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Great Works

Great Works: July Change, 1930, by David Jones

Kearley Bequest, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester

This is the kind of spot from which David Jones, poet, painter, calligrapher, would often be looking, beside a window, safely on the inside, squinting out on to the promise of a garden or the promise of a sea.

Jones was several men in one. He wrote "In Parenthesis", a classic of Modernist prose that re-cast his experiences as an infantryman in the Great War. Later in life, he wrote densely allusive verse such as a long poem called The Anathemata. He was also a painter who liked to contemplate a modicum of natural chaos from a position of shelter.

As far as his watercolour paintings were concerned, he had three great years, from 1929 to 1932, and many of the paintings of those years share a quality of lightness that seems to border on intangibility. Everything in front of our eyes seems to be on the point of dancing, as if to tantalise us by its qualities of clarity, limpidity, fluidity.

Even though there is no hint of a human presence, this painting feels intensely autobiographical. We experience Jones's own fragility as a human being. We feel it in the quick, evanescent quality of his line. At other times, Jones's paintings could be heavy with religious symbolism that occasionally plodded – not so here. This is all lightness, airiness, a kind of beautiful riot buoyed up by, bobbing through, that all-over suffusion of such delicate blueness. Nothing wants to be pinned down. We look at – and we also look through. The lines are fine, fragile, semi-transparent. So much here looks utterly ordinary – those scissors, that slightly wonky window latch, the flowers, which seem so haphazardly gathered into receptacles – and yet it also feels extraordinarily particular, a moment transfigured, set apart from the rest, by the weaving, lulling, shapeless shapeliness of it all.

We do not know where exactly it was painted – it could have been one of two favourite houses, in Buckinghamshire or Northumberland, at which he was a frequent visitor-cum-long-term house guest. There are no rigid rules of perspective observed here. This vision has no truck with perspective. It came at him all at once, and in the same way it comes at us. The window, and what may or may not exist beyond that window, is at little greater distance from us than that table top and its multiple offerings of flowers. In fact, what may or may not exist beyond the window also feels to be a part of what exists on this side of the window too. The two realms, the outside and the inside, seem to be reaching out to each other, almost interpenetrating.

The whole thing, this opening out into the plenitude of Julyness – that is what the painting's title seems to suggest – is here at a rush, and the painting is a celebration of how the mood and the overwhelming presence of it have engulfed the painter. Much of the painting of the 20th century has been called, with some degree of resignation, pessimistic – as if the essence of humanity, its natural condition, is a kind of godless bleakness and negativity, as if Francis Bacon's vision, its near bestial howl, is the truly authentic one. This painting seems to suggest the opposite.

The word anathemata, as Jones unpicks it in the introduction to that poem cited earlier, means a lifting up and a setting apart of something for our particular savouring. That is art' s purpose. That is what art is. An old-fashioned notion? Hmm. This is such a moment. The humdrum table beside a window with its bottle of – ink?; those scissors; that partially open sash window; the crowdingly inquisitive ivy leaves peeking in; those flowers – spilling out in all directions at once – all this is utterly ordinary and utterly extraordinary in its perfectly transfigured, wholly engulfing and uplifting ordinariness.

About the artist: David Jones

David Jones was born in Brockley, south London in 1895 and died on 28 October 1974. Painter and poet, his work has a visionary quality which puts one in mind of William Blake. In spite of the fact that he was a Londoner, his mind and his heart were much preoccupied by the idea of Wales, its ancientness, its inexhaustible mythic appeal.