image © Kettle's Yard

David Jones


Vexilla Regis, 1948

Drawing [DJ 4] Displayed
Graphite and watercolour on paper
750 x 552 mm

Vexilla Regis is a comparatively large work, densely rendered with the interlacing of lines and the accretion of colour characteristic of Jones's technique during the late 1940s and 1950s. The image is rich in detail and invites close scrutiny. Its Latin title ("the standards of the King") hints at the underlying iconographic complexity.

Many of the more exacting references would be unintelligible were it not for the accounts addressed in 1949 to the first owner, Jim Ede's mother, Mildred. In them Jones emphasised the Christian imagery of the Crucifixion, but also showed how this is combined with a number of other references demonstrating his extensive knowledge of Roman and post-Roman Britain. He explained: "The main jumping off ground was, I think, a Latin hymn we sing as part of the Good Friday Liturgy in the Roman rite. Two hymns in fact, one starting Vexilla Regis prodeunt 'Forth come the standards of the King', a very ancient processional hymn, in which are many allusions to the tree and the Cross, and to the Cross as a tree etc and the other starting: Crux fidelis inter omnes arbor una nobis. This is a rather long hymn and the various of its verses deals with the Cross as a Tree in concise and very noble, and moving language - really very grand ... The general idea of the picture was associated, in my mind, with the collapse of the Roman world. The three trees as it were left standing on Calvary - the various bits and pieces of classical ruins dotted the landscape - also older things, such as the stonehenge or 'druidic' circle a little to the right of the right hand tree in the distance and then the Welsh hills more to the right again, the rushing ponies are, more or less, the horses of the Roman cavalry, turned to grass and gone wild and off to the hills. (This idea, probably in turn, comes from something in Malory's Morte d'Arthur when right at the end, after the death of Guenevre and the break-up of the Round Table, Lancelot and the other knights, let their armed horses go free to roam where they will - for the riders have now finished with tournaments, display, etc and gone off to be hermits and the like.) The leopard's pelt and the trumpet in the left hand bottom corner are supposed to be the instrument and the insignia of a Roman bucinator or trumpeter, as though the owner of them had been part of the guard on Calvary - that sort of idea. The tree on the left of the main tree is, as it were, the tree of the "good thief" it grows firmly in the ground and the pelican has made her nest and feeds her young in its branches - Our Lord is likened to a pelican in her piety in one of the latin hymns of Thomas Aquinas. The tree on the right is that of the other thief, it is partly tree and partly triumphal column and partly imperial standard - a power symbol, it is not rooted in the ground but is partly supported by wedges. S. Augustine's remark that 'empire is great robbery' influenced me here. It is not meant to be bad in itself but in some senses proud and self-sufficient. Nevertheless it is shadowed by the spreading central Tree and the dove, in fact, hovers over this tree of the truculent robber for somehow he is 'redeemed' too!"

The complexity of the imagery and symbolism adopted by Jones, however, is not supposed to be rigid. The artist acknowledged that "it's the forms in the painting that matter first - it is after feeling the forms that we ask about the context. (Even though the context dictates the forms - or at least they are inextricably bound up with each other or should be.)"

Provenance: Purchased from the artist by Mrs Mildred Ede (H.S. Ede's mother), 1949; inherited by H. S. Ede, 1953.

Jones was born in Brockley, South London, the son of a Welsh printer. He studied at the Camberwell School of Art before the First World War. He was associated with Eric Gill's communities of artists and craftsmen in Sussex and Wales in the 1920s, working as an engraver and printer, while at the same time writing poetry and essays. His work reflects his interest in early Christianity, Arthurian myths and the ancient classical world.