Saint David?

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 53, Winter 2017

Page 66

David Jones was the greatest watercolourist since Blake, says A.N. Wilson, who here unlocks the secrets of one of his finest paintings

David Jones (1895-1974) is perhaps best known, among a devoted but too small band of admirers, as a stone engraver. He was taught by the sculptor-craftsman Eric Gill, and earned his living for some years engraving the names, appropriately, on First World War memorials.

Appropriately because, as a very young man – still only 18 – he had enlisted in the Royal Welch Fusiliers in London, and fought in the Battle of the Somme. In his long poem In Parenthesis, Jones created the figure of Dai Greatcoat, a foot soldier who has been in all the campaigns of history, including the Trojan War, and stood at the greatest conflict of them all – on the hill of Calvary.

After the war, in which he was bodily and psychologically wounded, Jones returned to England, became a student at the Westminster School of Art and was received into the Roman Catholic Church in 1921. Thereafter, he lived for many years as part of Eric Gill's guild of craftsmen and -women, first at Ditchling, in Sussex, later in the Black Mountains of Breconshire. Jones was, for a while, engaged to Gill's daughter Petra.

He developed the skills required for lettering in his own distinctive manner, eventually producing engravings – and sometimes paintings – in which his own version of Anglo-Saxon or Roman characters would crowd the stone or paper with a miscellaneous collection of phrases.

Jones had many admirers. He followed In Parenthesis with The Anathemata, which W.H. Auden dubbed the finest long poem of the 20th century, and when Igor Stravinsky visited him in his tiny room in Harrow the great Russian composer felt he had been in the presence of "a holy man".

His watercolours are recognisably of their period: something about the colours and perspectives is reminiscent of Nash, Ravilious and other masters of 'English pastoral'. But much of the time, being confined to his bedsit, he would be painting interiors or views from the window.

It was Kenneth Clark, director of the National Gallery in the mid-20th century, who said that Jones was the greatest watercolourist since William Blake. The comparison is both just and helpful, since Jones was, whatever he was doing – whether carving a memorial, writing a poem, musing about his latest love, or dipping his brush into the watercolour box – a visionary. In all his pictures, religious or erotic, you are in the land of the mind.

The 1961 watercolour to be offered by Bonhams at New Bond Street in November was eventually called by Jones The Lee Shore, but he also referred to it as Gwener, after the Welsh Venus. This painting is not only one of the most ingenious of all Jones's watercolours, it is also one of the most emotionally highly packed. We are also lucky enough to have a five-page letter that Jones wrote, explaining some of the picture's more esoteric symbolism. The letter is part of the lot for sale.

A naked young woman reclines, like the Rokeby Venus, gazing into a looking glass. The open window beside her divan reveals a stormy sea where galleons struggle with the winds. In his explanatory letter, Jones reminds us that Venus was often associated with Mars, the God of War, and that the ships tossed on the ocean reflect this. There are details, however, in the picture, which we would not have been able to work out for ourselves.

The woman, Gwener, has discarded a dalmatic, one of the sacred vestments worn by the ministers at High Mass. Jones recalls that the last time he went to the cinema was to see the Coronation in 1953, and that the Queen had worn such a vestment as a symbol of her divine monarchy. What Jones intends to signify is a deep part of the Christian theology of sex and love. Whereas heretics scorn the body, Christians are supposed to venerate it: "With my body I thee worship," says the man during the marriage ceremony.

Even if you spotted the dalmatic and its significance, it is unlikely that the shoes will have rung a bell. They are based on the punctilious research of Lady Llanover, who invented the 'Welsh lady' costume, with its familiar chimney-like brimmed black hat, red flannel skirt and check apron. For there should be no doubt that the figure who looks so hauntingly back at herself, and at us, from that looking glass is a Welsh woman.

The owner of The Lee Shore was Valerie Price. Jones had met Price, who presented a weekly Welsh programme on Granada TV, in 1958. He was then 63; she was 25. Price had written to The Times in favour of Welsh Nationalism. Jones wrote in support, and the two came together.

Although a Londoner who never mastered the Welsh language, Jones's imagination was filled with Welsh lore. Saunders Lewis, the founder of the Welsh Nationalist party, was like him in certain respects: a Catholic convert who longed for a Britain that was just Romans and Celts, purged of the vulgarian influence of the Germanic hordes who had been spoiling things ever since their invasions began in the 6th century.

That Valerie spoke Welsh hastened and deepened his interest: 'Elri' was vivacious, dark-haired, pale-skinned, every inch the Celt. And it is Valerie herself who has now decided to part with this mysterious painting.

A.N. Wilson is an award-winning novelist, biographer and journalist, and the author of God's Funeral: The Decline of Faith in Western Civilization. His most recent book is Charles Darwin: Victorian Mythmaker (2017).

Sale: Modern British and Irish Art
Wednesday 22 November at 2pm
Enquiries: Matthew Bradbury +44 (0) 20 7468 8295

  1. Matthew Bradbury
    101 New Bond Street
    London, United Kingdom W1S 1SR
    Work +44 20 7468 8295
    FaxFax: +44 20 7447 7434

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