It was in the afternoon sunshine at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge that I first saw David Jones’s painted inscription ‘Quia per incarnati’ in the flesh. In this eccentric work of painted calligraphy, with quotations from the Latin Mass crowding for space, each letter has its own life and character. When I had first seen it reproduced in black and white in Jones’s long, late-modernist poem The Anathemata (1952), ‘Quia per incarnati’ had looked like a stone carving recently unearthed from the deep past. Seen in Kettle’s Yard, however, it was clear why Jones considered his painted inscriptions to be his “own form of abstraction”: it looked like nothing I had ever seen before, ancient or modern.
Even though this Anglo-Welsh artist and First World War poet was widely acclaimed by the luminaries of his day, including T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden and Kenneth Clark, Jones has slipped into something like obscurity since then. Yet at times, among those who know of him, it can feel like Jones is a password or a secret key that grants access to untold revelations, treasures and insights. Say his name, profess devotion, and before you know it a lost print is being pulled down from a bookshelf, a memory is shared, a book finds its way into your hands, or a promise of some pilgrimage is made. There is always a story to be told about how and where Jones was discovered, because, with all the revelation of a religious conversion, Jones must be discovered.
This month I had a review-essay published on Marginalia, for the Los Angeles Review of Books, of the new David Jones book, Vision and Memory. The review gave me the opportunity to read the book with a leisurely eye, to spend time with its detail, but also encouraged me to remember what it was like to encounter the work of David Jones for the first time. It was a nostalgic experience as well as a critical one. The new book is fabulous in so many ways; the reproduction of Jones’s work is like nothing ever published before and does justice to the subtle inflections of his watercolours.
One of the most interesting things the new book taught me was how to map out my own David Jones tour of the National Gallery – finding unseen connections between the delicate lines and lucid colours of Jones’s watercolours and the work of the masters who I have also admired for many years, including El Greco and Rubens.