Richard Warren

20thc British art and poetry (mainly), plus bits of my own – "Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Tag Archives: David Jones

Leslie Hurry’s palace of wisdom

In 2011 I posted here on a first, rather breathless, encounter with the ‘forties paintings of Leslie Hurry. He was clearly still working well into the 1970’s (he died in 1978); I may be missing something, but I still can’t see any recent monograph – is there really no big, glossy volume on this extraordinary artist?

coverThis lack makes Paintings and Drawings by Leslie Hurry (Grey Walls Press, 1950) still a useful source, at least, up to that point. The book’s intro is by the “prolific and proletarian” Jack Lindsay; this is sympathetic but none too informative. Lindsay wastes several pages trying to set Hurry into some sort of mega history-of-art context, but then fails to locate him as a painter within the movements and networks of his own times, as if his development were some purely personal, hermetic affair. But the book does have 38 plates, though only two are in colour; despite the black and white, it seems worthwhile to scan a few here below. (Click to enlarge.)

Sketch for Self-portrait, drawing, 1945

Sketch for Self-portrait, drawing, 1945

The paintings give out all sorts of echoes. Hurry may have opted to work in detachment from organised surrealism, but his relations in that respect are obvious. Absent from much of the imagery is the standard post-cubist scaffolding, so that his figures often have a ghostly flaccidity, as if their bones had been carefully extracted. They swell, contract and flop like jellyfish. This watery, or airy, looseness is reminiscent of David Jones, and the earliest image in the book, a watercolour of a Breton mass from 1939, is strongly Jones-like, both in style and content. While some later figures show rather more structure, a constant Picasso borrowing throughout is the familiar multi-angled face, though in Hurry’s hands this becomes more an image of simultaneous ambivalence than a trick of animation across adjacent moments.

To my mind, his allegorical images of famine and so forth are the least successful. When Hurry does Agony it veers into cartoony; a 1945 watercolour titled Atom Bomb is awkwardly sub-Guernica. To compensate, the scenery designs are a pleasure; they are richly fantastic, and relate closely to the baroque obsessiveness of Robin Ironside.

Jack Lindsay’s introduction to the book rounds off with his own poem, “The Bough of Sweetness,” dedicated to Hurry:

O difficult regeneration of suffering men
on the star-anvils in Stepney and Glasgow clanging
Mass meeting Strike Prague Five-Years-Plan Shanghai
also the slight chime of a flower perfected
and the livid eyes of fear caught in a word
Steadily the hills close round
with the doves of dawn and the nearing annunciation …

Personally, I find Lindsay’s poetry more interestingly symptomatic than successful, though this does at least represent a clumsy attempt at a verbal equivalent of Hurry’s violent conjunction of the visionary and the political – all very ‘forties, very apocalypse.


In his introduction to the book, Lindsay gives us little by way of Hurry’s biography. Born in 1909, trained at St John’s Wood and the RA School of Painting, emerging in 1931, murals, landscapes, a loss of purpose followed by a “desperate retreat into his lonely self” at a cottage in Thaxted, a spell in Brittany and Montmartre in 1938, from these periods of crisis a move into his mature work, beginning with more geometric configurations but soon evolving into more organic forms, theatre work starting with Hamlet at Sadlers Wells in 1941 – and that’s about as factual as it gets. His Wikipedia page adds not a lot more beyond the interesting detail that his father had been a funeral director, a career path the son rejected.

At the time of my previous post there didn’t seem to be much of Hurry online, but matters have since improved. Copyright restrictions at the Tate site have been lifted, so his artist page there now shows six works, including  This Extraordinary Year, 1945, which called to me when it was on the wall at Tate Britain. Much of Hurry’s work was watercolours; these don’t qualify for the Art UK site, which now offers six paintings, of which four are portraits including two variants of himself, though not the self-portrait shown in this post. Beyond these sources, a Google image search will throw up a couple of dozen additional items from galleries and so on, not counting costume or set designs. Enough to go at.

I find it hard to account for the relatively low profile of such a remarkable British painter, particularly given recent stirrings of interest in the neo-romantic phase. Hurry’s tense, highly strung images layer up beyond exhaustion those twitchy, compulsive marks and fragments until they hiss and sing in a sort of maximalist coherence, hard won against the odds by forcing overwroughtness through to a point of virtue. For once here, the road of excess does lead to the palace of wisdom.

