‘God save thee, ancient Mariner!
From the fiends, that plague thee thus!—
Why look’st thou so?’—With my cross-bow
I shot the ALBATROSS.
What a shot it is, as engraved by the poet-artist David Jones (1895-1974) for his illustrated edition of Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The albatross is pierced through the breast by the mariner’s arrow and pinned to the mast of the ship. Three drops of blood spring from the wound. In the hands of the Catholic Jones, the shooting of the albatross becomes a crucifixion. The bird’s wings are spread across the yardarm; the arrow is the spear of Longinus; the crow’s nest is Calvary.
A friend and patron once brought Jones an empty gilded frame and asked him to make a painting for it.
“What in the world can I put in there?” he asked.
The friend’s son suggested: “All your trademarks: your birds, and your bows, the big toe split from the next toe, ponies, little shoes … You always have something like that in your pictures.”
Jones considered this. “Well, I suppose I do.”
Birds soar in and out of his work, majestic as the albatross, or lovely, lively, buffeted by winds. Watching swallows at this time of year is like seeing a Jones painting brought to wheeling, wind-whipped life. He returned again and again to the image of the bird that has got in at the window. A seagull and a pelican glide into the open porch of the church in The Ancient Mariner series (1929), interrupting the priest as he swings his censer. In The Farm Door (1937), a watercolour painted while staying with the sculptor Eric Gill at Pigott’s Farm, a chicken, speckled and curious, crosses the threshold into Jones’s room. In his strange, sensuous painting Guenever (1940), his heroine sleeps in an underground chapel with bats and birds overhead.
Often the birds are barely there: tiny feathered tricks hidden in briar bracken to delight the keen looker. Thomas Dilworth, in his splendid new biography of Jones (Jonathan Cape), tells the story of Jones asking his patron Hilda Cochrane how she was getting on with his painting Sunday Mass: In Homage to GM Hopkins SJ (1948), which she had bought some years before.
“Do you like the bird?” he asked.
He was crestfallen when she replied: “What bird?” There is indeed a tiny bird tangled in the woman on the left’s hair.
Thomas Bewick, the great 18th-century chronicler of birds, was one of Jones’s heroes: “Bewick could do miracles with greys – and no one has done it so well since.” The bird-and-beast engravings that made Bewick’s name and sold in prodigious numbers had, Jones said, “never been surpassed”.
After art school, Jones served in World War I. He converted to Catholicism after peeping through a barn door at a candlelit Mass in France and falling in love with this beautiful, numinous ceremony.
After the war, Jones worked initially as a book illustrator and engraver. He was not a miniaturist like Bewick, a stickler for every last feather. His woodcuts are bolder, more expressive. The flamingos in the Chester Play of the Deluge (1927), the story of Noah’s Ark, might not be anatomically precise, but with what marvellous bustle and sense of self-importance they fly into the hold of the ark – well above the heads of snapping crocodiles.
Bewick’s birds are as close to life as a strict taxonomist could wish; Jones’s birds are symbols. In his crucifixion scene Vexilla Regis (1947), three trees stand for the crosses of Christ and the Good and Bad Thieves. In one tree, a nesting pelican pricks her breast with her beak to feed her young – an allusion to Christ’s sacrifice and to Christian charity. A bird was never just a bird to Jones, as wood was never just wood, but the ark, the Cross, a Ship of Fools. Often his birds are stand-ins for angels. In his drypoint Nativity (1929) doves and birds of paradise roost in the stable rafters.
Flocking together, they are a sign of fertility, spring rites, new birth. His watercolour Y Cyfarchiad I Fair (1963), an Annunciation scene in a Welsh garden, has Mary as a flower goddess with birds perched on her billowing skirts or flying circuits around her crown: more than 30 in all. A goldfinch represents the Passion: it was said that the goldfinch plucked one of the thorns from Christ’s brow and was splashed by a speck of blood that never faded. A robin redbreast reminds us of the wound in Christ’s side.
If Bewick was a magpie, gathering drawings, folklore, trivia, stuffed owls, game birds shot by neighbours, what sort of a bird was Jones? A shy one, certainly. A wren? A peace-seeking one, shell-shocked by the war. A dove?
In later life he lined his rented rooms with unusual things: books, maps, his own paintings, engravings and inscriptions. A bowerbird, then, feathering its nest? But shell-shock made him fearful and agoraphobic and in later life he rarely went out. The tragedy of Jones is that he painted birds so beautifully – and lived his last years in a cage.
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