Anne Price-Owen

Materializing the Immaterial
David Jones: Painter-Poet

      When he was just 7 years old, David Jones made a remarkable drawing of a Dancing Bear (1902), in the street where he lived, at Brockley, Kent (now a suburb of London). The drawing remained a favourite throughout his life, perhaps because it convinced him of his innate talent.

Fig.1. Dancing bear, 1902
© Estate of David Jones

     He later admitted that ‘to convey on paper this or that object seemed to me as natural a desire as, say, stroking the cat.’1 His predilection for animals can be seen in much of the art he created, whether in words or pictures, believing that ‘it was important to be anthropomorphic, to deal through and in the things we understand as men – to be incarnational.’2 Incarnational carries associations with Christ, the incarnation of the Holy Spirit, and in terms of Jones’s beliefs – he converted from an Anglican to a Roman Catholic in 1921 - this is no accident. He saw the physical world as a manifestation of the divine presence which is in everything and, according to Kathleen Raine, for Jones ‘“Incarnational” was perhaps the most significant word of all. What is “capable of being loved and known” is God incarnate.’3 Consequently, whatever he painted is a testament to his vision, and to the underlying ‘“unity of all made things.”’4 ‘The painter’, he declared ‘must deny nothing, he must integrate everything … it is this … gathering all things in that torments the artist.’5 As an artist, he believed he should include all allusions that he associated with the image of the thing painted.

     For this reason Jones looked to his own history and heritage for stimulation, as well as his physical surroundings. His father was Welsh, having been born in Wales, and he’d subsequently found work in London as a printer’s overseer, as many Welsh did in the latter half of the 19th Century. By bringing work home with him, he saw that his son David ‘was brought up in a home that took the printed page and its illustration for granted.’6 Small wonder then, that Jones considered both the image and text as worthy of contemplation and making. His mother, a competent amateur watercolourist, encouraged her son’s artistic bent. Her family originally hailed from Rome, and had settled in the Pool of London, on the River Thames, and Jones’s fascination with ships and voyages owes much to his maternal family’s occupations in the boatyards. Consequently the myths and legends of the Ancient Celts together with those of Classical Greece and Rome, as well as sea voyages, insinuated themselves into Jones’s poetry and painting.

     This is why a study of Jones’s art reveals that he is like no other painter; he never belonged to a mainstream movement. Even though Ben Nicholson invited him to join the prestigious 7 & 5 Society in 1928, he was subsequently asked to resign in 1933 because his work did not embrace the new abstract aesthetic of the time. Despite admiring many artists, and drawing inspiration from them, Jones didn’t emulate their styles, but remained steadfast to his own vision. That vision, as his one time mentor Eric Gill the sculptor, letterer, and stone carver observed, was clothed in a ‘combination of two enthusiasms, that of a man who is enamoured of the spiritual world and at the same time as much enamoured of the material body’.7 Jones confirmed that ‘the artist in man … knows that the tension between matter and spirit is both permanent and normal and … that they are “both real and both good.”’8 He realized that everything alters, that nothing remains static, and that the world is a complex mix of changing colours, particles, temperatures, seasons and so on, and concurred with T.S. Eliot’s line in Little Gidding, that spiritual presence is ‘the still point of the turning world.’ In his eulogy to "Pied Beauty," Gerald Manley Hopkins described it differently, joyfully identifying the ‘dappled’, ‘freckled, [and] fickle’ as evidence of the transient, evolutionary nature of creation, with God’s beauty alone being ‘past change’. Moreover, Jones’s contact with Gill was most pertinent to his development as an artist. On meeting the sculptor for the first time in 1921, he converted to Roman Catholicism, and subsequently joined the Catholic arts and crafts community that Gill had established at Ditchling, Sussex. Jones was taught wood-engraving for the purpose of illustrating books mainly concerned with Catholic ephemera, for the Fraternity of St Joseph and St Dominic, after which the small press was called. The Community at Ditchling were cognizant of the dual nature of mankind, and this is reflected in Jones’s art: the unchanging spirit of the cosmos resonates through the painted object, or sign, in tandem with his delight in its material presence. In other words, ‘“ … art re-presents”, … it is a “thing”, an object contrived of various materials and so ordered … as to show forth, recall and re-present, strictly within the conditions of a given art and under another mode, such and such a reality.’9

