Developing a Welsh Voice Far beyond the Mere Representation of Place; We Need Your Help in Deciding Who Are the Most Influential People in the Past 100 Years of Welsh History in the Fields of Politics, Health, Music, Literature, Art, Sport and Business. the Seven You Select Will Be Crowned Our St David's Day Icons. Here Oliver Fairclough, of National Museum Wales, Argues Why David Jones Should Be Crowned the St David's Day Icon for Art
Byline: David Jones
IT MAY seem a paradox that the artist I believe to have been one of the most influential Welshmen of the last century was born a Londoner, visited Wales regularly for just four years between 1924 and 1928, and never made his home here.
But then until the 1950s almost all Welsh artists were obliged to make their careers largely outside Wales.
David Jones was more profoundly influenced throughout his life by the landscape, language and myths of Wales than any of his contemporaries. An extraordinary and multitalented man, he occupies a unique place in 20th century British art, and is often called the greatest painter-poet since William Blake.
Jones' father came from Holywell in Flintshire, and passed on a deep sense of his Welsh identity to his son, who was to devote a lifetime to the study of a Welsh culture that he felt was lost to him.
When the First World War broke out in 1914, he was determined to join a Welsh regiment. He was wounded on the Somme in that Welsh epic, the battle of Mametz Wood.
After three years at Westminster School of Art, he joined a community of Catholic craftsmen at Ditchling in Sussex. One of its leaders was the sculptor, typographer and engraver Eric Gill, who was to have a pronounced influence on how he thought about art.
He became engaged to Gill's daughter Petra for a while, and went with him when he moved his family from Ditchling to Capel-y-ffin in the Black Mountains. There Jones found himself as a painter, primarily in watercolour. He developed a personal and modernist vision of the Breconshire landscape that has its roots in the art of Czanne and Van Gogh.
During these years (1924-1928) Jones also spent time with his parents in the London suburb of Brockley, and at the Benedictine monastery on Caldey Island. In 1927 he was commissioned to make a set of copper engravings to illustrate Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and the following year he was elected a member of the modernist exhibiting group, the 7 & 5 Society.
Late in 1932, when he had nearly completed his intricate, poetic narrative of his experience of the First World War, In Parenthesis, he had a nervous breakdown, and found it increasingly difficult to paint.
He also turned his back on the modernist art world as it moved closer to abstraction, and spent most of the '30s holed up in a small hotel in Sidmouth.
In Parenthesis was published in 1937, and is now regarded as one of the great achievements of British literary modernism, alongside the works of James Joyce, TS Eliot, and DH Lawrence. More poetry followed, and he was also painting more during the Second World War. His work of this period comprises large watercolours - delicate, highly detailed, scholarly, and representational - which often took months to complete.
In 1945 he began to work on lettering and to paint inscriptions, drawing on passages from literary works dear to him in a mix of Latin, Welsh and Old English. He had another breakdown after the Second World War, and from 1948 he was to live in a single room in boarding houses in Harrow.
His inspirations, in both painting and in poetry, were his Catholicism, and especially the central mystery of the Mass, and the "matter of Britain" the Arthurian Legends and the history of post-Roman Britain.
His late paintings are uniquely personal, being richly worked and full of allusions to theology, history and legend. His meditation The Anathemata, one of great long poems of the 20th century, was published in 1951. Two of his last great paintings are on display at Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum Wales until March 3, and these encapsulate his post-war achievements.
Y Cyfarchiad I Fair or The Greeting to Mary and Trystan ac Essylt both date from 1963. …