Rediscovered genius: David Jones at Pallant House and Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft

By Mark Sheerin | 27 October 2015

Exhibition: David Jones – Vision and Memory, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, until February 23 2016; The Animals of David Jones, Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft, until February 1 2016

Watercolour painting of a desk, window and vase of flowers
David Jones, The Artist's Worktable (1929)© Private Collection. Courtesy Pallant House
Pallant in Chichester has become the go-to gallery for underrated 20th century British artists. Recent years have seen shows by Leon Underwood, Keith Vaughan and Edward Burra. The latest overlooked subject to be found here is David Jones. Jones is a bullseye for the Sussex venue, since for a period he lived and worked in the region, as apprentice to Eric Gill in Ditchling.

As one might expect from this association, Jones was an expert wood engraver. His skills in this field are demonstrated here by a series of compact square prints upon the theme of the Deluge. In terms of composition, these are complex and intense works with a dynamic sense of perspective that more or less plunges you into the scene. Under construction, the keel of the ark cuts a diagonal swathe through one of the panels. In another the animals don’t just approach two by two, they look about themselves and set up pictorial correspondences.

Wood engraved print of Noah's ark with dove in foreground
The Dove (1927)© NWM. Courtesy Pallant House
No matter how small these black and white scenes, there is a lot going on and the same must be said of his numerous watercolours which form the bulk of the show. Jones painted landscapes, portraits and still lives, many of which now resemble a pale flurry of sinuous line, delicate colours and broad swathes of grey background wash. He has a reputation for a prodigious range of different types of brushstroke, and it is surely these which also contribute to the overload of visual information in his best work.

One example of this is his portrait of Eric Gill’s daughter Petra, in which a distant face and elegant pair of hands are almost lost in a vortex of flowers and petals. Flowers in the background compete with the flowers on her dress. The result is like a hurricane in a florist’s. And a similar effect can be found in several still lives in which Jones energises wildflowers in glass chalices. But there is nothing ‘still’ about these scenes and the artist is a great conductor of energy.

Jones was engaged to Petra Gill for three years before his fiancée broke off the engagement. As one might expect from a show at Pallant, a strong sense of biography comes through in his exhibition. It was an interesting life. The painter fought for three years in the First World War and was wounded in the Somme in 1916. In addition to his skill as an engraver and a watercolourist, one has to recognise David Jones as a major poet. TS Eliot described his best known work, In Parenthesis, as a work of genius.

Watercolout painting of woman in floral pattern dress
Petra im Rosenhag (1931)© NMW. Courtesy Pallant House
But don’t write off this artist and poet as a dilettante. Visitors to the show in Chichester will soon discover he was, according to Kenneth Clarke, an artistic genius too. The two specialisms are here brought together by a number of typographical inscriptions, for the most part in Latin, which express Jones’ visual approach to poetry and perhaps poetical approach to painting. Certainly the tag of genius is hard to refute, especially given one or two of the early works at the concurrent show at Ditchling.

The most notable of these is a sketch of a dancing bear which would be beyond most non-artists, but which Jones executed at the tender age of seven, the only concession to childhood perhaps a boy’s focus on the beast’s claws and muzzled jaw. Later he captures what Franz Marc, another great painter of animals, described as “the inner, spiritual side of nature”. The opaque eyes of his deer  prove that he could convey a sense in which animals, like humans, dream.

Jones was also a great painter of cats, both domestic and big, and his drawing here of a tiger picking over the bones of a high-ranking British soldier is not without humour. Indeed, Pallant has revived a painter with wit, verve, technique, and vision. David Jones has everything, except perhaps fame.

  • Pallant: Admission £4.50-£10 (further concessions available, £4.50-£5 all day Tuesday, 5pm-8pm Thursday). Open 10am-5pm (8pm Thursday; 11am-5pm Sunday). Closed Monday, December 25-27 and January 1. Open 11am-5pm December 28, 10am-4pm December 24 and 31. Follow the gallery on Twitter @PallantGallery and Facebook.

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Visit Mark Sheerin's contemporary art blog and follow him on Twitter.
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Within the exhibition of David Jones is there a painting of the she wolf & Romulus & Remus please?
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