An imperishable inheritance

in parenthesis

While we are still re-living WW1, something apposite for this Easter Day – David Jones’s 1937 frontispiece to his In Parenthesis.

He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

The Kensingtons in Parenthesis: 1914-18’s best poem and painting

Still some weeks to the precise centenary of the outbreak of war, though in telly terms we seem to have been in the trenches for a considerable time already. This may be a quick, cheap post, but last time’s woodcut by David Jones brings to mind his panoramic book length poem In Parenthesis, which to my mind has to stand as the single finest poetic response in the English language to the experience of that conflict.

More of that in a moment, but for the equivalent finest British painting – Lewis, Nash, Nevinson and others notwithstanding – I’d take a step back from modernism and go for Eric Kennington‘s haunting The Kensingtons at Laventie, which shows the painter himself (the left of the two faces in balaclavas) and his comrades at a stilled moment of exhaustion.

laventie
It’s a big piece, and painted on glass, so that with Kennington standing behind his “canvas” the tiniest of details were put in first, working back progressively to the larger areas of colour. Though in itself that doesn’t necessarily make for virtue, you have to admire his technical wizardry – how the hell did he do it? However it was done, the effect is to dislocate and flatten the already limited perspective in a manner reminiscent of Uccello, heightening painfully the luminous physical presence of the figures and of the curiously graceful debris that surrounds them. Like In Parenthesis, Kennington’s painting presents the sufferings of the ordinary soldier at a sacramental pitch.

parenthesis

Though Kennington, wearing his sculptor’s hat, later went in for some sub-Epstein direct carving, it always came out a bit cartooney, as if he didn’t really get modernism. It’s for his portraits of servicemen that he is still known, and this – being not yet the propaganda that he later turned out effortlessly – has to be the best.

Jones’s In Parenthesis was published two decades after the events it describes. It is both claustrophobic and epic, collaging immediate physicalities with the music hall slang of the common soldier, the bitterly bland voice of the official communiqué, or the ancient histories that Jones finds echoed in current events – whether in an Arthurian dimension or as a reminder of the soldiery who witnessed the Crucifixion. Despite the extensive footnoting required by such allusiveness, the book remains intensely readable. Here is a typical enough passage, describing the emptiness before the advance, the shelled landscape populated only by stretcher bearers and their burdens, by a lone Forward Observation Officer, and by the engineers who creep out to repair his line:

Carrying-parties,
runners who hasten singly,
burdened bearers walk with careful feet
to jolt him as little as possible,
bearers of burdens to and from
stumble oftener, notice the lessening light,
and feel their way with more sensitive feet –
you mustn’t spill the precious fragments, for perhaps these raw bones live.
They can cover him again with skin – in their candid coats, in their clinical shrines and parade the miraculi.
The blinded one with the artificial guts – his morbid neurosis retards the treatment, otherwise he’s bonza – and will learn a handicraft.

Nothing is impossible nowadays my dear if only we can get the poor bleeder through the barrage and they take just as much trouble with the ordinary soldiers you know and essential-service academicians can match the natural hue and everything extraordinarily well.
Give them glass eyes to see
and synthetic spare parts to walk in the Triumphs, without anyone feeling awkward and O, O, O, it’s a lovely war with poppies on the up-platform for a perpetual memorial of his body.

Lift gently Dai, gentleness befits his gun-shot wound in the lower bowel – go easy – easee at the slope – and mind him – wait for this one and
slippy – an’ twelve inch an’ all – beating up for his counter-attack and – that packet on the Aid-Post.
Lower you lower you – some old cows have malhanded little bleeders for a mother’s son.
Lower you lower you prize Maria Hunt, an’ gammyfingered uplands Gamalin – down cantcher – low – hands away me ducky – down on hands on hands down and flattened belly and face pressed and curroodle mother earth
she’s kind:
Pray her hide you in her deeps
she’s only refuge against
this ferocious pursuer
terribly questing.
Maiden of the digged places
let our cry come unto thee.
Mam, moder, mother of me.
Mother of Christ under the tree
reduce our dimensional vulnerability to the minimum –
cover the spines of us
let us creep back dark-bellied where he can’t see
don’t let it.
There, there, it can’t, won’t hurt – nothing
shall harm my beautiful.
But on its screaming passage
their numbers writ
and stout canvas tatters drop as if they’d salvoed grape to the mizzen-sheets and the shaped ash grip rocket-sticks out of the evening sky right back by Bright Trench
and clots and a twisted clout
on the bowed back of the F.O.O. bent to his instrument.
… theirs … H.E. … fairly, fifty yards to my front … he’s bumping the Quadrangle … 2025 hours? – thanks – nicely … X 29 b 2 5 … 10.5 cm. gun … 35 degrees left … he’s definitely livening.
and then the next packet – and Major Knacksbull blames the unresponsive wire.
And linesmen go out from his presence to seek, and make whole with adhesive tape, tweezer the copper with deft hands: there’s a bad break on the Bright Trench line – buzz us when you’re through.