     This ‘reality’ – perhaps we can refer to it as the ‘realness’ of the subject-matter of the painting – occurs because ‘whatever the material and immaterial elements of that “reality” may have been the workings … [of the painter’s] … art gave to the world a signum of that reality, under the species of paint.’10

     Inevitably, Jones

… learned to think, at least by analogy, from the doctrinal definition of the substantial Presence in the Sacramental Bread. Thenceforth a tree in a painting or a tree in an embroidery must not be a ‘re-presenting’ only of a tree of sap and thrusting wood – it must really be a ‘tree’ under the species of paint, or needlework, or whatever [concrete form it takes by dint of the artist’s materials].11

     His re-presenting of matter and spirit are a given in his wood-engraving ‘The Artist’ (1927), where the seated figure, with his pots of paints, is centrally placed and surrounded by animals and plants. The architectural setting does not suggest enclosure, rather the exterior and interior are fused (another familiar theme), in this work where Jones implies light, shade, modelling and texture. The hand of God above the small cross at the apex appears to be blessing the artist’s work. A shimmering effect pervades the scene, where the patterns and rhythms together with the contrasting positive and negative shapes, elicit an unseen energy. The outlines of the animals are carefully delineated to accommodate the spaces around the figure. By 1927, Jones had been living in Wales for two years at Capel-y-ffin, in a former monastery to which Eric Gill had moved his entourage in 1924. In this remote village in the Black Mountains near Abergavenny, Jones was alerted to his Welsh roots. He maintained that the ancient Welsh bards were ‘carpenters of song’12, and interpreted this verbal process in visual terms by reflecting and echoing shapes so that everything fits into its own space.

Fig.2. The Artist, 1927
© Estate of David Jones

     Effectively, ‘The Artist’ is a generic self-portrait, for it depicts Jones the artist in the scriptorium of the Benedictine monastery at Caldey Island, off Wales’s west coast, to which he made frequent visits. Originally, scriptoriums were used by monks who wrote and illuminated religious manuscripts. In many ways Jones likens himself to one of the fraternity of limnars. The Medieval ethos of this picture demonstrates the influence of a Movement where the purist aesthetic of capturing an ethereal presence is paramount, and can be found in his paintings and prints of the early to mid-20s. These mark a departure from the more academic style which characterizes his previous work from his time at Westminster Art School from 1919-21. That was his second stint as a student, having commenced his studies at Camberwell School of Art in 1910. When he completed his studies in 1914, he intended becoming an animal artist, or an illustrator of Welsh legends. But the Great War intervened, and in 1915 he joined the Royal Welch Fusiliers as a foot soldier.

     The War’s impact on Jones was profound, although not fully recognized until 1937 when he published his epic prose poem, In Parenthesis, concerning the parenthetical period from December 1915 to July 1916. In it he describes his experiences in the trenches leading up to the Battle of Mametz. The poem is distinctive in its immediacy and vivid observations. In order to refresh his memory, he may have reviewed some drawings he made in the trenches on the Somme battlefields, for example, ‘Rats’(1916), on which he reflected in In Parenthesis:

          You can hear the silence of it;
you can hear the rat of no-man’s-land
rut-out intricacies,
weasel-out his patient workings,
scrut, scrut, sscrut
harrow out-earthly, trowel his cunning paw;
redeem the time of our uncharity, to sap his own amphibious paradise.
   You can hear his carrying-parties rustle our corruptions through the
night-weeds – contest the choicest morsels in his tiny conduits,
bead-eyed feast on us; by a rule of his nature; at night-feast on the
broken of us.    Those broad-pinioned;
blue-burnished, or brinded-back;
whose proud eyes watched
          the broken emblems
droop and drag dust,
suffer with us this metamorphosis.          (IP. 54)

Fig.3. Dugout rats, 1916
© Estate of David Jones

     Even the vermin shot by the soldiers are treated with a degree of compassion by Jones who extolled the ‘kind and the creaturely’13 in all living things. Even, as Raine remarked, ‘nature … at its most despoiled and bare is “creaturely” … [and] … Man too is “creaturely”, sharing with the animals our bodily being and earth as our home.’14 The mixture of symmetry and asymmetry in the layout of the poetry on the page evince Jones’s perception of Wales’s ‘strong hill-rhythms and the bright counter-rhythms of the … water-brooks’15 that are so characteristic of Wales, and where Jones discovered a new direction for his work, possibly owing to his bourgeoning talent as an engraver.

