Jones, David - VM - Kirstin Jeffrey Johnson
David Jones: Animals Kneeling
Come Worship and Bow Down
by Kirstin Jeffrey Johnson
They do say that on this night
in the warm byres […] and on the sweet lawns of Britain
the breathing animals-all do kneel.
Even in Britain, thousands of miles from Bethlehem, thousands of years from the Nativity, animals-all still kneel – so the old tales say – on the eve that Christ is born. And so David Jones celebrates in this Christmas art what could be called a 'mythopoeic moment': incarnationally real when it occurred 2000 years ago, yet still transformationally true today, continuing to transform lives 2000 years on. The birth that happened in Bethlehem calling to every part of us, not only as viewers but as fellow participants in worship: the historical, the physical, the mythical, the creaturely – all.
Jones’ natal piece is clearly one of adoration. And one that seems naively simple at first: Animals Kneeling, a familiar scene in accessible, flowing, curving lines. But Jones is forever interweaving ancient tales and mystic lore and Christian texts in a manner that sources our deepest resonances and then re-presents their echoes in new polyphonies. Very intentionally. He believes that the historically real Incarnation permeates every material of creation, even that fashioned by humans. On this card reverberate tales about all of creation celebrating again and again Christ’s nativity – the ox and ass of the lowly stable, the leopard and deer of the Peaceable Kingdom, the birds of earth and air and fable giving homage. Beneath the natal star even the trees lean in – both that full-in-leaf and that broken-yet-enduring, like a branch in the tree of Jesse (Isaiah 11:1). Flowers bloom, despite December. The hills and river echo the landscape of Jones’ location at the time – the Black Mountains of Wales – and yet are not so visually distant either from the Judean hills: “adaptations” and “fusions” Jones writes, “but always inward continuities of the site, of place”; landscape as viscerally present as the creatures it holds.
Still, at first, this seems a tender piece of childlike simplicity, and Jones did believe in art simply bringing delight and pleasure. Yet for him the layers are always multivalent, and if one chooses to delve deeper, one discovers much on which to reflect. For Jones both animals and landscape serve as timeless reminders that we are but a part of God’s creation. A deer grazing on a hillside today appears no different than it did in pre-Roman Britain; regardless of the follies, tragedies or accomplishments of humankind, deer graze on, just the same. Imaged on this card, in a tradition beyond time, such trans-historical creatures (as Jones called them) acknowledge the Christmas miracle of their Creator and the artist with his text invites us to actively join with him and them.
"Quare fremuerunt gentes et populi meditati sunt inania?” voices the font that frames the picture’s congregants. It is the beginning of Psalm 2: “Why do the nations rage? Why do the peoples think vain things?” In 1927, when this card was created, this would have been a familiar Latin phrase to any who attended the Christmas Eve Mass, the First Mass of Christ’s Day. It is the first introit (entrance) of the New Year, part of the opening of the liturgical celebration of the Eucharist. In its most complete version it consists of an antiphon, psalm verse and Gloria Patri that is spoken or sung at the beginning of the celebration. The traditional liturgical response to the query is a later verse from the same psalm: “The Lord said to me, ‘You are my Son, this day I have begotten You.’” That is answer enough.
More than simply showing the antiphonal engagement of timeless creation in this event, Jones’ Christmas card also celebrates the ever-presence of the historic and mystic and cosmic Incarnation. His card invites response from the human viewers to set aside rages and vanities and instead participate with the rest of creation, who already kneel before the Grand Proclamation. The invitation is visual and verbal and, Jones being a devout celebrant of music, aural: to view his image of this introit whilst listening to Saint-Saens’ choral rendition is to be shaken out of any presumption of sentimentality straight into an apprehension of majesty. Saint-Saens’ liturgical piece helps the contemporary viewer unfamiliar with the Mass appreciate the true sentiment of Jones’ composition. Try it now: Saint-Saens’ No 6 introit.
This is a Grand Entrance, an event which can but cause all of creation to kneel, then and always. Jones believed that what happened in the Mass “defined and undergirded all art” and that art itself is a sacramental sign of “something other.” It is evocative, says Jones, “incantive [with] the power of ‘recalling’, of ‘bringing to mind’.” And when one allows the choral swelling of Saint-Saens to give even further dimension to Jones’ polyphonic invitation to ‘come worship and bow down,’ the evocatively tender proves majestically, timelessly true.