And the storm rises higher
and all who do their business in the valley
do it quickly
and up in the night-shades
where death is closer packed
in the tangled avenues
fair Balder falleth everywhere
and thunder-besom breakings
bright the wood
and a Golden Bough for Johnny and Jack
and blasted oaks for Jerry
and shrapnel the swift Jupiter for each expectant tree;
after what hypostases uniting:
withered limbs for the chosen
for the fore-chosen.
Take care the black brush-fall
in the night rides
where they deploy for the final objective.
Dark baulks sundered, bear down,
beat down, ahurtle through the fractured growings green,
pile high an heaped diversity.
Brast, break, bough-break the backs of them,
every bone of the white wounded who wait patiently –
looking towards that hope:
for the feet of the carriers long coming
bringing palanquins
to spread worshipful beds for heroes.

You can hear him,
suppliant, under his bowery smother
but who can you get to lift him away
lift him away
a half-platoon can’t.
How many mortal men
to bear the Acorn-Sprite –
She’s got long Tom
and Major Lillywhite,
they’re jelly-bags with the weight of it:
and they’ll carry out Deth tomorrow.

There are indications that the enemy maintains his positions north-east of the central-ride. At 21.35 hrs units concerned will move forward and clear his area of his personnel. There will be adequate artillery support.

poets cornerJones was slid in among the “war poets” at Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, where, like Aldington or Read, he hardly seems a good fit, given that he was so much more than just a war poet.

 

 

 

 

The gardener’s clothes

David Jones 'The Resurrection', 1924

David Jones ‘The Resurrection’, 1924

“She turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was him. He said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary.’ She looked at him and said, ‘Rabbi!’ “

What had Jesus found to wear immediately after his resurrection? Why, the gardener’s clothes, of course.

He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Runes, redemption, signs, sacraments and selfishness

Odd how things sometimes come together. Some recent random reading has included David Jones’ book length poem The Anathemata, a bit of Swedenborg, and John Michell’s Megalithomania. Artists, antiquarians and archaeologists at the old stone monuments (a readable and relatively objective account, unmuddied by Michell’s usual New Age confusions).

In a chapter on “freaks of interpretation” of prehistoric rock inscriptions, Michell tells the story of Professor Finn Magnussen (Finnur Magnússon), who in the 1830’s transcribed and translated what he took to be extensive runic inscriptions in an unknown script, carved on the Runamo rock in Sweden. He revealed them to be a set of five heroic poems celebrating the victory of the Battle of Bråvalla, a lost masterpiece of early Scandinavian literature. This academic triumph was rather tarnished a few years later when geologists proved the “inscriptions” to be entirely natural fissures in the rock surface. Magnusson was mercilessly mocked, but stuck to his guns till his dying day.

This was not his only petroglyphic misinterpretation (a hazardous branch of scholarship, it seems), but it did take the biscuit. The extent of his self-delusion is breath-taking. In his defence, he cited the unanimous judgement of literary scholars that the poem was an absolute masterpiece. If so, that only makes his creative achievement all the more remarkable. It follows that, without the paranoiac process of “translation” on which to construct it, he could never have written something of such quality.

Is creativity, then, rooted in self-delusion? A delusory experience of discovery? If it is, it can be no more than egotistical folly.

Which makes creativity problematic for the Christian. My wife recently met someone, now ordained, who went through a conversion experience (triggered by Jesus walking into his room) while an art student. He made the prayerful decision to abandon art as a career path because he feared that, as an ego-driven pursuit, it would conflict with his new faith – a perfectly understandable point of view. This was maybe rather more than art being a bit of a diversion from what is important; the self-indulgent is, after all, essentially useless.