     ‘Y Twmpa, Nant Honddu’ (1926), shows the influence of the engraver’s technique of cross-hatching on fields, as well as the twmp, or high hill, that dominates the valley. The lively, variegated lines denoting pattern and texture instil a feeling of movement, where the scurrying clouds, wind-blown foliage and fulsome river complement both the cultivated and natural lumpiness of the land. Everywhere shapes are echoed, even in the profiles of the horses in the foreground, where their outlines reflect the curving upper edge of the river.

Fig.4. "Y Twmpa, Nant Honddu," 1926
© Estate of David Jones

     In this and much of his visual art, Jones eschews perspective. While this shows that he was aware of contemporary trends in the art of the time when painters were keen to protect the integrity of the flat picture plane instead of creating illusionary depth, it suited Jones’s temperament and style to divest equality to each object he included in his compositions.

     ‘Y Twmpa’ was drawn from the steep hill on the opposite side of the valley where the monastery stands, and by looking from a high viewpoint the illusion of flatness is compounded. Although he hated sketching out-of-doors, this painting was started in plein aire, along with many others. ‘Hill Pastures’ (1926) shows an alternative view of the hill top where Jones relies heavily on engraving techniques to suggest the variety of textures in the natural formations of the landscape, and was most likely drawn from the vantage point of the window in his room at the monastery.

Fig.5. "Hill Pastures," 1926
© Estate of David Jones

     Given his dislike of painting outside, windows became an increasingly popular theme for him, where he could explore the notion of fusing outdoors and indoors. Windows are natural, but insubstantial, thresholds between the external and internal, and in ‘Manwydan’s Glass Door’ (1931), Jones exploits this concept in his depiction of the legendary Welsh hero’s story, Manawyddan, who was advised not to open the door, on peril of his future happiness. For a long time Manawyddan had lived in Shrangri-la but eventually curiosity got the better of him, and he opened the door. Memory of his former life and the tasks he had yet to fulfil returned to him, and he was obliged to vacate his Utopian island. Jones deliberately lets us see what was denied to the hero by creating a glass door so that the view beyond the glass penetrates the sheltered interior in which he was working. (The picture was painted at his parent’s rented beach house at Portslade.) Moreover, he dispenses with any semblance of glass and omits the central door-frame of the French windows. The sea, in places golden, perhaps reflecting the sunlight, spills into the room. Other parts of the water are rough and swollen and grey, possibly heralding a storm. The ship in full sail indicates a strong wind that pervades the room, blowing the gauze curtains that are stained with marine colours. The timber panels of the lower part of the door gleam like objects under the sea, just as the carpet assumes the complexion of a rock pool. Both posts on the terrace beyond the glass are off vertical, giving the impression that these are ships’ masts. Indeed, the room is treated as if it belongs on a ship, its boards wet with salt and spray, the movement of which is implied by the slanting horizontals.

Fig.6. "Manawydan's Glass Door," 1931
© Estate of David Jones

     Of this mythical watercolour, which he painted within a year of his writing ‘down some sentences which turned out to be the initial passages of In Parenthesis’,16 Raine’s comments are especially perceptive:

… a sea-scape full of the radiance of Faery … Both in the painting, at first glance an impression of light-effects over the sea near Brighton, and in the war-epic, at first reading a realistic description of life in the trenches, he is concerned with states of being, with the creation of a work in which inner and outer reality are so interfused that they are not to be separated.17

     Two years earlier, Jones had created a series of copper-engravings for Coleridge’s "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" (1929). He researched ships and their rigging in order to make convincing renditions of the Mariner’s vessel, where his confident, linear approach produced inimitable compositions.

