David Jones at Campion Hall

A variety of themes informed Jones’ work both as poet and artist. They include the life of frontline soldiers in the Great War, which he had personally experienced, the archaeology and mythology of Britain, particularly legends associated with Wales and the Arthurian cycle, and the sacramental nature of art as exemplified by the Catholic Mass. All of these themes interact through his entire oeuvre, and are represented in a range of his work on paper at Campion Hall, mostly donated by Jones himself. Most of his gifts are engravings, though one is an original ink and pencil drawing. Jones first met Martin D’Arcy at Ditchling in 1921, and from 1922, was a visitor to Campion Hall, then still in St Giles. He very much liked D’Arcy, of whom he said, ‘he has a most attractive and lively mind & is the most loveable of persons’.[1]He visited the Hall on a number of occasions, the last of which was in 1939. 

The suite of Jones’s engravings which hangs outside the Common Room was completed in January 1929. They were originally made for a private press edition of Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, printed by Douglas Cleverdon for the Fanfare Press, Bristol in a limited edition of only 470 copies. Additionally, Jones himself made an edition of thirty sets of the prints, unique in that he himself chose paper and ink, inked and wiped the plates, and pulled the prints. 

Although he loved The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, since he and Coleridge shared a powerfully associative habit of mind, Jones was in two minds about taking on the commission. As he recalled in an essay on this project written many years later, he felt ‘pleasure in being given the chance to illustrate a work very congenial to me…. but also a painful awareness of inadequacy in carrying out the job. He was worried about his own technical limitations in cutting metal plates, which the publisher had decided on. He wrote, tentatively to Cleverdon, ‘I suppose the Ancient Mariner must be copper? not wood. I believe I am better at wood— however—’But copper it was. This choice of medium created problems for Cleverdon himself, as Jones recalled in a letter he wrote to Kenneth Clark in 1964, ‘it was quite a business finding a copper-plate printer. However we found one. Even in 1929 it was becoming difficult because printing from copper-plates had of course ceased as a normal means of reproduction years before then. And as you know the process is totally different from wood-block printing.’ In fact, the book was the first major copper-engraved illustrated book since William Blake’s Book of Job in 1826.

The choice of copper had a considerable effect on the result. Jones decided that the work would be achieved via simple incised lines, with a very sparing use of cross-hatching, though this is contrary to his approach in both his drawings and his wood-blocks, in which line tends to emerge from a delicate penumbra of shadows. He liked to achieve fine gradations of texture in his woodblock prints by varying the depth of line minutely, which required extremely expert and sympathetic printing (this was possibly the reason why Cleverdon insisted on copper).  Apart from the different character of the material, woodblock also differs from copper in that the artist’s line prints white-on-black, while a copper engraving prints black-on-white. Thus the more work an artist does on a woodblock, the lighter the print gets, while with a copper sheet, the reverse is true. When Jones saw the first proofs, he was horrified by the skimpiness of his lines: ‘They make ’em look so thin and without body, & all unity departs … it’s my blasted “subtlety” that does it!’[2]  But, as he recalled in an essay written many years later,  as he worked, he lost the sense that his burin was skidding about on the hard metal as if he was an ‘unpractised skater’, he gained confidence, and came to positively like the effect of the copper: ‘the result is one of linear freedom and firmness hardly obtainable in any other material’.[3] 

Jones took this commission immensely seriously. He recalled making between 150 and 200 preliminary pencil drawings, all of which were subsequently destroyed except for ten which were preserved and inserted in the ten de luxe special copies. The result is less an illustration of The Ancient Marinerthan a response to it. Jones read Coleridge’s poem not as the work of ‘a Romantic’, but as romance in the medieval sense of the word, redrawing Coleridge’s pantheism within his own Christian frame of reference; the epic voyage is reconfigured as a voyage of spiritual development. The ship of course is also an ancient metaphor for the odyssey of the Church, as Jones puts it, ‘pitching in the world-waters, drenched with inboard seas, lured by Siren calls, but secure because to the transomed stauros [cross] of the mast was made fast the ‘Incarnate Word’.[4]In so doing, he presents the Mariner’s experiences as essentially a narrative of erring, learning, personal development, redemption and reintegration into the human world, where in the last of the engravings, a Catholic priest in his robes is censing an altar. Jones explains in his essay that this is because during Vespers, the altar is censed during the Magnificat, and Mary is the Star of the Sea, who came to the Mariner’s rescue (as Coleridge’s marginalia suggest), gently releasing him from Life-in-death into life. The wedding and the feast have already taken place while the Guest was listening to the Mariner’s long tale, and it is evening.

