19 AUGUST 1989, Page 25

Master of mystery

Alan Powers


John Taylor/Lund Humphries in association with the Tate Gallery, £37.50, pp. 184

David Jones (1894-1974) was not only a painter, but a poet, engraver and maker of inscriptions. Nicolete Gray has taken the paintings on their own, having written a book on the inscriptions in 1981. She writes, 'To me he was primarily a painter rather than a poet (I find painting easier to enjoy)', and her text continues with equal directness, describing rather than trying to unravel the complexities of Jones's subject pictures from his later years. If this introduces a new audience to Jones's work, so much the better, since in spite of the literary turn of his mind, many

of the paintings need no exegesis. They are now increasingly prized by collectors, although of necessity rarely seen in public galleries. They are nearly all large water- colours, loosely worked in thin prismatic washes, often built up into many layers. Nicolete Gray speculates whether in 1932, when a nervous breakdown severely inter- rupted his development as a painter, David Jones 'would have gone further in [a] more abstract direction', and concludes that 'the struggle to reconcile all the richly diverse elements in his mind within the formal unity of each work is the characteristic which gives his painting its unique quality'. The breakdown has never been explained fully. The sufferer, inevitably, could not understand it, yet if a convincing analysis were possible, we might have the key to David Jones's mind. His friend the histo- rian Christopher Dawson wrote in 1932, `There is a general feeling that our civilisa- tion is drifting to destruction, but nobody knows what is to be done about it'. It was this awareness, it seems, that made it impossible for Jones, and most of his contemporaries, to continue painting with the innocent freshness of the 1920s.

David Jones did before long find some- thing to do about it, but his most complex ideas defied painting, and were incorpo- rated in his writings. His reaction to people talking of 'mystery', 'subtlety' and 'com- plexity' in his work was to say

Well, Christ almighty! what else is there in a bunch of flowers or a tree . . . or a girl or the sky, but these qualities . . the blasted stuff is there plain as a pikestaff — the bugger of it is how to 'transubstantiate' these qualities into whatever medium one is using.

He did, in fact, make many paintings in the latter part of his career which work over some of the same ground as his writings, such as the Arthurian 'matter of Britain' and overlapping of Christian and pagan mythologies. The interchange between Ship off Ynys Byr, 1925 (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford) painting and writing is obviously a fruitful subject for investigation, and although Nicolete Gray is worried about the off- putting effect of over-explanation, she gives useful guidance, often through quota- tions from the artist, on how to approach the meaning of the works.

Perhaps one day the whole oeuvre will be brought into a single focus, in a manner not yet achieved. Meanwhile, it is better to have Nicolete Gray's visually based account, elegantly written, than a tortured example of academic prose. As a compan- ion volume, Paul Hills's excellent Tate Gallery exhibition catalogue of 1981 enters further into David Jones's world of refer- ence, and we are promised a catalogue raisonne by Hills in due course. The present book is sensibly old-fashioned in its separation of text and pictures, allowing the text a pleasant off-white paper and wide margins, and the plates, on a smoother white paper, a whole opening each. Much is made of the quality of reproduction, but I must confess dis- appointment that at this price better results were not obtained. The subtleties of Jones's watercolour technique have always been difficult to reproduce, but although the printers worked with direct access to most of the originals, some of the colouring seems too hot and the screening unneces- sarily coarse. Still, with 62 colour plates, one is getting closer to the work than ever before, short of standing in front of it.