Adam Somerset looks back on the life and work of one of Wales’ most celebrated sculptors, Jonah Jones, in his centenary year.
Tap away, tap away, it was a wonderful sound.
The centenary of Jonah Jones, born 17th February 1919, has been marked with an exhibition at Oriel Plas Glyn y Weddw. He was subject of a characteristically elegant obituary by Meic Stephens for the Independent on 2nd December 2004. Stephens encapsulated the life’s work in his opening sentence. “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.”
Grounded in a powerful sense of faith Jones was, wrote Stephens, “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.”
“For him, as for the Benedictines, laborare est orare, 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’.”
The commissions over the decades were widespread. Stephens: “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.”
Stephens closes with the personal qualities: “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.”
In print Jonah Jones can be read in conversation with Tony Curtis over twenty-five pages of “Welsh Artists Talking”, Seren’s compendium of ten artists published in 2000. The conversation touches on the prime elements of the life and comes with the freshness and immediacy of the spoken voice. It also contains a useful biographical outline. The training was that of a poor youth raised in the depression era, part-time study at Newcastle’s King Edward School of Art, then apprentice learning at workshops at Pigotts in Buckinghamshire.
The publications, films and educational appointments, from Britain to Dublin and Rome, are all given. The locations include Newport, Morfa Nefyn, Denbigh, Porthmadog, Criccieth and Llandudno. The spoken testimony gives a vividness to experience. Jonah invokes the enclosedness that true poverty brings. In the Northumberland upbringing, if a bone-shaker of a bicycle might be got hold of, an all-day trip to Durham might be feasible. Paradoxically it was war and army service that opened up the world. Posted to the moorland above Minehead, with a fellow-soldier from Taff vale, he had his first sight of Wales. “For me, that was the first time I had been in foreign parts…that was what the Depression was like.”
The six weeks at Pigotts are evoked with clarity and vividness, in part because interviewer Tony Curtis is well prepared. He cites Jones himself on the inspiration of Laurie Cribb with his “metronomic regularity of hitting”. Jones describes being led by Mary Gill into the room vacated by David Jones whom he never met in the life. He finds a couple of once printing blocks carved into a little Byzantine mother and child.
On his arrival he is like every apprentice, versed in the theory but deficient in the practice. “I knew about the lettering but didn’t know how to use the tool, it was a great mystery to me; how do you carve letters in stone? It looks such a beautiful thing. I was soon taught. It was the simplest method, plain chisel, plain mallet.” In observing Cribb at work he makes comparison with batsman Gary Sobers. “Laurie was very meditative at stone, he would sit and tap away, tap away, it was a wonderful sound.”
Jonah Jones photo credit: Robert Greetham