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Jones, (Walter) David Michael [pseud. Dai Greatcoat] (1895–1974), painter and poet, was born on 1 November 1895 in Brockley, Kent, the younger son and youngest of three children of James Jones, printer, from Holywell, Flintshire, and his wife, Alice Ann, former governess, daughter of Ebenezer Bradshaw, a mast and block maker of Rotherhithe, London. His father's father was a master plasterer from Ysgeifiog, his mother's mother Italian. His father worked on the Flintshire Observer until 1883 and knew some Welsh songs; David learned what Welsh he knew later. He was baptized Walter, which name he discarded. His earliest animal drawings, some of which survive, date from 1902 or 1903. From 1910 to 1914 he attended Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts under A. S. Hartrick (who had known Van Gogh and Gauguin) and others.

After trying to join the Artists' Rifles and some new Welsh cavalry, Jones enlisted in the Welch fusiliers on 2 January 1915, serving as a private soldier until December 1918, in a London unit of Lloyd George's ‘Welsh army’. He was wounded in the leg on the night of 11 July 1916 in the attack on Mametz Wood on the Somme. He returned to action in October but by chance avoided the Passchendaele offensive. He left France with severe trench fever in February 1918. On demobilization he wished at first to rejoin, but accepted a grant and some parental help to work (1919–21) at Westminster School of Art. He already spoke at that time of post-impressionist theory fitting in with Catholic sacramental theology, and in 1921 became a Roman Catholic and went to work under A. Eric R. Gill, then at Ditchling in Sussex, and from August 1924 at Capel-y-ffin in the Black Mountains near the Welsh border. Jones was brought up at home on Bunyan and Milton, but with strong touches of inherited Catholic feelings; he had been deeply moved by a mass just behind the front line glimpsed through a barn wall. He had liked the businesslike atmosphere. His first job was to paint the lettering of the war memorial at New College, Oxford.

In 1924 Jones got engaged to Gill's daughter, Petra. His close friend René Hague was in love with her sister, Joan, and married her, but Jones had little money and no prospects; Petra broke off the engagement in 1927 to marry someone else, and Jones never did marry, though he was not homosexual and had amitiés amoureuses, mostly conducted on the telephone as he grew older. He visited the Gills at Pigotts in Buckinghamshire often until 1933, but he was too devoted to his work and usually too poor not to live alone. His closest friends loved him intensely; they included Tom Burns, Harman Grisewood, Douglas Cleverdon, Jim Ede, Father M. C. D'Arcy, and Helen Sutherland, his greatest patron. He spent time in the 1920s on Caldy Island, in Bristol, at Brockley with his parents, in Berkshire with Robert Gibbings of the Golden Cockerel Press, and in France. In 1928 Ben Nicholson had him elected to the , where he exhibited with Henry Moore, Christopher Wood, Barbara Hepworth, and John Piper. The same year he began In Parenthesis (1937), which has its climax at Mametz in the First World War. This book won the 1938 Hawthornden prize.

The delicacy and freshness of Jones's colours, and the purity and power of his forms as a painter, let alone the strength and grace of his engraving work and his occasional wooden sculpture, would be enough to win him a high place among the artists of his generation and in a tradition that goes back to William Blake, whose nature and genius with many differences David Jones recalls. His work as a poet, in In Parenthesis, The Anathemata (1952), and The Sleeping Lord (1974), was almost more impressive, and in the lettering and the texts of his ‘inscriptions’, words painted on paper, he devised a new and moving art. In his severest engravings he was warm, in painting of solemn beauty lyrical and humorous. His visions of nature were as fresh as Ysgeifiog, his poetry as thrilling and abundant as the Thames at Rotherhithe. He greatly admired the Cornish fisherman painter Alfred Wallis.

