The Art of David Jones: the slow transmission of cultural identity

At the start of the BBC series The Art that Made Us, Antony Gormley peers intently at Spong Man, a small fifth-century Anglo-Saxon clay figure seized by existential anguish. We next see Gormley in his studio with a small clay figure hunched by lockdown depression. In the programmes that follow, we witness many such creative encounters as contemporary artists working in different media respond to artefacts produced in the British Isles over the last fifteen centuries, each work adding to ‘the art that made us’. For the programme makers and scholars taking part, that ‘us’, from the fifth-century onwards, has been a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic one, fashioned by invasion and migration, conflict and fusion. 

Jasmine Hunter Evans: David Jones and Rome: Reimagining the Decline of Western Civilisation
(Oxford University Press, 2022),

Two beautifully written and rigorously researched studies suggest David Jones would have endorsed the programme’s notion of creative repetition and cultural entanglement, although he would have started earlier with the Roman invasion of Britain. In David Jones and Rome, Jasmine Hunter Evans suggests that for Jones, without the cultural and religious inheritances of Rome, including Catholicism, Britain would not have been part of the West. She explores Jones’s engagement with the legacy of Rome in the work of his friends and contemporaries, Christopher Dawson, W. F. Jackson Knight and T.S.Eliot. Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West convinced him he was living at the turn of a civilisation but he rejected irreversible decline as hopelessly fatalistic. While Jones made clear in The Roman Quarry, The Sleeping Lord and the fragments in The Grail Mass that Rome was an imperial power which over-ran and exploited local cultures, it was also the conduit of Greek, Latin, pre-Christian and Christian cultures to them. Since Latin was absorbed first into Welsh rather than English, this made Wales the earliest and the most continuously Romanised culture, both pagan and Christian, in Britain, a view he shared with his friend Saunders Lewis, the founding father of Plaid Cymru. Hunter Evans makes Jones’s writings her focus but she also explores how Jones represented such views in his art works and multi-lingual inscriptions from the 1940s onwards. 

In David Jones and the Medieval Modern, using Jones’s extensive comments in his collection of books of Anglo-Saxon literature and scholarship, Francesca Brooks shows the depth of his interest and knowledge. This may seem surprising. In The Art that Made Us, Spong Man is followed by a seventh-century Welsh heroic lament, Y Gododdin, recounting the bravery of three hundred Welsh-speaking Romano-British Christian warriors slaughtered by the Anglo-Saxons as they establish dominance in the island. Y Gododdin recorded a catastrophe but for Jones it was not the end. His formidable long prose-poem The Anathemata, Brooks argues, offers a multi-cultural ‘scholarly poetics’ that challenges through its own multi-lingual word play traditional accounts of Anglo-Saxon dominance, so important to nineteenth and twentieth-century justifications of English supremacy within Britain and the Empire.

Francesca Brooks: Poet of the Medieval Modern: Reading the Early Medieval Library with David Jones
(Oxford University Press, 2021), 

For Jones, the record is far more complex. Inter-marriage and bi-lingualism, as well as a later common Christianity, brought Anglo-Saxon and Celtic cultures together. In rich and detailed readings, Brooks presents Jones’s preface to The Anathemata as a critique of King Alfred’s attempts to form through translation an ‘Angelcynn’ culture, just as she notes Jones’s  rejection of Bede’s history of the English church which excluded a pre-existent Celtic Christianity and saw in the conversion of the English people God’s providential design. In one section of the poem, Jones finds in the life of a hermit-saint in the Fens evidence that undermines mono-cultural readings of its Anglo-Saxon settlement; and at the end he finds in an Anglo-Saxon poem about the Crucifixion and in the details on the Ruthwell Cross evidence of Britain’s mixed and hybrid culture. There have been in the last decade several first-rate studies of Jones to which the illuminating studies of Hunter Evans and Brooks will add, but importantly, they put his writings and art at the centre of current reflections on cultural transmission and identity in the British Isles. 

Francesca Brooks: Poet of the Medieval Modern: Reading the Early Medieval Library with David Jones (Oxford University Press, 2021),  pp.330, pbk., £18.99.

Jasmine Hunter Evans: David Jones and Rome: Reimagining the Decline of Western Civilisation (Oxford University Press, 2022), pp. 421, hbk., £90.00.

Alistair Davies

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