David Jones Chalice with Flowers and Pepperpot c.1954–5

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Artwork details

Artist
David Jones 1895–1974
Title
Chalice with Flowers and Pepperpot
Date c.1954–5
Medium Graphite, watercolour and tempera on paper
Dimensions Support: 784 x 578 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition Purchased 1976
Reference
T02038
Not on display

Catalogue entry

T02038 CHALICE WITH FLOWERS AND PEPPERPOT c.1954–5

Not inscribed
Pen, pencil, watercolour and tempera on paper, 30 7/8 × 22 3/4 (78.4 × 57.6)
Purchased from the artist's estate through Anthony d'Offay (Grant-in-Aid), 1976
Exh: David Jones, Anthony d'Offay, May–June 1975 (25)
Lit: Kenneth Clark, ‘Some Recent Paintings of David Jones’, Agenda Spring-Summer 1967, pp.97–100; Word and Image IV: David Jones, National Book League, February–March 1972, p.9

‘Chalice with Flowers and Pepperpot’ is one of a group of closely related watercolour drawings dating from the latter part of David Jones's career. All feature a glass goblet or ‘chalice’ of flowers placed centrally on a table with various domestic objects assembled around. At least fifteen works of this type have been traced since the artist's death but, as he kept no records, others may exist. Few are dated - most bear a tentative date of c.1950 - but the fine ‘Tangled Cup’, dated 1949, in Birmingham City Art Gallery and ‘Flowers in a Chalice’, dated ‘circa 1955’ (coll. Lord Clark), establish likely termini ante and post quem for the series; (‘Flora's Calix’ of 1962–3 seems to be a late exception.) The date 1949 for the start of the series is to some extent supported by a letter David Jones wrote in December that year to Jim Ede in which he says that he has been getting his room straight and arranging his various ‘objects’, including a fine 18th century German glass given him by Ede which appears in one of the flower drawings. He continues ‘it looks a lot nicer and I'm glad to have them and be able to look at them - possible inducement to “still life” drawings’.

Lord Clark (in Agenda, op cit.) has characterised these flower paintings as follows: ‘Some of the finest of David Jones's recent paintings are not of literary subjects but represent simply a vase of flowers on a table. A pleasant subject, but we are not for long under the illusion that this is an ordinary still life. The vase, broad and capacious like a Byzantine chalice of the 8th century, stands facing us on a plain table. Although no exclusively Christian symbol is visible, we have at once the feeling that this is an altar and that the flowers in some way represent part of the Eucharist. There are wine coloured carnations and ears of corn, thorny stems of roses and blood red petals which drop onto the small white table cloth. Yet none of this is insisted on, and we are far from the closed world of symbolism. Every flower is there for a dozen reasons, visual, iconographical or even on account of its name ...’

Whilst David Jones had made studies of flowers throughout his career, most of his earlier still lifes were treated naturalistically, often set in an interior with a land or seascape background seen through a window (as in ‘The Terrace’ of 1929). However, the implicit symbolism of the later works was anticipated in a group of ‘cup’ drawings of 1932, including ‘Briar Cup’, ‘Thorn Cup’, and ‘Martha's Cup’, whose Christian overtones were in turn enriched by wider allusions to myth and legend, notably to the Arthurian legend and the Holy Grail. As René Hague has commented, in these ‘chalice and flower’ paintings the artist achieved a satisfying balance between the two, sometimes conflicting, sides of his temperament - his love of allusion and suggestion, and the search for simplicity and directness which characterised his earlier studies from nature. As a result, these late works represent some of his finest achievements in visual art.

The absence of dates on individual works has made it difficult to ascribe any particular order to them. However Dr Paul Hills, who has seen all the known examples of the 1949–55 group, has suggested that the clue probably lies in the development of the artist's drawing style. In general he tends to place earlier in the series those in which the drawing is clear and precise and in which the motif is clearly distinguished from the window frame behind. The later works seem to be characterised by a freer, but also more intense or ‘mystical’ treatment of the subject, with foreground and background appearing to merge, and the image filling the paper. He includes the Tate's work in the latter group, and places it towards the end of the series.

This is confirmed to some extent if ‘Flowers with Chalice and Pepperpot’ is compared with Lord Clark's ‘Flowers in a Chalice’ c.1955, to which it is similar in motif and in treatment. Both are spring paintings – T02038 is of daffodils and other spring flowers - with the bare branch of a tree beyond. Both include among the still-life objects a pepperpot (or possibly sugar sprinkler although a pepperpot would be more appropriate to a ‘supper’) and a ring on a cup. And both have the strongly ‘sacramental’ character to which Lord Clark refers, the shape and arrangement of the vessels evoking the chalice, paten and ciboria used in the Mass, the white cloth the altar cloth or corporal. (In this context Paul Hills has drawn attention to the relationship between these works and David Jones's poem ‘A, a, a, Domine Deus’, which contains the lines ‘I have felt for His Wounds/In nozzles and containers ...’) For the artist, the act of painting - of ‘making’ of any kind - was in itself an act of worship and, writing himself of one of these works in Epoch and Artist (p.31), he stated that ‘it belongs implicitly to the same world of commemoration and anamnesis as that to which The Anathemata belongs, though the apparent subject matter is no more than some flowers in a glass calix’.

The series was executed at Northwick Park, Harrow-on-the-Hill, where David Jones lived between 1947–64. Here he occupied a small room with casement windows overlooking playing fields and the elms of ‘Vexilla Regis’, and these casement windows (or, more often their curly metal ‘arms’) appear in the background of most of the flower drawings. In a letter to René Hague written after he had moved to Monksdene Hotel, Harrow, the artist stated that he missed this view and, in particular, the casement windows.

The compiler acknowledges with thanks the help of Dr Paul Hills, who has read and approved this entry.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1976-8: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1979

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