The notion of “use” brings me to the 18th century mystic Emanuel Swedenborg. I hadn’t realised that he had started out as an engineer and an anatomist. In The Divine Love and the Divine Wisdom he speaks extensively of the human anatomy as evidence of divine love. Proof of this is the usefulness of every part:

“… all things therein and each smallest individual unit of them are formed in accordance with a use and for that use … This is the Arcanum that results as a conclusion: Man embraces within himself all uses whatever existing in the spiritual and natural worlds … for life from the Lord embraces within itself all uses to infinity …”

Swedenborg, albeit a visionary and a bit of a nutter, correctly insists that his Understanding “is an enlightened rational one”; these are values of the Enlightenment and of the utilitarian Protestantism that shaped it.

No such premium on usefulness for Catholic convert David Jones. (To read Jones you need an open encyclopedia at your elbow, but every now and again, among the obscurantism and the archaic Welsh names, even in the middle of a footnote, prophetic truths leap out.) The “anathemata” of Jones’ title are:

“.. the blessed things that have taken on what is cursed and the profane things that somehow are redeemed … that partake of the extra-utile and the gratuitous; things that are the signs of something other … Things set up, lifted up, or in whatever manner made over to the gods …

… If there is any evidence of this kind of artefacture then the artefacturer or artifex should be regarded as participating directly in the benefits of the Passion, because the extra-utile is the mark of man. For which reason the description ‘utility goods’ if taken literally could refer only to the products of sub-man.”

There. For Swedenborg, man embraces within himself all uses whatever, but for Jones, the extra-utile is the mark of man. Jones’ arguments concerning art as sign and sign as sacrament are well known, but are sometimes summarised down to a sort of weedy creation spirituality: in our creative activity we share in the work of the Creator, and so on. But here he seems to be claiming something well beyond this. The useless, better understood as the extra-utile, is the character of the artefact as sign, as sacramental. And it is by the sacramental that we “participate directly in the benefits of the Passion”. If this is so, the same selfishness that was our undoing now provides, if not the means of redemption, then at least a sure approach to it. And therein, it seems to me, is a great Mystery.

Should anatomist Swedenborg have looked for a gratuitously ornamental bit of the human body as the sign of its divine life? And in his self-delusion, did Finn Magnussen uncover a secret far greater than any saga? If so, I hope my wife’s acquaintance still picks up a pencil from time to time.

Christ the Unicorn

To be fair to the dear old King James Version in its quatercentenary, we might regret that more accurate versions have jettisoned its happier misconceptions, such as “unicorn” for what has since been authoritatively translated as the more disappointing “wild ox”:

Canst thou bind the unicorn ..? [Job 39: 9]

… thou hast heard me from the horns of the unicorns. [Psalm 22: 21]

He maketh them also to skip like a calf; Lebanon and Sirion like a young unicorn. [Psalm 29: 6]

But my horn shalt thou exalt like the horn of an unicorn … [Psalm 92:10]

And so on. On this basis the Church fathers St Ambrose and St Basil identified Christ with the unicorn, the single horn of salvation, a signification that became well firmed up in the mediaeval mind. A quick google will throw up plenty of websites devoted to this and related unicorn lore, though many of them are, frankly, mere pagan fairy-piss.

The spirited little wood engraving above was cut in 1930 by David Jones, the poet and artist. For Jones just about anything and everything might be a signification of some aspect of the project of redemption, and of the Christ who made of himself a sign on the cross and in the Eucharist. And quite rightly too. Here Jones has Christ as the Unicorn galloping through broken columns, the ruin of worldly Empire. A nice image for Advent.

This version is a reprint from the original block that came loosely inserted in the limited edition of 150, signed by the author, of Kathleen Raine’s pamphlet essay David Jones and the actually loved and known, printed by Golgonooza Press in 1978. Though her poetry was known occasionally to nudge itself in the general direction of fairy-piss, she wrote remarkably well on Jones; her paper is knowledgeable, accessible and illuminating.

My copy came from Mogul Diamonds bookshop, whose owner, Gerald Leach, still has copies left, woodcut included. He also has a selection of other David Jones items.