Rare Welsh bits

Was David Jones really a great Welsh artist?
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The Independent Culture
THE pleasant municipal gallery in Hove is the only English venue for the David Jones retrospective organised by David Alston of the National Museum of Wales. The show goes to Cardiff in February; but I recommend a visit to Hove, because Jones seems quite as much at home in Sussex as in the land of his fathers. At their best, his watercolours have the freshness of the seas of the Channel coast. And they are closely related to the middle-class illustration of the Twenties and Thirties that so flourished in the southern counties.

Jones made a lot of his Welshness, and he's celebrated in the principality as one of the greatest Welsh artists, there not being much competition for this distinction. I stubbornly regard him as an Englishman, a sort of soulful internal refugee. His father was Welsh, his mother English, and he lived in Wales only between 1924 and 1927. Jones was born in Brockley, went to Camberwell Art School and then was immediately shipped off to the trenches. He never really recovered - attempting to come to terms with the terrible nature of the conflict in his In Parenthesis, finally published in 1937, but this mixture of poetry and prose lacks focus.

The same might be said of his art. The wandering pencil lines, frequent elisions and blottesque watercolour effects evade rather than define his subjects. Jones's art is that of a man in search of a memory. It's not about modern human life. The pervading theme is a wistful desire for a mythical and pastoral world that never existed. Hence the importance to Jones of a completely fictitious medieval Wales and his belief in "the particular genius of places, men, trees, animals, and yet withal a pervading sense of metamorphosis and mutability. That trees are men walking. That words 'Bind and loose material things...' "

Such tosh is bad for any artist, or indeed any tree. How can people publish such opinions, and why does Alston quote them with approval? I guess that Jones had difficulty in being an adult, a condition more common in writers than in artists. His Map of Themes in the Artist's Mind of 1943 is like an adolescent's notebook. Merlin James's catalogue introduction stresses the importance of Jones's conversion to Catholicism in 1921. He claims that Catholicism at that time "represented a radical (even chic) cultural and intellectual ambience". But he doesn't really argue this case, and Jones was neither chic nor radical, let alone an intellectual.

His art isn't specific enough. For the umpteenth time we notice how artists who go on about "the genius of the place" make all places look the same. In sheet after sheet, sheepfolds, hillocks and trailing foliage peep out from a miasma of sentiment. There are all sorts of little bits and pieces, for Jones was inclined to overwork his vagueness. He should have done more engraving (or woodcutting) to correct this weakness. His lettering is rather good. But his characteristic medium, watercolour with pencil, coloured chalk and body colour, allowed him a fussy self-indulgence. I also wish that he had painted more. The best works in Hove are two oil portraits, not that you can tell who their subjects might be.

Apart from the war, the major episode in Jones's life was his association with Eric Gill. First of all he joined the charismatic craftsman in the Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic, a lay Dominican fraternity based in Sussex. Then he followed Gill to his own community inWales. So his Welsh period is also his Gill period. It seems that he was in love with Gill's daughter Petra, yet aware of Petra's passionate attachment to her father. Something ought to have been done about such circumstances, but Jones's response was to dream all the more about King Arthur, the Welsh myth cycle of Y Mabinogion and Trystan ac Essyllt.

Because Jones's art scarcely developed he seems all the more a helpless victim of his life. His latter days were spent in a bed-sit in Harrow. He died in 1974, and the exhibition catalogue is made even sadder by friends' reminiscences. Without a doubt, his art is overrated, especially by literary folk. The fact is that you can't get anywhere with soft medievalism. But Jones's seascapes are attractive. So are interiors such as The Engraver's Workshop, and in The Maid at No 37 of 1926 we find an unexpected touch of humour and a frank appreciation of the girl's bottom. It's a little like Stanley Spencer - who, all in all, was a much more substantial artist.

! Hove Art Gallery (01273 779410), to 28 Jan; National Museum of Wales, Cardiff (01222 397951), 17 February to 31 March.