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David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet by Thomas Dilworth review – tale of a troubled genius

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The story of the eccentric and exceptionally talented David Jones, who couldn’t wait to go off to the trenches, makes fascinating reading

In 1966, Robert Speaight published a biography of Eric Gill, a book that the poet and artist David Jones, an old friend of Gill’s, was asked more than once to review. But every time he refused. Jones, who was by then living in a dilapidated boarding house in Harrow-on-the-Hill, and among whose tenants was a lobotomised salesman, had firm ideas about biography. “I don’t like a person [writing] more than one biography in a lifetime,” he told a friend. “He cannot have researched the man properly.” Speaight, having already produced several lives, was not to be trusted with “the complex quiddities & haecceities of the chap”.

Jones’s biographer, Thomas Dilworth, has devoted 30 years to writing his book. Whether he will ever produce another major life, I don’t know. But if we’re talking about quiddity, his labours have not been in vain. Those interested in Jones’s art (his dreamy watercolours, his masterly engravings), or in his singular poetry (the great work is In Parenthesis, a modernist epic inspired by his experiences in the trenches that TS Eliot regarded as a masterpiece), will not be disappointed with the careful, delicate way Dilworth connects them to his confounding story. But the real joy of his book is not analytical. It is that it makes Jones so vivid. Sweet, eccentric and unexpectedly comical, there are moments when it is almost as if you can smell him: the damp of his long overcoat; the must of hoarded newspapers as he reluctantly opens the door of his room. Glamorous people come and go: Jones’s circle included Ben Nicholson, Kenneth Clark, Clarissa Eden, and (the mind boggles) the Queen Mother. He, however, never changes, in the sense that he is always vulnerable, unpredictable, stubborn and (determinedly so) impoverished. Half-man and half-boy, sometimes you feel his genius is the only straightforward thing about him.

You're not going to make me normal, are you, because I don't want to be

Related: Soldier, poet, painter: how David Jones became Britain’s visionary outsider

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