David Jones by Thomas Dilworth
“It is rare,” said Chris Power in The Guardian, “to read a major biography of a minor figure.” But then, the poet and painter David Jones (1895-1974) “is minor by mistake”. During his lifetime, his admirers included T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden and Dylan Thomas; his “two brilliant long poems”, In Parenthesis and The Anathemata, were hailed as modernist masterpieces; and in the 1960s, the art critic Kenneth Clark declared him the greatest living English painter. Yet despite this “enfilade of praise”, Jones achieved neither fame nor wealth, and ended his days in penniless “obscurity”. Today, his poems are seldom read and his “extraordinary watercolours” sell for as little as £10,000. Thomas Dilworth’s biography – three decades in the writing – is a “heroic attempt to salvage Jones for a new audience”. It is a “fascinating” portrait of a neglected “genius”.
Jones’s upbringing, in Brockley, south London, was lower middle class and religious, said A.N. Wilson in The Specator. He received little academic education, but enrolled at Camberwell College of Arts at the age of 14. At the outbreak of the First World War he enlisted, and spent longer at the front than any other British writer. After the War, he converted to Catholicism and joined Eric Gill’s craft guild in Ditchling, East Sussex, where he learned to engrave and briefly became engaged to Gill’s daughter. Yet his war experiences scarred him, and in his 30s he “suffered a debilitating breakdown”, of which the after-effects – mainly agoraphobia and depression – rendered him housebound for long stretches. As well as being a skilful evaluator of Jones’s work, Dilworth is an “intelligent and sensitive” observer of his intense, though invariably chaste, relationships with women.
The “real joy” of this book is that it makes Jones so vivid, said Rachel Cooke in The Observer. “Sweet, eccentric and unexpectedly comical, there are moments when it is almost as if you can smell him.” Though laid low by depression, he was astonishingly productive, and was “surely the most gregarious recluse who ever lived”. It may be “faultless” as biography, but this book is “less recommendable as criticism”, said John Carey in The Sunday Times. Dilworth suggests – without explaining why – that Jones was “arguably” a greater poet than Blake, and “overpraises” his “cluttered” etchings; his watercolours, though engaging, are “the sort of thing you might choose as a get-well card”.