The lost great modernist: the unpredictable life of David Jones

Thomas Dilworth on an artist who has slipped through the floorboards of history—who he believes was "far greater" than Blake
June 22, 2017
David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet by Thomas Dilworth (Jonathan Cape, £25)

David Jones, described here by his biographer Thomas Dilworth as “the lost great modernist,” has slipped through the floorboards of history. A beguiling painter and a peerless engraver, Jones also produced a body of poetry unique in form and esoteric in content. Dilworth, who considers Jones “far greater” than William Blake, invokes his most famous admirers, including TS Eliot, Igor Stravinsky, Evelyn Waugh and the Queen Mother.

Born in 1895 into an East London household in Brockley, Jones grew up without speaking his forefathers’ Welsh language. He would come to regard this as his “bitterest grief,” but it was a crowded field. The Great War interfered with his education: Jones fought for two years on the Western Front, longer, Dilworth says, than any other British writer.

The war bequeathed to Jones his Roman Catholicism and recurrent depression. His religious feeling, always attractively heterodox, propelled him into the orbit of the Sussex artist Eric Gill, from whom Jones acquired his mastery of engraving, without conforming to Gill’s dictatorial expectations. (Dilworth’s one lapse is to downplay Gill’s well-documented sexual abuse of his children, especially considering Jones’s disastrous betrothal to Gill’s second daughter).

Little about Jones was predictable. He declared himself both a Pre-Raphaelite and a modernist. He admired Thomas Malory over any other author, but abhorred the “bogus” Spenser. Dilworth traces Jones’s decline in the 1960s and 1970s, but transmutes this chronicle of growing indigence and overlooked genius into an oddly cheering narrative. His love of his subject is both clear and wildly infectious.