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Jonah Jones: An Artist's Life

ISBN-13: 
9781854115560
Format: 
Hardback
Publication Date: 
Wednesday, November 30, 2011
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"...Peter writes with captivating erudition." - Planet

Sculptor, painter, letter cutter, stained glass artist, novelist, academic and administrator; Jonah Jones (1919-2004) was a twentieth century renaissance man.
Born near Newcastle into a family of miners he became a librarian before reluctantly volunteering for a non-combatant role in the Medical Corps during the second world war. He saw action in North-West Europe but also met a number of artists and craftsmen in the RAMC who fired his own passion to become an artist. After the war, now married and having survived a severe case of TB he fulfilled his dream of settling in Wales and began his 'on the job' education as a sculptor and letter cutter. Much of his early work was at Clough Williams-Ellis's Portmeirion villages. The two became close friends and Jones widened his circle to include Richard Hughes, Bertrand Russell, John Cowper Powys and Huw Wheldon.

In a varied career Jonah Jones produced intimate sculptures, monumental installations, and beautiful inscriptions, in addition to writing novels published by leading London houses, a biography of Clough Williams-Ellis and a much praised survey of the lakes of North Wales.

REVIEWS

Review by Adam Somerset, Wales Arts Review

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

In 2011, Seren published Jonah Jones – An Artist’s Life. The author is Peter Jones, also known as Pedr Jones, a 30-year-long contributor to Radio Cymru and S4C. The book, a full testament to a full life, opens with an introduction by Jan Morris. The Morris home has not only paintings, books and a slate name-plate of Jonah Jones but also a gravestone-in-waiting. Pedr Jones ends his book with three pages of bibliography and five pages of catalogue. The names of Wales’ twentieth century run through the Jonah Jones legacy: Gwynfor Evans, Saunders Lewis, Lord Morris of Borth-y-Gest, John Cowper Powys, Clough Williams-Ellis.

Richness of detail is the oxygen of good writing and Peter Jones creates it over the course of his father’s life. His parents met during the time of military service just prior to the formation of Israel. Jones was introduced to his future wife Judith by a major in the 1st Royal Ulster Rifles by name of Huw Wheldon. From his camp to the family home on Haifa’s Mount Carmel was a distance of sixty-five miles, a journey undertaken on an army motorbike. Peter Jones captures the atmosphere after the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. A young woman in a Tel Aviv street spits on Jonah Jones. While on a bus a girl tells her friend not to sit “next to a dirty Nazi anti-semite.” Jones is able to reply in the meticulous Hebrew that he has learnt.   

The episode is all the more ironic when set aside the most searing experience of Jones’ wartime years. He was among a group of medical staff to enter the newly liberated camp of Bergen-Belsen. It left “an ineradicable mental scar”. A half-century on, in 2002, the effect of the series Band of Brothers on television caused him to weep. “It was so authentic, so exactly what it was like,” he wrote.

Jones had already seen war. In France he was tasked to bury a soldier. The corpse in mid-winter being frozen solid, the grave-diggers were obliged to break the bones. He and his comrades sheltered from attack by mortar and dive bomber. “The terror was still vivid fifty years later,” writes Peter Jones. Jones senior was moved to the south of Holland to see that country’s terrible time of famine. His job was to fumigate the citizen population, infested with lice and scabies, with DDT powder. The crossing of the Rhine Jonah Jones himself later wrote about in a 2000-word essay “The Bloodstone Ring” in 1999.

Peter Jones covers the life before the war service in an economical twelve page first chapter “Child of the Depression: 1919-1939”. Jones’ father, Norman, was a survivor of Gallipoli and the Somme but gassed and wounded in the head at Vimy Ridge. A brother, born in 1920, died at four months, “possibly”, writes Peter Jones, “due to malnutrition during a pit strike.” A sister developed rickets as a result of underfeeding. In Felling, Northumberland water came from a standpipe and the outdoor water closets were cleared once a week by men on a cart and then disinfected with carbolic.

Jonah Jones was aged seven at the time of the General Strike. The strike itself ended in May but the miners stayed out until October. It meant constant hunger alleviated by the daily visit to the soup kitchen. There was a supply of vegetables and rhubarb from an allotment. The boy helped out by visiting the refuse from the earth closets “riddling it for coke-like cinders.” When a dentist in the next century commented on the small size of his teeth the artist’s reply was simple: “I was a child of the Depression”.

Jonah Jones at the outbreak of war opted for Conscientious Objector status and he was directed towards forestry work. In 1943, he enlisted with non-combatant status, but Peter Jones describes the forestry period in Kirkcudbrightshire, Wensleydale and Somerset as crucial. The demanding work built him up physically but he also saw nature close-up and in seasonal detail. He re-read Hardy and Lawrence. 

