Autodidact who discovered Wales

Harri Pritchard Jones welcomes the biography of self-taught Welshman and artist Jonah Jones


This is a work of filial piety, by the son of a unique person, Jonah Jones (1919-2004), and is certainly none the worse for that. The book is detailed in its recounting of Jonah’s life and work, but the details are never tedious. The style and pace of the work are most pleasing, as are the numerous photographs of the people and works which feature in this rich life. As the blurb says, Jonah was “sculptor, painter, letter cutter, stained glass maker, novelist, art educationalist … in many ways a 20th Century Renaissance man.” Indeed, and he excelled in all these vocations.

His work is most visible in the various open air works all over this country and elsewhere, as well as in smaller sculptures and stained glass windows in Catholic churches mainly in England, and in schools, colleges and private homes. His skills developed and adapted to various media as his physical capacities waned in middle age. He then turned to a successful career as novelist and water-colorist when he was no longer able to be, as he called it, a navvy sculptor.

By navvy he meant the style of work involved in his many statues and sculptures, where he seemed to discover, to reveal, the subject as he worked in and with the stone or wood or metal. There was the grain of a concept which was then brought forth out of the grain of the medium itself.

So it was with his Welsh identity. Jonah was an autodidact, a self-made polymath, and his Welshness was akin to that. He was born and brought up in Durham during the depression of the 1920s. He felt himself to be Welsh on the basis of hearing a grandfather wax eloquent about the beauty of Gwent. Jonah never set foot in Wales until he returned from duties as a non-combatant in the British Army in France and later in the Mandate Forces in Palestine. When he did arrive in Wales he was accompanied by his new, Jewish wife Judith, a writer, who had fought with the Jewish Hagannah against the British. They arrived in Gwynedd,  bent on working as artists, and that was what they became, to our great enrichment.

His inculturisation in Wales was, like his sculpting, a two pronged process. There was an element of composition: on the basis of reading and listening and studying, but also a delving within himself as he lived and roamed in his inherited nation, and reared his children to be fully fledged members of it. Ironically, he later discovered that his grandfather had been English, though working in Wales and in love with the country!

This book chronicles Jonah’s life in its various, almost discrete stages, starting with his poverty-stricken native patch in Tyneside, the struggles of a young autodidact using a menial job in a library to learn about life and art, and discover a latent vocation to be an artist. Jonah’s work as a sculptor and painter were kindled in many ways by coming across the work of David Jones. Though he was living in a sort of cultural desert, he said:

“I knew I wanted to be an artist, that was all, but how to become one was quite beyond me. Art was almost a dirty word in the arid wastes of the unemployment areas that had nurtured me.”

Then this occured:

“I read David Jones’s In Parenthesis and was so moved, so impressed by the sheer rootedness of it that I believe it marked a turning point in my life. Furthermore, its author looked back with pride on the Cockney-Cymro of his ancestry and fixed it in this time, this space”.

To his chagrin, he never met David Jones, but developed as a sculptor and letter cutter under the influence of Jones and Eric Gill, and worked closely with one of Gills’s disciples, Lawrie Cribb. He was by now settled in Gwynedd, in the Porthmadog area, and did various jobs to keep the wolf from the door, including helping John Petts run the Caseg Press. But it was his near neighbour, Clough Williams-Ellis the architect of Port Meirion, who commissioned and promoted Jonah.

Another neighbour, Peter Thorp, a laicised priest, succeeded in getting him an apprenticeship in the Eric Gill school  in Piggots. It was Thorp, too, who introduced Jonah to the Catholic colleges of Radcliffe and Ampleforth which commissioned sculpture and stained glass from him. This period, between 1959 and 1974, was Jonah’s most prodigious and successful time as an artist.

Jonah had also become involved with art education and the re-vamping of the Colleges of Art. He was a member of the Summerson council and an inspector of the colleges. This led, in a somewhwat strange way, to his being invited to Dublin where he became the Director of the National College of Art. The Irish period, 1974-78, was fraught because he was a ‘non-national’ and there were elements opposed to any foreigners. But he won through, in re-structuring the college and winning the hearts of the students. Meanwhile, Judith and he enjoyed the cultural offerings and bonomie of Dublin.

On his return to Wales he took up sculpture again, and produced some well-known busts of his friends Clough and Huw Wheldon and others, but also started developing two other branches to his ouvre. He turned to subjects that were more specifically Welsh, people such as Bob Tai’r Felin and O. M. Edwards, the Welsh princes of Gwynedd, and the Mabinogi tales. Also, he concentrated more on his writing, starting with a novel set in Ireland in 1916, A Tree Must Fall, where he drew on his experiences as a pacifist in the British Army and his period in Dublin. It was published by Bodley Head, and was followed by another novel, Zorn, about a blond, teutonic looking German boy who is persecuted for his part-Jewish ancestry. Jonah’s love of Gwynedd, where he walked extensively with his whippet, led to the volume Lakes of North Wales. He admitted to even kissing the earth of his adopted land!

Unexpectedly, Jonah was given a chance to go back to his native patch in 1980 when he received an invitation to be Artist in Residence at Newcastle University. This gave him a chance to revisit Tyneside, which he found to be transformed, and to see more of one of his beloved sisters. A further soujourn in academia followed the next year with a fellowship in Gregynog, working with the famous press. He enjoyed both immensely.

A fascinating commission arrived afterwards from a most unexpected source, the University of Western Illinois. This was for 14 painted inscriptions of Welsh poems for a touring portfolio and exhibition to “raise awareness of the riches of Wales’s culture and its influence in the USA”. These are among his finest work of painted texts, and he acknowleged the influence on them of David Jones’s work and Roman inscriptions in the National Museum.

In 1991 Jonah and Judith decided that they were aging and would move to Cardiff, to a flat to be nearer their children. There he was given space to work in the various studios and offices of his daughter, Naomi’s animation company. He did a lot of lettering and beautiful water colour illustrations of Biblical and various literary texts. And, although he eventually died of a brain tumour, thought at first to be signs of dementia, his powers only gradully waned.

He had been a towering figure. A polymath, a jovial and loyal friend, a committed humanist with an element of Catholicism, and a fully fledged Welshman. His contribution was immense. We owe a great deal to the way his grandfather praised the people and country he had found work in.

Harri Pritchard Jones is co-chair of Literature Wales. Jonah Jones: An Artist’s Life by Peter Jones is available from Seren Books, priced £14.99

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