David Jones, one of the foremost Catholic artists of the 20th century, might once have been regarded as an acquired taste; but things are changing fast. He is often hard work. His painting shifts from boldly modernistic renditions of landscapes – mostly Wales and suburban London – to ethereally delicate, almost transparent still life studies, and immensely complex, overcrowded renderings of religious symbol and narrative. And his poetry is baffling for nearly all readers – a dense fabric of allusion, in which references to the Roman army, the Arthurian legend, anthropology, folksongs, the First World War, shipbuilding in south London and the Latin liturgy jostle against each other with no mercy for the fainthearted.
So why the growing respect and fascination? Jones is perhaps more like William Blake than any more conventional poet/artist, and that’s part of what is being recognised. Like Blake he came from a fairly humble London background – though, crucially, his father’s family was from North Wales and he was deeply and lastingly conscious of this heritage.
Born in 1895, he had begun his training as an artist just before the First World War broke out, and he deliberately joined a Welsh unit in the army. He was wounded in the terrible slaughter at Mametz Wood in July 1916, when about 4,000 Welsh soldiers died. The experience of the trenches marked him for life, and his first great poetic achievement was a book-length poem, In Parenthesis, on his war experience, culminating in the horrors of Mametz.
But this was not published until 1937. By that time a great deal had happened – the most important thing being his reception into the Roman Catholic Church in 1921. His conversion had a lot to do with where his thinking about art was going – though it also owed a great deal to his experience of priests at the front in wartime, and he writes movingly of his first glimpse of a Catholic Mass in a semi-derelict barn in France. He saw in the Mass, you could say, the divine foundation of all art. Artists look at the life of the world around and they seek to let that life live afresh in the form of paint or stone, or indeed poetic words.
Jones was inspired by the early exhibitions of Post-Impressionist art in London. This was not painting trying to “reproduce” the world around; the picture was never a copy, it was a thing in itself – a new reality but one that lived by and was shaped by a life that was breathed into it. And for Jones, this became the key for a whole understanding of the human vocation.
In an extraordinary essay on “Art and Sacrament”, not published until the 1950s, he analyses the way in which “making signs” is universal and basic for human beings: so the sacraments are not some isolated, special kind of activity, they are human sign-making at its most intense, where the action of God-made-human takes up the whole world and makes final sense of it. Jesus in his passion and death makes himself a “sign”: he declares that his broken body is to be the centre of all human hope and meaning; he makes that body present in the action of the Eucharist. All human sign-making and all human searches for meaning find their focus here.
Initially he was drawn to the work and example of Eric Gill, with whom he worked regularly in the 1920s; for a while he was engaged to Gill’s second daughter. But he was never really convinced that he could or should marry. He had a near-monastic dedication to his work, and the engagement was broken off in 1927. It was a traumatic break; for the rest of his life, he carried the wounds, but at some level knew that it had been inevitable.
Gill’s influence on him weakened steadily (no one knows how much if anything Jones knew or intuited about Gill’s shocking sexual adventures; Jones was in many ways a very innocent person indeed), though they stayed on fairly friendly terms. Gill believed that art should have a definite purpose, either to fill a simple practical need or to express a clear conviction or doctrine. He had little time for Jones’s more ambitious or speculative concerns.
But it is Jones who seems now to have the greater stature. A lot of his late work is fragmentary; depression and anxiety took a heavy toll, as did the medication he had to submit to. But the painting and the poetry alike continued to witness to a vast and powerful vision of creation converging around the Mass. Plenty of critics who have no theological agenda recognise that he is one of the great modernist artists of the last century. But what is most remarkable is that his artistic achievement is so clearly grounded in the sacramental experience of the Church. If all art is transformation, it is so only as a reflection of the all-encompassing “art” of the Word Incarnate, the art shown forth daily in the sacrament of the altar.
Rowan Williams is a theologian, poet and former Archbishop of Canterbury