The engraving which depicts the game between Death and Life-in-death is particularly interesting. Technically, the rendition of a skeleton ship gave Jones a great deal of trouble. Death is orthodoxly rendered, but the lively female figure is more complex. In the essay on The Ancient Marinerhe wrote many years later, he associated her with the predatory Norse Valkyries who chose the slain, but also with the Welsh gwrach, a haglike figure, associated in folklore with human death. However, a very noticeable feature is that her bare thigh is marked with a large black spot. Medieval and baroque representations of the plague-saint Saint Roch typically show him with a bared thigh, exhibiting a large bubo, which for reasons of propriety, has been migrated from its natural site in the groin to the outer side of the leg. In the terms set by the spare, linear technique forced upon him by his medium, Jones thus subtly suggests that she is rotting from within.

One suggestion which Jones made for the realization of his work was that the plate should be left slightly dirty between printing – normally with a copper plate, it is inked and burnished clean, and the image formed by the small amount of ink squeezed from the engraver’s lines under the intense pressure of an intaglio press. In effect, he asks the printer to do the job of creating the shadows. Thus, in the prints he made himself, as distinct from those that appeared in the book edition, he was in a position to control how clean the plate was himself, and to create areas of shadow and texture. Several of our engravings, particularly no. 6, bear witness to this.

The drawing we have, The Mother of the West, currently hangs in the D’Arcy Room, and is a study for a completed monochrome painting now in the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle, using pencil and ink with touches of white. Jones was (like Coleridge) an intensely associative artist. The picture dates from the middle of the war, and according to Jones, expresses his hope that even if the Nazis won, their Reich would eventually turn (after who knows how much time and suffering) to Christianity.[5]In this image, as so often, one image is superimposed on another like a palimpsest; delicate lines emerging from a blur of shadow. Central to it is the famous Capitoline Wolf: beneath her, where we might expect to find Romulus and Remus, it is possible to discern a lamb with curly horns; with his head twisted up, he is suckling delicately at one of her hanging teats. Front and centre, there is a chalice. Thus the central imagery is highly scrutable; Rome as the protector of the Lamb of God, represented by the Catholic church. Beyond that there are many ambiguities, but a suggestion of a suffering world. There is a Roman war going on top right, with balistas and siege engines;  the area above the wolf’s back is perhaps the Roman campana, with a gate, or perhaps a triumphal arch, and two horses,  to the left of her shoulder is a building which seems to be a ruined chapel. Bottom right is an inscription on a broken capital, ‘ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est’. Fundamentally, it is a hopeful painting, and the drawing expresses that in miniature.

Large painted inscriptions were an important part of Jones's later work from around 1943. In these works, he combined fragments from different texts to create a work something like a musical chord, in which each fragment carries echoes of the whole text from which it emerged. These are frequently in a variety of languages, echoing the macaronic hymnody of the Middle Ages. He once wrote, ‘it seems to me that Latin and Welsh are the languages in which to make inscriptions. In English, the words and their meanings are too close to me. They interfere’.[6]  English also brought with it the risk that people viewing these works would simply read them like posters, rather than mulling them slowly, translating, recognizing the sources, thinking about the relationship between each fragment. Consequently, when he does use English, it is often medieval or archaic.

The lettering of these inscriptions is very remarkable. Jones had a lifelong fascination with the history and mythography of Wales. The lettering of the inscriptions which form a major part of his later work is based on that of the early Christian monuments of Wales, made between the fourth and sixth centuries, an era which was, to Jones, ‘by far the most potent in the imagination’.  He made a careful study of these sub-Roman memorial stones, which reveal that in the aftermath of the collapse of Roman government, aspects of a Romanized life evidently continued (including a Christian hierarchy). But the lettering of these inscriptions commemorating kings and bishops is not the well-established Roman epigraphic scripts, such as square capitals, but is instead, based on the written scripts of late antiquity. Thus in itself, it is a poignant reminder simultaneously of distance and connection.  Jones uses these strange letters in these artefacts which are simultaneously artworks and poems created from found text. They differ dramatically from calligraphy as normally practised in that the letters are drawn and filled in rather than achieved by penstrokes.

The most notable of the inscriptions we have is EXTENSIS MANIBUS, made for the ordination as a Catholic priest of the poet and Jesuit Peter Levi in 1964, and published by the Curwen Press. This is mostly in Latin, with a little Greek and English. A much smaller card, ‘Syng Hevin Imperiall’ wascommissioned by Faber and Faber in 1961 and used by them that year for their Christmas card, along with the angelic musician, also by Jones. The English text is taken from the fifteenth-century Scot William Dunbar’s On the Nativitie of Christ and the Latin from Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue, which Christian writers have long treated as a prophecy of the birth of the Redeemer.

 

[1]               Thomas Dilworth, David Jones, p. 207

[2]               Douglas Cleverdon, The Engravings of David Jones (London, 1981 ) , 17

[3]               David Jones, The Dying Gaul  (London, 1978), 187

[4]               Dying Gaul, 215

[5]               M. James, David Jones, 58

[6]               Arts Council catalogue, p. 11.

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