Fig.7. "The Curse," an illustration for "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," 1929
© Estate of David Jones

     The taut, slanting horizon line hints at the rolling of the ship, while the bowed head and outstretched arms of the mariner with the slain albatross around his neck recalls the Crucifixion. This sacrifice is given further potency in his war poem, In Parenthesis, when the wounded, crawling soldier considers abandoning his rifle:

Slung so, it swings its full weight. With you going blindly on all paws, it slews its whole length, to hang at your bowed neck like the Mariner’s white oblation.   (IP. 184)

     In these images Jones offers us a view that is balanced between two states, a world where the material and immaterial merge and where time is suspended between the real and the imagination, between the fluidity of a dream and the metamorphosing of magic, myth and spirit. These, as he acknowledges, are in the Celtic tradition that:

seems to present to the mind a half-aquatic world … it introduces a feeling of transparency and inter-penetration of one element with another, of transposition and metamorphosis. The hedges of mist vanish or come again under the application of magic, … just as the actual mists over peat-bog and tarn and traeth disclose or lose before our eyes drifting stumps and tussocks. It is unstable, the isles float, where was a caer or a llys now is a glassy expanse.18
All of this gives us an indication of his mind set, where one image triggers another, morphing into an alternative, equally powerful vision that is dependent on the initial one, yet can stand alone and complete, despite the concept of collaboration.

     Collaboration also describes Jones’s processes as much as his thinking, nowhere perhaps, more clearly seen as in the synergy between his poetry and painting. Regarding the latter, the washes and variable weight of the strokes of colour, dabs and patches of paint in ‘Briar Cup’(1932), do not give precedence to any individual item in this crowded composition where the high viewpoint perpetuates the notion of the flat picture plane, so that we look down on the jug of wild flowers on the circular table-top. The cup, hinting at friends’ communion – perhaps the Mass - overlaps the central vessel, its dark shadow being more substantial than the pale porcelain, while a pepper-pot is less fully realized than its own reflection. Two other vessels – one a teapot, apparently float above the table intertwining with the blossoms protruding from the jug, and also those patinating the entire image. It’s impossible to know whether Jones envisaged the teapot on the right as being behind, or in front of, the main floral group: its definitive outline proposes its proximity to the viewer, but the overlapping flowers suggest otherwise. Likewise the birds, perching above the silver lidded urn on the central salver, defy gravity. They are simply painted patterns through which delicate layers of grass colours advance. The brushstrokes articulating organic textures in the upper section, are replaced by arbitrary daubs in the lower part, vaguely implying that this too, is wind blown grass. To confound us further, Jones has omitted portraying the glass pane, yet we assume all the vessels are inside the room while the bushes, lawns and sky are without.

Fig.8. "Briar Cup," 1932
© Estate of David Jones

This attendant confusion of perspectives together with the internal and external components are in a perpetual state of flux, and express an animating principle which endows each ‘“thing” with its own life and way of living.’19 Yet Jones records each detail with equanimity; no object is exalted above another in his eyes. Solids are made diaphanous and voids are almost tangible in his determination to illustrate unity and interdependence.

‘Briar Cup’ anticipates Jones’s mature period when he painted ‘Flora in Calix-Light’ (1950), where the three crystal glasses reference the crosses on Calvary. Flowers, evoking remembrance, and also the goddess of Spring and season of re-birth, are reminiscent also of Eastertide, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, for Jones identified the BVM as Christianity’s singular embodiment of the multitude of mythical goddesses of the pre-Christian era. Light, signifier of epiphany, and flowers, tremble and clamour over the whole picture, infiltrating it with Divine beneficence. Calyx is the flower’s cup (and Eucharistic chalice), but by his title Jones implies that this is from where the light emanates, thus alluding to the fecundity of Spring, and also Mary who bore Christ. Overall, the tenuous lines and brushstrokes suggest, rather than delineate, the insubstantial forms before us; insubstantial because they comprise numerous, mutable particles that are comprehended by light. Jones offers us an insight into an alternative domain wherein all matter is in communion with a numinous spirit. The translucent containers on the table at the ‘front’ of the picture are hardly more clearly defined than the architectural and organic forms in the background. The colours of the exterior world shine through the table-top discrediting the notion that windows function as dividers. On the contrary, they operate as bridges between the internal and external morphing physicalities where all incongruities coalesce in a harmonious synergy.

