David Jones
to the pictures
back to illustrator index page

David Jones

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, published in Bristol by Douglas Cleverdon, 1929. 38 pages, plus eight engravings on copper by David Jones. 32 × 26 cms. colophon: ‘Printed for Douglas Cleverdon at the Fanfare Press, London: the Poem in the Arrighi types lent by Charles W. Hobson, and the Marginal Glosses in Norstedt’s original xviiith century founts. The Copper Plates printed by Walter W. Colls, London mcmxxxix.’

This superb edition of the Ancient Mariner was the idea of Douglas Cleverdon, a young Bristol bookseller and later the powerful promoter of poetry on the BBC’s Third Programme. In 1926 Cleverdon had visited Eric Gill at Capel-y-ffin, and there met David Jones (1895–1974), then a comparatively unknown young artist and poet: ‘greatly daring, I asked David to engrave on copper eight illustrations with a headpiece and tailpiece, for Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’. Jones immediately agreed. ‘He was a very agreeable companion’, Cleverdon later remembered, ‘relishing the humorous, but with an inexorable urge to get a thing right, whether it was a phrase, or a principle, or a brush-stroke in a water-colour. We were all devoted to him’ (Cleverdon 1981, p. 16).

David Jones had trained at the Camberwell School of Art before being recruited into the army in 1915–18, and later used his serviceman’s grant to enroll at the Westminster School of Art. The war became the subject of his greatest literary work, In Parenthesis (1937), which he began at the same time as the Mariner designs. In 1929, after making between 150 and 200 drawings preparatory, he finally came up with six copper engravings. Jones later explained this choice of medium:

once one has mastered the initial difficulty of making the tool used (the burin) incise the recalcitrant metal in the direction required the result is one of linear freedom and firmness hardly obtainable in any other material ... I am of the opinion that the most specific beauty, that which belongs to copper-engraving, sui generis, is a lyricism inherent in the clean, furrowed free, fluent engraved line, as quintessentially linear as the painted lines on one type of Greek vase, or Botticelli’s (strangely neglected) illustrations to the Divina Commedia or the purely linear designs in Anglo-Saxon illuminated mss. (Jones 1972, pp. 2–3)

The reference here to a line from the Ancient Mariner – ‘the furrow streamed off free’ – is a reminder that this was the first time the poem had been illustrated by an artist who was also a considerable poet, and Jones’s drawings derive their strength from his close, and very personal reading of the poem. ‘I have referred to the elusive quality of this poem and its allusions’ he writes in his long and intricate essay An Introduction to the Ancient Mariner, published in 1972 and Jones’s last substantial prose work. ‘These allusions are themselves elusively presented, for its imagery has a metamorphic quality. With swift artistry, with something akin to the conjuror’s slight of hand, the images seem now this, now that, a little like the shape-shifting figured in Celtic mythology’ (ibid., p. 5). Jones’s illustrations also have the shifting, elusive qualities he finds in the poem, and in his essay, also elusive, he makes very few specific references to them. Instead he associates aspects of the poem with the wonder-voyages of Celtic myth, Homeric epic and Christian theology. ‘He did not conceive of them so much as simple illustrations, but rather as symobolic imagery drawn from the depths of Coleridge’s imagination,’ wrote Cleverdon some time later. ‘For David, the voyage of the Ancient Mariner paralleled the argosy or voyage of the Redeemer; and his long-considered interpretation, with its profound insight and its wide-ranging sensibility, is the worthy tribute of one great poet to another’ (Cleverdon 1981, p. 17).

Christian symbolism can easily be seen in a number of Jones’s engravings: the albatross transfixed against the mast and crossbeam of the ship (illustrated opposite); the mariner with his hands upraised in the manner of the crucified Christ (shown on p. 95); the priest with his censor (p. 97). But despite this the flowing lines, vigorous cross-hatching, giddy perspectives and jostling angles of the illustrations refuse to be pinned down, and the figures have an intensity, a sense of torment even, not seen since David Scott’s designs of nearly hundred years before. The thinly-drawn mariners, stretching upwards and inwards, create a powerful impression of psychological disturbance.

The typographic advisor to this edition of the Ancient Mariner was no less a figure than Stanley Morison, and under his guidance the poem was set and printed in Arrighi, a new typeface designed in 1925 by Frederick Warde and modelled on the cursive hand of the great Italian Renaissance scribe Ludovico degli Arrighi. The glosses were set in Norsedt’s eighteenth-century adaptation of a type by the great Paris punchcutter Firmin Didot. A number of copies were bound in vellum. By the 1960s this book had become an expensive collector’s item, and in 1964 a new edition was published by the Chilmark Press in New York to make Jones’s illustrations available to a new generation. The text was reset in Bembo and printed by Will and Sebastian Carter at the Rampant Lions Press in Cambridge.