Artist-craftsman in the tradition of Eric Gill
02 December 2004
Leonard Jonah Jones, artist-craftsman and writer: born
Washington, Co Durham 17 February 1919; married 1947 Judith
Maro (two sons, one daughter); died Cardiff 29 November
Jonah Jones was a sculptor who, despite a lack of formal training, won a reputation as a master-craftsman in stone and, in particular, as an artist devoted to the word in all its visual forms, from calligraphy to the inscriptions on gravestones. Like Eric Gill, with whose workshops at Pigotts he was briefly associated, and Brancusi, whom he admired more, he was attracted to the religious power of carved stone and was often commissioned to do ecclesiastical work in Wales and England.
For a while a convert to Roman Catholicism, he was fascinated by themes from the Old Testament, especially the story of Jacob - "that great, flawed character" - whose wrestling with the angel is an allegory of man's search for God. Some of his best work, such as the stained glass and carvings he did at Ratcliffe College Chapel and Ampleforth College in 1960 and the Gerard Manley Hopkins window at Loyola Hall near Liverpool, are eloquent expressions of the Catholic faith. For him, as for the Benedictines, laborare est orare.
The word, whether biblical or demotic, was the main source of his inspiration. The Trajan alphabet and the graffiti on the walls of the Roman catacombs were both, in his mind, proof that in the human psyche there is a profound desire to make one's mark as a permanent record in a fleeting world, and he believed that the artist, as quintessential man, was best equipped to do what he called "leaving my scratch".
Nor was he in favour of art as a luxury or commodity on which a price could be set, but preferred to make things that took their natural place in the community or landscape, relating them to the genius of the place and always hoping they would come to be accepted as part of the everyday environment.
The sculpture he made in Carrara marble and Welsh slate for the Association of Obstetric Anaesthetists in 1983 and now to be seen at its offices in Bedford Square in London is a good example of his aesthetic principles, as are the lapidary inscriptions to David Lloyd George and Dylan Thomas in Westminster Abbey. In Wales he is remembered as the sculptor of the memorial to the independent Princes at Aberffraw in Anglesey.
Jones's down-to-earth approach to his art, his belief in the artist-craftsman as maker in a community, had been instilled in him from an early age. Born in 1919 near the pit-village of Washington in County Durham, he was the son of a miner who marched to London in the Jarrow Crusade, and his Geordie upbringing meant a great deal to him, despite his discovery of his Welsh roots.
After leaving grammar school at 16, he attended night classes at the King Edward School of Art in Newcastle where Leonard Evetts, author of Roman Lettering: a study of the letters of the inscription at the base of the Trajan Column, with an outline of the history of lettering in Britain (1938), introduced him to the art of lettering. He was still struggling to master his craft when the Second World War broke out.
Having undergone some brief training in the Army, he volunteered for medical
duties with 224 Parachute Field Ambulance, partly because it meant he would
not have to bear arms but mainly because he had heard that the artist-craftsman
John Petts was already serving with the unit. Jones had seen, in The Listener,
an illustration by Petts of one of Dylan Thomas's stories, and was so much taken
with it that he felt compelled to contact him. He found him in the training
centre at Ringway, where, together
with John Ryder, the typographer, they set up a primitive press, printing instructional material for trainee parachutists on purloined paper.
While stationed on Exmoor, Jones had an "exalted moment" which turned him in the direction of Wales, which his grandfather, a shaft-sinker, had left for Durham some 50 years before. During a walk one afternoon in the company of a homesick Welsh soldier, he gazed across the Bristol Channel and resolved that, come what might, he would somehow find a way of living and working in the land of his fathers.
"Romantic idealism, ill-placed, self-indulgent nonsense perhaps," he wrote in an essay in 1973, "but listening to the undiluted boyo who ached with hiraeth at my side on that height on Exmoor, I felt a great peace and the beginnings of a longing that was a tap-root."
In the meanwhile, the war against Hitler had to be won. Although he had been a pacifist in 1939, Jones came to regard pacifism as an untenable position, especially after his unit landed near Wesel on the Rhine and made its way into northern Germany, as part of the 3rd Parachute Brigade, reaching Belsen in April 1945 shortly after its liberation. What he saw in the camp put him off Germans for the rest of his life and he was never to visit Germany again.
He met his wife, Judith Maro, in the army education centre at Mount Carmel in Palestine in the last phase of the British Mandate there and they had a clandestine wedding in defiance of military protocol. A Hebrew-speaker, she was serving with the ATS but was deeply involved in the Zionist movement that was intent on creating a homeland for the Jews. After the proclamation of the state of Israel in 1948 she was demobilised and found that neither the British nor the Israelis had a place for her, whereupon the Joneses left the country.
Jonah immediately made for Wales and sought out John Petts, who was endeavouring
to revive his Caseg Press in a workshop
at Llanystumdwy in Caernarfonshire, and the two worked together under the patronage of Lady Lloyd-George until it became clear that in post-war Britain there was little call for the limited editions they had in mind. The six intensive weeks he spent at Pigotts in Buckinghamshire in 1949 on a small scholarship from the York Trust proved decisive in Jonah Jones's maturing as a
sculptor. Gill had died in 1940 and David Jones was no longer there, but from Laurence Cribb he learned how to cut letters in stone and from René Hague, Gill's son-in-law, the finer points of putting lead through the stick.
Returning to Wales, but by now agnostic in religion, he opened his own workshop at Tremadoc on the Lleyn peninsula. His first commission was from Thomas Jones, formerly Lloyd George's private secretary and then President of the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, who wanted an inscription for the Principal's House. It was followed by lettering for Lloyd George's gravestone at Llanystumdwy and other work which the architect Clough Williams-Ellis put his way.
This was an auspicious start for a sculptor with little academic training but soon afterwards Jones was struck down with tuberculosis and had to spend the next five years in sanatoria. As part of his convalescence, he turned to the making of busts: among the eminent people who sat for him were Sir Huw Wheldon, John Cowper Powys, Richard Hughes, Bertrand Russell and Gwynfor Evans. He also did the bronzes of the Welsh patriots O.M. Edwards and his son Sir Ifan ab Owen Edwards which stand outside the village of Llanuwchllyn near Bala.
The next 17 years were spent abroad, first as a teacher at the British School in Rome and then in Belfast and Dublin, initially as an assessor for the National Council for Diplomas in Art and Design at Ulster College. From 1974 to 1978 he was Director of the National College of Art and Design in Dublin and Director of the Kilkenny Design Workshops.
Jones also wrote two finely crafted novels. The first, A Tree May Fall (1980), is about the claims of pacifism on his father's generation and, in particular, the crisis in Anglo-Irish relations after the Easter Rising of 1916, while the second, Zorn (1986), deals with the fate of European Jewry. In The Gallipoli Diary (1989), a largely autobiographical book, he brought together essays about some of the artists who meant most to him.
Jonah Jones was a genial, unassuming man, never one to push his own work but staunchly committed to his role as craftsman and the power of art to enrich people's lives. The only honour he received was the Queen's Jubilee Medal for service in the arts in 1983. He will be awarded posthumously the honorary membership of the Royal Society of Architects, Wales next week. His last years were spent in Cardiff but, plagued by arthritis, he was no longer able to work in stone.
Wherever Jones went, to committee meeting or private view, he was accompanied by a whippet, in whose grace and intelligence he took unbounded delight.
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