- Mythological References in Two Painted Inscriptions of David Jones 1
Personal is a word used a good deal in discussion of David Jones’s painted inscriptions. Indeed, it is a word used by Jones himself: in a letter to Nicolete Gray, editor of the fullest volume of reproductions of these works, Jones writes, “I do regard them as essentially ‘amateur’ and ‘personal.’” 2 And Gray rightly remarks that the style of some of the inscriptions has the personality of the intended recipient in mind, as, for example, the lighter and more decorative inscriptions “made for a child.” 3 But the word can be misleading. To take a tiny and personal example: in a letter to me, Jones sent thanks to me and my wife, decorating her name with leaves and flowers. It was a kind of tribute and a kind of joke, of course. What had impelled him to do it was probably more personal. Her name is Pamela, etymologically “all sweetness.” Thus the flowers and leaves are apt. In fact, he knew her as “Pam,” but the etymology would be lost in the abbreviated form. Now he was in no position to know whether she knew the etymology of the name; but, to him personally, the name becomes both word and picture and is therefore fitting.
Before examining the inscriptions, it is important to set them in the more general context of Jones’s turn of mind. He opens the Preface to The Anathemata with a quotation from Nennius, “I have made a heap of all that I could find.” 4 Nennius, writing his History of the Britons (that is, the Welsh) circa 800CE, feared that historical and cultural matters dear to him might be lost if he did not record them for posterity. The result is a concatenation of fact and myth whose juxtaposition appealed to a connective mind like that of David Jones: the Six Ages of the World; the inhabitants and invaders of Britain (the word used here to signify the British Isles, not just Wales); the Life of St Patrick; Arthur’s battles; genealogies of Anglian kings; [End Page 174] the cities of Britain; the Marvels of Britain (including a stone on Anglesey that walks at night over the valley of Citheinn). Nennius, from Breconshire, but writing in Latin, included his personal allegiances in his matter of history and mythology.
David Jones was drawn to writers who made such eclectic links. His was a mind for mosaic, which pictured the history of mankind as an intricate pattern, a pattern of politics, of the impulse for artistic creation, of the sense of the numinous, of languages with their individual overtones and cultures, and of words with their connotations and their etymologies and semantic changes, which often reflect a cultural history in miniature, like looking at a section of an archaeological excavation.
For just that reason he was fascinated by the works of William Camden, who, some eight hundred years later than Nennius, made a heap of all that he found. His most famous work, Remains Concerning Britain, was published in 1605. Camden had been educated at Oxford and became the headmaster of Westminster School. He was a fine Classical scholar. He was persuaded by the great geographer Abraham Ortelius to help him in his survey of England. This ideally suited Camden, who took the opportunity to record remarkable antiquities of the areas that he visited and recognized the necessity of understanding place-names. This, in turn, led him to write a well-informed chapter on the history of the languages of Britain, notably of England—although he is also well aware of Welsh, making frequent references to that language. He made, in addition, a whole heap of apparently random observations, which were for him were collectively “remains” of Britain: chapters on the meanings of Christian names of men and women, surnames, proverbs, epitaphs, heraldic bearings, and so on.
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When Nicolete Gray was preparing her excellent edition of David Jones’s painted inscriptions, she wrote to various friends and acquaintances for help with some of the allusions in the texts. She asked me about several...