That our culture has accelerated every line of advance into the territory of physical science is well appreciated – but not so well understood are the unforeseen, subsidiary effects of this achievement. We stroke cats, pluck flowers, tie ribands, assist at the manual acts of religion, make some kind of love, write poems, paint pictures, are generally at one with that creaturely world inherited from our remote beginnings. Our perception of many things is heightened and clarified. Yet must we do the gas-drill, be attuned to many newfangled technicalities, respond to increasingly exacting mechanical devices; some fascinating and compelling, others sinister in the extreme; all requiring a new and strange direction of the mind, a new sensitivity certainly, but at a considerable cost.
David Jones, In Parenthesis (1937; rpt. London: Faber, 1963), p. xiv.
In Parenthesis (1937) was David Jones’s first and perhaps greatest book, it made his name as a writer: a hard-to-classify modernist prose-poem distilling and mythologising his experiences during the First World War.
Before that book made his reputation, however, David Jones was already an artist. He specialised in watercolours; some had an almost faux-naif simplicity, while others, especially in his later years, were crammed to the point of destruction with tiny details drawn from a complex symbolic language of his private inner world.
What concerns him is the universal thing showing through the particular thing, and as a painter it is this showing through that he endeavours to capture. The eye sees particular things, but the man’s delight in the physical vision is checked by the mind’s apprehension informing it.
Eric Gill writing in the earliest essay on Jones in 1930
His creative life was largely determined by two experiences. During World War I he served on the Western Front, an event that he regarded as epic and imbued with religious, moral and mythic overtones, in which Divine Grace manifested a continual presence. The second experience was his conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1921. And therein lies both the fascination, and the daunting difficulty, of David Jones’s work. Everything he saw, and everything he read, was put to work; everything found its place in the great myth-system that was constantly evolving in his head. Even the smallest personal experiences could speak to him of world history, mythology and religion.
He took no real interest in the present: when he looked at the present, it was in order to see through it, into the distant past […] he was a sort of aesthetic autodidact, not so much a thinker as a maker of patterns with ideas
Noel Malcolm, writing in The Telegraph in 2003
What this means is that Jones’s art is both intensely symbolic and autobiographical – not in the sense that it tells the story of his life, but insofar as it relates to and reveals his own particular experiences and obsessions – Celtic mythology, Arthurian legend, conversion to Catholicism, the framing views from windows, Roman history, words…
My ‘method’ is merely to arse around with such words as are available to me until the passage in question takes on something of the shape I think it requires and evokes the image I want. I find, or think I find, the process almost identical to what one tries to do in painting’ and drawing’. Having tried, to the best of one’s powers, to make the lines, smudges, colours, opacities, translucencies, tightnesses, hardnesses, pencil marks, paint marks, chalk marks, spit-marks, thumb marks, etc. evoke the image one requires as poss. one only hopes that some other chap, someone looking at the picture may recognise the image intended.
David Jones talking to Desmond Chute in 1952, from p44 ‘David Jones’ by Paul Hills 1981