Fig.9. "Flora in Calix-Light," 1950
© Estate of David Jones

Perhaps something of the underlying message of ‘Flora in Calix-Light’ can also be found in Jones’s painted inscription, ‘O Lux Beatissma’ (1946), which translates as ‘O most blessed light fill the hearts of your faithful/ Alleluia’. This painting was made as a birthday present for Jones’s friend Beatrix in which, by punning on her name, he elevates her, seeing her as the equivalent of the archetypal figure for ‘Blessed’.

Fig.10. "O Lux Beatis,", 1946
© Estate of David Jones

The relationship between image and text reached its apotheosis in Jones’s late work in his ‘painted inscriptions’ where he quite literally made pictures out of words. Very few works in this genre are in English, so that unless we are familiar with the language Jones uses, we are obliged to admire the paintings for their visual aesthetic, rather than the linguistic meaning. The Latin text from St Thomas Aquinas in ‘Ex Devina’(1956) is worth translating for it reveals Jones’s own sentiments: ‘All being is derived from the divine beauty … nothing is in the mind unless first in the senses ….’20 And doesn’t this phrase adequately illustrate Jones’s capacity for materialising the immaterial?

Fig.11. "Ex Devina," 1956
© Estate of David Jones


1.   David Jones, The Dying Gaul and other writings (London: Faber & Faber, 1978), p. 23.

2.   H.S. Ede, David Jones: a memorial exhibition (Cambridge: Kettle’s Yard, 1975), unpaginated.

3.   Kathleen Raine, David Jones and the Actually Loved and Known (Ipswich: Golgonooza Press, 1978), p. 25.

4.   David Jones, Epoch and Artist (London: Faber & Faber, 1959), p. 171.

5.   Jones, Dying Gaul, p. 141.

6.   Jones, Dying Gaul, p. 23.

7.   Eric Gill, Last Essays (London: Faber & Faber, 1942), p. 150.

8.   Jones, Dying Gaul, p. 151.

9.   Jones, Epoch & Artist, p. 174.

10.   Jones, Epoch & Artist, pp. 174-5.

11.   Jones in Ede, David Jones, unpaginated.

12.   Jones, Epoch & Artist, p. 29.

13.   Cf. Jones’s repetition of ‘creaturely’, whereby he means the feminine principle and signifies the caring or solicitous, as evidenced in Epoch & Artist, p. 37, Dying Gaul, pp. 169 & 172.

14.   Raine, David Jones … , p. 23.

15.   Jones, Epoch & Artist, p. 30.

16.   Jones, Dying Gaul, p. 29.

17.   Raine, David Jones … , pp. 3-4.

18.   Jones, Epoch and Artist, p. 238

19.   Jones in Ede, unpaginated.

20.   The English translation is taken from Nicolete Gray, The Painted Inscriptions of David Jones (London: Gordon Fraser, 1981), p. 35.


Fig. 1. ‘Dancing Bear’(1902), pencil. (The Trustees of the David Jones Estate)

Fig. 2. ‘The Artist’(1927), wood-engraving. (Private Collection)

Fig. 3. ‘Rats’(1916), pencil. (Royal Welch Fusiliers)

Fig. 4. ‘Y Twmpa’(1926), pencil & watercolour.) (Anthony d’Offay Gallery)

Fig. 5. ‘Hill Pastures’(1926), pencil, water- & body-colour. (Private Collection)

Fig. 6. ‘Manawydan’s Glass Door’(1931), pencil & watercolour. (Private Collection)

Fig. 7. ‘Illustration for The Rime of Ancient Mariner’(1929), copper-engraving. (Private Collection)

Fig. 8. ‘Briar Cup’(1932), pencil & watercolour. (Private Collection)

Fig. 9. ‘Flora in Calix-Light’(1950), pencil & watercolour. (Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge)

Fig. 10. ‘O Lux Beatissima’(1946), painted inscription. (Private Collection)

Fig. 11. ‘Ex Devina’(1956), painted inscription. (Private Collection)

All images are reproduced by kind permission of The David Jones Estate.

Anne Price-Owen
Department of Research & Postgraduate Studies
Dynevor Centre for Art, Design & Media
Swansea Metropolitan University
De La Beche Street
Swansea SA1 3EU

Anne Price-Owen is the Director of The David Jones Society, which was inaugurated in 1996. She has written extensively on David Jones, and also on visual artists and poets, especially but not exclusively, those practising and writing in Wales.