Review by Maurice Billingsley
The sound and sight of the waves pounding the Sussex dunes still roared in my head as I came to the David Jones Exhibition, ‘Vison and Memory’ at Pallant House, Chichester.
At first sight, the contrast with one of the first works in the show could hardly have been greater: an apparently tranquil room, the bay window occupied by a large-leaved green plant. A still life, but for a feeling that everyone has just left the room en masse. What called them away?
What called David Jones away from the suburban drawing room was his vocation as an artist and poet. This wide-ranging exhibition shows many sides of a life that led him from frighteningly well-observed childish drawings of animals to his heart-breaking and heart-healing response to the Great War; through association with Eric Gill’s Ditchling community to a transcending vision encompassing all these influences and more, baptised in his growing faith as a Catholic.
Those waves are to be seen in Jones’s seascapes and in the snow-bloated torrent of the infant River Honddu above Capel-y-ffyn where the Ditchling brethren stayed for a while. Jones, like many a part-Welshman or woman felt a strong affinity with the Land of his Fathers. His visions of the Black Mountains or Pembrokeshire are truer than this writer’s summer’s day photographs; it requires a specially blest pair of eyes to see the beauty in melting snow, with the smudgy ochre of the mud bruising through the surface. Thank God those eyes can teach us, the half-blind, to look and to see.
Just a few yards from the Channel, behind the dunes where we walked, lay the quiet waters of Chichester Harbour. The peace was interrupted by a passing Chinook helicopter. No need to seek out memories of War in Jones’s work, any more than in life today with its constant news of conflict. In one work an aeroplane over Hampstead Heath seems threatened by a plume of smoke from a domestic chimney. In another, showing the back gardens of Brockley, the suburb where he was born, the curators discern reflections of the Trenches of the Western Front, though to my eye any of them could have welcomed the down to earth Christ of Stanley Spencer.
There is a small woodcut of the Ark, beached on the mountaintop, the waters gently ebbing from her keel as the dove flies to the olive tree in the foreground, where she will pluck a leaf from the tentative shoots on its blasted branches. In the background: is that the Dawn, or searchlights playing over the trenches and shattered trees of Picardy?
In a student sketch from soon after the War, Christ is crucified behind British Tommies dicing for his garments. The later ‘Vexilla Regis’ shows a triumph, set in Wales. His rough Cross is formed from two trees, hacked to stumps in the background. Yet not all Jones’s trees are abused by humankind. The first tentative buds are to be felt rather than seen while a thrush on ‘Laetare Sunday’ sins his heart out: to the mother of his chicks or to his Creator? Rejoice, rejoice! There is reason to rejoice, and joy for David Jones sprang from the wells of his Catholic faith and his Welsh roots whose stories sit well with Revelation.
For Jones the essence is that God so loved the world he created that he gave his Son to complete that loving story. Redemption includes all creation, with the trees and the animals processing into the Ark in another woodcut. The Artist who receives from God the eye and brush to whiten the waves or black the cheetah’s spots and make us look, works sheltered beneath a Cross-topped portico, surrounded by animals, in a woodcut made for Gill.
Gill, surely, awoke in Jones the love of beautiful lettering that appears in works toward the end of this exhibition. Each bears long and repeated gazing, even if many of the words are unknown to the beholder. But long and repeated gazing will offer wealth to the viewer. There is almost too much here to take in. I hope I am able to visit again.
This review has also appeared in the International Catholic News website: