David Jones

Aphrodite in Aulis


Not on display

David Jones 1895–1974
Graphite, ink and watercolour on paper
Support: 629 × 498 mm
Purchased 1976

Display caption

After fighting in the First World War, Jones went to art school in 1918. Long enthusiastic about Blake, in 1943 Jones saw Blake's Body of Abel, shown in this display, much enlarged at a lantern slide lecture. His awareness of Blake's 'overwhelmimg' qualities grew. As a watercolourist, engraver and poet, Jones has obvious affinities with Blake. Aphrodite was drawn during the Second World War. Its Classical and Christian allusions are comparable with Blake's use of art when commenting on contemporary events. The Greek goddess of love and fertility, chained to an altar, is flanked by a British and German soldier.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry


Inscribed ‘David Jones '41’ b.r., and verso ‘Aphrodite Pandemos: The Triple Goddess’, ‘Turan’ (these alternative titles crossed out) and ‘The Lady’.
Pencil, ink and watercolour on paper, 24 3/4 × 19 1/2 (62.9 × 49.7)
Purchased from the artist's estate (Grant-in-Aid) through Anthony d'Offay, 1976.
Exh: David Jones, Bryan Wynter, Derek Hill, Redfern Gallery, May–June 1948 (25, as ‘The Lady’); David Jones, Arts Council of Great Britain (Welsh Committee), Travelling exhibition and Tate Gallery December 1954–January 1955 (55); Word and Image IV: David Jones, National Book League, February–March 1972 (99, repr. pl.19); David Jones, Anthony d'Offay, May–June 1975 (22).
Lit: Nicolete Gray, ‘David Jones’, Signature No.8, 1949, pp.46–56, (repr.); David Blamires, David Jones: Artist and Writer, Manchester University Press, 1971, pp.67–9; John Rothenstein, Modern English Painters, Vol.11 (Lewis to Moore), London 1956, pp.305–6 (repr. pl.29, facing p.293).

The compiler is particularly grateful to Mr René Hague for his information, insights and suggestions over the period November 1976 to July 1978. Much of the information contained in his letters has subsequently been published in his Commentary on ‘The Anathemata’ of David Jones, London 1977. Assistance has also been received from Dr Paul Hills of the Department of Art History, Warwick University and from Mrs Nicolete Gray.

After about 1940, David Jones's art - hitherto (with the exception of his book illustrations) predominantly naturalistic - became more complex and symbolic in character, drawing on a wide range of cultural sources. ‘Aphrodite in Aulis’ is one of three major water colour drawings made in the early part of the war which are concerned with myth and legend as living traditions - what the artist called ‘valid signs’. (A second drawing of this date, ‘The Four Queens find Launcelot Sleeping’, and illustration to the Morte d'Arthur, is also in the Tate's collection (5316). In their range of allusion David Jones's later drawings often closely parallel his writings and ‘Aphrodite in Aulis’ has been described by Blamires (op cit.) as being in many ways a visual counterpart to The Anathemata (1952) on which he had already begun work. It is certainly the most complete visual statement of themes and images explored by the artist to date, including those of In Parenthesis (1937).

The central figure is Aphrodite, ancient Goddess of beauty, sexual love and in some places of war. Born of the white sea foam, she was also honoured as Goddess of the sea. David Jones's Aphrodite, however, transcends her mythical origins and stands as a symbol of unity for men of all ages and cultures, epitomised by the four crumbling orders of architecture. As the artist explained in a letter to René Hague shortly before his death, he wanted here to create a cult figure ‘embracing all female cult figures, all goddesses rolled into one, mother-figure and virgo inter virgines, the pierced woman and mother and all her foretypes’. This Aphrodite also included ‘Elen the bracelet-giver of the Mabinogion, Ceidwades Wen, Mundi Domina’ and finally ‘Our Lady’, ‘as comprehending in herself all the potent pre-Christian cult figures and their sufferings’.

As Blamires has noted, ‘the key to this elaborate drawings lies in the identification of love with sacrifice, and the combination of Christian with pagan elements, for it is David Jones's belief that myths and archetypes from all periods of the world's history may find their true fulfilment in the symbolism of Christianity.’ Aphrodite personifies love in both its earthly and spiritual aspects - she is at once earth goddess and Queen of Heaven. Among the more arcane allusions to the former, René Hague has drawn attention to the Agelastos Petra or Laughless Rock of The Anathemata (pp.56 and 92) depicted on the hillside to the left, with its cult object representing the female generative organ - adding that this cleft rock is associated in myth with Demeter and Persephone and their cult in the Eleusinian mysteries. At the other extreme, the stars and crescent moon above the Goddess's head are traditional attributes of the Madonna of the Apocalypse.

The Goddess appears chained by her left foot, and René Hague has suggested as a possible source for his image an eye-witness account by the Greek geographer and traveller Pausanius of a cedar wood carving of the fettered Aphrodite at Sparta. Other allusions to a sacrificial role include the necklace and rings which traditionally adorn a victim, and the ram depicted on the pillar beneath her feet, dripping blood into a chalice. For the Catholic David Jones, of course, this ‘victim’ idea had wider connotations, the composition as a whole being suggestive of a traditional Crucifixion (the Goddess bears the Stigmata and is flanked by two soldiers, one of whom bears a lance like the Roman centurion Longinus), and in turn of the Sacrifice of the Mass. For the artist the liturgical framework of the Mass encompassed the whole development of Western culture (this being the theme of The Anathemata), and in this context he seems to be associating Mary here with the sacrifice of her Son - as, virtually, co-Redemptrix.

The title of this drawing may have given rise to some confusion in the past regarding David Jones's intentions. Before 1949 it was known simply as ‘Aphrodite’, the title given it by the artist, and according to Nicolete Gray (letter to the compiler of 23 May 1978) it was she who added the words ‘In Aulis’ in a Signature article on David Jones that year. She accidentally associated the work with George Moore's book of that name, probably also seeing its relevance to the subject. The artist liked the title and kept it, but it follows that any intention on his part to associate Aphrodite with the story of Iphigeneia at Aulis must have been made retrospectively. (Iphigeneia, daughter of Agamemnon was sacrificed to Artemis at Aulis during the Trojan War. The Greek fleet having been becalmed, the sacrifice was made to placate the Gods and bring a favourable wind for the expedition to Troy). Later on, David Jones developed an association between Mary's sacrifice and that of Iphigeneia in The Anathemata:

‘She's as she of Aulis, master:
Not a puff of wind without her!
her fiat is our fortune, sir: like Helen's face
t'was that as launched the ship’.

(Lady of the Pool, p.128)

René Hague comments that here David Jones is comparing Iphigeneia's bringing-about of a literal wind with Mary's acceptance of the Word (‘Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum’), bringing the pneuma or Holy Spirit to the mystical body of the Church.

The genesis of ‘Aphrodite’ seems to have been comparatively slow, the idea developing over a period of two or three years, and becoming ever more elaborate. Initially the Earth-Goddess idea seems to have been uppermost, as a comparison between the only known study for this work (T02307, see following entry) and the final drawing shows. The study is greatly simplified, showing a Rubensesque seated goddess surrounded by the various classical orders of architecture - a conception which is evidently close to ‘Aphrodite Pandemos’ (‘of all the people’) the first of the three alternative titles inscribed on the verso in David Jones's hand. (‘The Triple Goddess’ is Hecate). The second, ‘Turan’ to which David Jones refers his book The Sleeping Lord is an Etruscan name, Asiatic in origin, for a female cult figure. This would accord with the third title, ‘The Lady’ referred to in The Anathemata (pp.238 and 233) as ‘Es Sitt, The Lady’. She is the Caananite Astarte, another all-embracing Goddess.

Both Douglas Cleverdon and Paul Hills have stated that David Jones was at work on ‘Aphrodite’ as early as 1938 when staying at the Fort Hotel, Sidmouth, Devon. At this time he made a number of seascapes and also studies of women, and the association of the two may well have suggested to him the subject of Aphrodite. According to the artist's handwritten annotations to Douglas Cleverdon's copy of the 1972 National Book League catalogue, he completed ‘Aphrodite’ when staying at 3 Glebe Place, Chelsea ‘on a Saturday afternoon’ in 1941, shortly after the start of the Blitz. David Jones stayed (as Tom Burns, his then host, has confirmed) at Glebe Place from late 1939 until June 1941, so it must have been in the early part of that year.

Although the only overt reference to the current hostilities seems to be the barrage balloon above the broken cornice, top left, the advent of the war (about which David Jones was, according to René Hague ‘wildly excited’,) must have given new dimensions of meaning to this work. Here, despite the inclusion of arms and weaponry of all ages, it is the imagery of the First World War, of the frontispiece of In Parenthesis that predominates, notably in the figures of the British and German soldiers in the foreground. The British soldier carries a sheet, or ‘shield’ of corrugated iron, of a type used by fatigue parties at the Front, while his opposite number carries the familiar German First World War stick bombs. David Jones's experience as a soldier in 1914–18 had given him an admiration for the qualities of fighting men, and it is evident that soldiering represented for him a constant and valiant tradition within western culture.

So far as war is concerned, this drawing echoes the latter part of the dedication to In Parenthesis, and David Jones's belief that although war destroys civilisation, yet men can be united in love:


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

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