David Jones: Animals Kneeling, 1927, drypoint on paper (made by incising lines on a copper plate with a diamond-tipped needle and then printing from the plate), 177x138mm. Printed as Christmas card.
David Jones, CH, CBE (1895-1974) made Christmas cards from the age of at least eight. His Welsh printer father replicated the work encouraged by Jones’ artistic Cockney mother and sent them out from their London suburb home. It was a practice Jones continued as an adult. Animals were often part of these festive images, being of life-long fascination for Jones and primary subjects of his earliest studies – his leopards and bears from the ages of 5 and 6 still captivate viewers today. His early attraction to history, language, myths, and legends meant that these too became integral aspects of his artistic expression. When Jones converted from low Anglicanism to Catholicism as a young adult, he became very intentional in thinking through the implications of faith for art, adding a whole new dimension to his experience and expression of artistry. In response to this he joined the Catholic artisan Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic in Ditchling, Sussex, and then later followed Eric Gill to another lay community, Cael-y-ffin in the Black Mountains of Wales. Here he reconnected with the mythic land of his ancestry. Modernist as Jones was – and for a time member of the Seven and Five Society – he was completely unabashed about the centrality of his faith for his person, his images, his writing. In 1937 he published In Parenthesis, an epic poem shaped by his experiences in WWI, which T.S. Eliot called a work of genius. W.H. Auden called his other epic, The Anathemata (1957), “very probably the finest long poem written in English this century.” (The quotations by Jones in the piece above come from this poem.) Evelyn Waugh, T.S. Thomas, Seamus Heany are amongst the many who proffered similar approbation throughout Jones’ career. Jones was very much an artist of text and image both – whether painting, drawing, engraving, or writing. In addition to his many individual visual works, he illustrated numerous books, such as his wood engravings for Gulliver’s Travels, The Book of Jonah and The Chester Play of the Deluge and his much-lauded copper engravings for The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. In his later years Jones spent time more studiously merging text and image into one. Renewed interest in his whole corpus of work has led to a recent increase in both exhibitions and academic material on Jones (see below).
“I should like to speak of a quality which I rather associate with the folk-tales of Welsh or Celtic derivation, a quality congenial and significant to me […]. I find it impossible to define, but it has to do with a certain affection for the intimate creatureliness of things – a care for, and appreciation of, the particular genius of places, men, trees, animals, and yet withal a pervading sense of metamorphosis and mutability. That trees are men walking. That words “bind and loose material things.” David Jones
Kirstin Jeffrey Johnson is a George MacDonald scholar, and a free-lance writer and lecturer on literature, theology, and the Arts based in the Ottawa Valley, Canada. Her doctorate (Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts, University of St Andrews, Scotland) considered the concept of Mythopoesis as defined by Tolkien and Lewis and as attributed to MacDonald. She is an associate member of the Inklings Institute of Canada, and on the editorial board of the Inklings journal SEVEN. She is co-editor of Informing the Inklings (2018) and an interviewee on the new documentary The Fantasy Makers. See http://www.kirstinjeffreyjohnson.com.
* Current Exhibition: Changing Lives: Ditchling Artists in WWI, Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft (East Sussex), 20 October 2018 - 28 April 2019
* The David Jones Research Center opened in March 2018: www.david-jones-society.org
* Art and Epoch, collection of essays by David Jones
* Recent publications:
The Art of David Jones, Ariane Bankes & Paul Hills (Lund Humphries, 2015)
David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet. Thomas Dilworth (Cape, 2017)
David Jones: A Christian Modernist? P. Fiddes, A. Johnson, E. Tonning, & J. Callison (Brill, 2017)
* On-line documentaries:
David Jones Between the Wars: The Years of Achievement (2012); David Jones: Innovation and Consolidation (2014)
* Saint-Saens’ No 6 – sung by the Ljubljana Slovenia Choir, Academy of Music, conductor: Igor Svara
ArtWay Visual Meditation Christmas 2018