The life of the artist began after release from the army. It was writing that first lured him, digging deep into Felling Library. The result of his research into Tyneside history and culture was “Coaly Tyne”, “remarkable for its scholarship and the thoroughness of research that it reveals.”

The visual arts were ignited by the acquaintanceship with John Petts from his army days. Petts’ curatorship at Llanystumdwy’s Museum prompted the move to Wales. The first home was a half-wrecked cottage, Bron y Foel, a half-mile up a track and first spotted in pouring rain. The work, a six miles cycle ride one way, to Petts’ Caseg Press paid sixteen pounds a month.

Meanwhile, the impact of Belsen went beyond the psychological. Chronic tuberculosis, most likely contracted at the camp, rendered him an invalid for a year. The description of the treatment, a cause of shudder to read, is an echo of that which Derek Lindsay put into his classic novel The Rack. The artificial pneumothorax treatment required a needle inserted through the ribs without anaesthetic. After this appalling interval he renewed the artistic career, becoming in 1953 a member of the Guild of Memorial Craftsmen.  

...

Read the full review here on the Wales Arts Review website.

User Reviews

Anonymous's picture

Review from Planet

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Although ostensibly a biography of an artist, this book encompasses reflections on 20th century social, political and economic history; war; religion; family life, love; the human condition; literature; arts administration (across the whole spectrum of the visual arts and crafts) - and above all, Wales. Jones's story is a compelling one, and his son Peter writes with captivating erudition.

Jonah Jones's extraordinary diverse life as an artist and arts' ambassador meant he befriended many people, including Jan Morris, who wrote the Foreword. She sums up Jones as a 'haunting' and 'gentle' man who believed 'in unity of art, its life-enhancing power' and this transformative quality defines Jonah Jones and his life as an artist.

Anne Price-Owen, Planet 207 August

06/08/2012 - 15:12
Anonymous's picture

Review from Wynn Wheldon

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Jonah Jones might with characteristic modesty have described himself as a jack of all trades, but he was in fact a master of all those he plied, which included administrator, sculptor and novelist - not forgetting poet, memoirist, essayist, mason, watercolour painter, letter-carver, educationalist, chairman, bread-maker, walker, dog-owner, lake-lover, soldier, pacifist, Catholic, Quaker, father and husband. This book, by his son Peter is exemplary in its handling of all these facets of a complicated (and hence fascinating) character. He remains faultlessly objective while at the same time somehow rendering fully the love and respect and tenderness he felt for his father. It is a very good book about a very good man. I had thought to say that 'An Artist's Life', the subtitle, was somehow reductive, but actually, if we think of David Jones - the artist Jonah possibly most revered - and his emphasis on art as a sacrament - in short if we make art what it once was, indissolubly central to how a life is to be lived - then the subtitle becomes not merely descriptive but an act of filial duty. Jonah, for all his emphasis on craft and the need to bring art to the people was, above all, an Artist, and decidedly, as this book emphatically shows, "not negligible".

10/02/2012 - 14:55

Comments

Anonymous's picture

Review from Wynn Wheldon

0
No votes yet

Jonah Jones might with characteristic modesty have described himself as a jack of all trades, but he was in fact a master of all those he plied, which included administrator, sculptor and novelist - not forgetting poet, memoirist, essayist, mason, watercolour painter, letter-carver, educationalist, chairman, bread-maker, walker, dog-owner, lake-lover, soldier, pacifist, Catholic, Quaker, father and husband. This book, by his son Peter is exemplary in its handling of all these facets of a complicated (and hence fascinating) character. He remains faultlessly objective while at the same time somehow rendering fully the love and respect and tenderness he felt for his father. It is a very good book about a very good man. I had thought to say that 'An Artist's Life', the subtitle, was somehow reductive, but actually, if we think of David Jones - the artist Jonah possibly most revered - and his emphasis on art as a sacrament - in short if we make art what it once was, indissolubly central to how a life is to be lived - then the subtitle becomes not merely descriptive but an act of filial duty. Jonah, for all his emphasis on craft and the need to bring art to the people was, above all, an Artist, and decidedly, as this book emphatically shows, "not negligible".

10/02/2012 - 14:55
Anonymous's picture

Review from Planet

0
No votes yet

Although ostensibly a biography of an artist, this book encompasses reflections on 20th century social, political and economic history; war; religion; family life, love; the human condition; literature; arts administration (across the whole spectrum of the visual arts and crafts) - and above all, Wales. Jones's story is a compelling one, and his son Peter writes with captivating erudition.

Jonah Jones's extraordinary diverse life as an artist and arts' ambassador meant he befriended many people, including Jan Morris, who wrote the Foreword. She sums up Jones as a 'haunting' and 'gentle' man who believed 'in unity of art, its life-enhancing power' and this transformative quality defines Jonah Jones and his life as an artist.

Anne Price-Owen, Planet 207 August

06/08/2012 - 15:12
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