Saturday, November 07, 2015

The pass where Roland fell

We went down to Chichester last weekend to see the Pallant House David Jones exhibition. I have written here before about Jones' book The Anathemata but not previously described his paintings, which are discussed in the excellent catalogue by Ariane Bankes and Paul Hills.  Landscape became a central concern for Jones in the late 1920s when he lived with Eric Gill's family at Capel-y-ffin (shown above on the cover of the book).  After his turn to writing and breakdown in 1932 there are fewer landscapes and these mainly views from windows ("I like looking out on the world from a reasonably sheltered position").  Finally, after the war, there are his tree paintings - simples studies to begin with and then, in 1947-8, the complex multi-layered symbolic vision Vexilla Regis which now hangs at Kettle's Yard, the home of his friend Jim Ede.  I like what it says of Jones on the Poetry Foundation website: 'he spent the last years of his life quietly working, trying to salvage the remnants of traditional Western culture from the onslaught of the twentieth century'.  Paul Hills suggests that Jones' art, which became unfashionable when 'any whiff of the literary or the illustrative in painting was suspect', may find a new audience in a world where major figures like Sebald, Twombly and Keifer are revered for their interweaving of personal memory, history and myth.

Here are three examples of David Jones landscape paintings that reach into the past:
  • Y Twmpa, Nant Honddu (1926) - a view of the distinctive hill visible from Capel-y-ffin. 'The Welsh hill ponies in the foreground, gracefully cropping the turf, were a motif to which Jones returned throughout his life; for him they represented a living link to the last days of Arthurian Britain, when the riderless horses of Arthur's defeated knights 'gone to grass in forest and on mountain, seem as their masters to have a new yet aboriginal liberty.'' 
  •  Roman Land (1928) - a seemingly timeless view of farmland made on Jones' first trip abroad since his return from the trenches.  'The plough team, drawn by oxen,' Jones wrote, 'seemed to sum up the whole feeling of France as part of the Imperium and that is why it is called Roman Land.'
  • Landscape, Salies-de-Béarn (1928) - a vibrant painting with echoes of Bonnard and Dufy painted on the same trip.  In a footnote to his book In Parenthesis Jones says he associates Béarn with Le Chanson de Roland 'because, once, looking from a window in Salies-de-Béarn I could see a gap in the hills, which my hostess told me was indeed the pass where Roland fell.'

    Jean Fouquet, The death of Roland at the Battle of Roncevaux, c.1455–1460 

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