Magazine article The Spectator

Sacramental Vision

Magazine article The Spectator

Sacramental Vision

Article excerpt

Andrew Lambirth meditates on a Crucifixion by the painter and poet David Jones

As the focus for an Easter meditation, David Jones's 'Sanctus Christus de Capel-y-ffin' (1925), a small, heart-felt painting in gouache on paper, could scarcely be bettered. The Crucifixion takes place in a luminous landscape with the bird of hope in attendance. This is the world of medieval illuminated manuscripts and ivory carvings, a highly sophisticated spiritualised and classicised vision of existence that is sometimes dismissed as primitive. A Welsh hill pony is set off against a chapel, trees and a bridge over running water in an arabesque design quivering with natural and spiritual life. Rhythm is crucial. As Jones said, 'I don't care how static the subject is, but it must be fluid in some way.' He recognised the strong rhythms of the Welsh hills and the counter rhythms of the brooks, and made of them a new unity, a new beauty.

David Jones believed that the artist's primary function was as a 'rememberer'.

In 1959 he wrote: 'My view is that all artists, whether they know it or not, whether they would repudiate the notion or not, are in fact "showers forth" of things which tend to be impoverished, or misconceived, or altogether lost or wilfully set aside in the preoccupations of our present intense technological phase, but which, nonetheless, belong to man.'

Myth and religion were two of the things he strove through his art to elucidate to the contemporary mind. He was lucky to have been born at a time of late flowering in Catholic culture: not only were the writers G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene superbly active, but Eric Gill and his circle of artists were Jones's intimate friends, while the spiritual overseers included that notable Jesuit Father Martin D'Arcy, together with Douglas Woodruff and Tom Burns, successive editors of the influential Catholic weekly The Tablet. In such a sympathetic climate, Jones could thrive and give rein to his very particular themes and obsessions. His friend and fellow-poet Kathleen Raine identified the three strands in Jones's work that defined his place in civilisation: Wales and the Romano-British roots of our ancestral heritage; the Catholic Church and its liturgy; and the army.

David Jones (1895-1974) was born in Kent of Welsh extraction, his father hailing from Flintshire, while his mother's family came from Rotherhithe. He was four when he first visited his grandparents in Wales, and from his earliest years drawing made more sense to him than anything else. He studied at Camberwell School of Art under A.S. Hartrick, and then on 2 January 1915 enlisted in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, fighting as a private in the trenches of the Western Front from December 1915 to March 1918. The camaraderie of the army was one revelation, another was the mystery of the Eucharist, first glimpsed during the war through a crack in the wall of a barn while Mass was being celebrated.

After much soul-searching he was received into the Catholic Church in September 1921, and in 1922 he joined the community set up by Eric Gill at Ditchling in Sussex, to concentrate on establishing a career as an artist-craftsman. To this end he learnt the technique of line engraving.

Gill left Sussex and gravitated to Wales, re-establishing the community in 1924 at Capel-y-ffin in the Black Mountains. …

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