’s fantasy worlds. Jones’s interest in illuminated manuscripts, as with Lewis and Tolkien, reflect an interest in Pre-Raphaelitism, especially the Medievalism and Arthurian legends that are important to the ideals of artists and writers associated with the  Pre-Raphaelite movement, especially William Morris and John Ruskin.

The influence of Ruskin’s notion of medieval craftsmanship and workmanship was of importance to Morris’s Arts and Crafts movement. Morris’s Medievalism is apparent throughout his work, from the Arthurian legends of his poetry to the utopian visions inspired by ideals of medieval community and craftsmanship in works such as News from Nowhere and A Dream of John Ball.Morris’s medievalism evolves from Victorian fantasy and just as he uses myth and legend to comment upon Victorian social conditions, Jones also highlights historical and social conditions through use of the myth. Jones’s medievalism and inspiration from the Arts and Crafts extended to his art and in the 1920’s, he joined the small community of artists, the Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic at Ditchling, in Sussex, which was  based on the medieval guild, headed by craftsman Eric Gill (who featured as part of the National Portrait Gallery’s ‘Anarchy and Beauty’ exhibition about Morris’s legacy). Gill, influenced by the Arts and Crafts exhibition society and Arts Workers’ Guild, formed a religious community upon his conversion to Roman Catholicism, reflective of Jones’s own religious conversion to Catholicism and following of Gill’s community when he moved to Wales. Morris’s vision of productive and contented labour and his plight for the democracy of art were formative concepts to the Arts and Crafts movement. It was a community inspired from Morris’s ideals, which continued to be much alive in the troubled years that followed the First World War, as craftspeople struggled to negotiate a viable place in the modern world.

The exhibition features Jones’s portrait of Gill and also of Gill’s daughter, Petra, to whom Jones was engaged for two years. The surrounding pictures of cottages and still life arrangements of domesticity perhaps reflect upon the sense of life and contentment within the arts and crafts community. The final section of the exhibition focuses on Jones’s mythological  and legendry paintings, featuring watercolours of the Briar Cup and subjects such as Aphrodite, Guinevere and of Tristan and Isolde. Jones’s vision of the past and time, in this section, focuses upon his reaction to the First World War and his subsequent breakdown, and like the themes present in his poem The Anathemata, explores the notion of tradition and heritage at opposition with the modern world. The exhibition also featured some of Jones’s copper and wood engravings of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’sThe Rime of the Ancient Mariner and the Nottingham Lakeside Arts have displayed, as part of the exhibition of Jones’s work, pieces of work from graphic design students at Nottingham Trent University. The students work, inspired by Coleridge’s poem and by David Jones, includes book cover designs and artworks that individualistically and visually reinterpret Coleridge’s poem within a contemporary setting.

Vision and Memory provides a memorable exhibition of David Jones’s artwork, especially the selection and reassessment of his more well-known watercolour pictures and the important but lesser-known aspects of his artistic career. The exhibition traces the influences obvious to Jones but also focuses on how he makes these influences his own and utilises them to create his own unique style. The exhibition succeeds in bringing together his work and places him with his contemporaries, examining his influences and re-establishing his importance and centrality within modernist art. It creates an atmospheric setting in which to view his work and sheds new light upon his career; exhibiting the renewed and continuing interest in Jones’s work.

Hannah Comer, a Culture Syndicates CIC associate, is a PhD Candidate who has just completed her English Literature MA at the University of Nottingham.
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