Jones's intellectual insights were profound and complex. They were based on a restless and never-ending meditation of the art of painting, of theology for which he had a brilliant flair, of the nature of technology, of heroic legends, prehistoric archaeology, and the history of the British Isles. He admired James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, Baron Friedrich Von Hügel, Christopher Dawson, and Père de la Taille; at least for a few years in the late 1930s he flirted heavily with Oswald Spengler's Decline of the West and unseriously with Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf, although he was innocent of the faintest trace of fascism; he simply loved mankind, and hated what everyone hates about modern times. In London in the blitz he wrote a lot of poetry, painted some of his finest mythical paintings, and began his great ‘inscriptions’. His Aphrodite in Aulis (1941) is the goddess and lover of dying soldiers both German and English. His work was grossly interrupted by eye trouble from 1930 onwards, by a severe breakdown in 1932 with chronic insomnia, and then by a worse attack in 1947. He bore all this with an uncomplaining goodness that he seemed to have learnt in the trenches.

In 1934 Jones was taken to Cairo and Jerusalem by Tom Burns. The British uniforms in Jerusalem, and the coincidence of the tenth legion having crucified Christ and served later in Britain, begot in his mind the equivalence of British and Roman soldiers, and his central statement, The Anathemata. In the later 1930s he lived mostly at Sidmouth, Devon. After the 1947 breakdown he lived in fine rooms on the hill at Harrow, later in a little hotel in the town, and in the end in Calvary Nursing Home, Sudbury Hill, Harrow, where he was looked after by the nuns. Among the new friends of his last years were Nancy Sandars, archaeologist, and Philip Lowry, silversmith.

Jones had a boyish gaiety and a charmingly wide smile. His conversation was full of humour and inventive parody; his sympathy and the range of his interest were extraordinarily wide. The fulcrum of his morality was the decency of the infantrymen of 1914. Under stress he would drop his shopping, lose his papers, or find himself smoking two cigarettes, one in each hand. His notes became long writings, and his letters, annotated in several colours, tumbled effortlessly from sheet to sheet and subject to subject like the dialogues of Plato. He concentrated on a friend, on a subject of conversation, on a detail of any kind, historical or technical or visual or intellectual, with uncommon intensity. His eyes twinkled and glittered deeply.

Jones's first retrospective exhibition at the National Museum of Wales and the Tate Gallery was in 1954–5, his second (posthumously) in 1981. He was appointed CBE in 1955 and CH in 1974. He won many prizes and awards, and received the honorary degree of DLitt from the University of Wales in 1960. He died at the Calvary Nursing Home, Sudbury Hill, Harrow, on 28 October 1974, after some years of increasing illness. Serious study of his work has been sustained since his death by Jonathan Miles and Derek Shiel, particularly in their David Jones: the Maker Unmade (1995).

Peter Levi, rev.

Sources  

R. Hague, ed., Dai Greatcoat: a self-portrait of David Jones in his letters (1986) · P. Hills, David Jones (1981) [exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London, 21 July – 6 Sept 1981] · David Jones, The Roman quarry (1981) · C. Hughes, David Jones: the man who was in the field (1979) · private information (1986) · M. James, David Jones, 1895–1974: a map of the artist's mind (1995) · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1974)

Archives  

NL Wales, corresp. and literary papers · Tate collection, drawings and watercolours, photographs, sketchbooks |  Georgetown University, Washington, DC, corresp. with Harman Grisewood, papers, literary manuscripts, and artwork · Kettle's Yard, Cambridge, letters to H. S. Ede · NL Wales, letters to Douglas Cleverdon · NL Wales, letters to J. Saunders Lewis · NL Wales, letters to John Petts · NL Wales, letters to Kathleen Raine · Tate collection, letters to Douglas Cleverdon · Tate collection, letters to Pamela Donner [photocopies] · Tate collection, material collected by René Hague · University of Exeter Library, letters to W. F. Jackson · University of Toronto, letters to René Hague · Yale U., Beinecke L., corresp. with Harman Grisewood


Likenesses  

Snowdon, bromide print, 1964, NPG · M. Gerson, cibachrome print from original transparency, 1965, NPG · J. Stone, bromide print, 1966, NPG · N. Elder, two bromide prints, 1973, NPG · R. H. Jones, drawing, 1974, NMG Wales · J. Finzi, pencil drawing, U. Reading

Wealth at death  

£18,662: administration, 31 Dec 1974, CGPLA Eng. & Wales