The Spring 2021 issue of the Welsh-language literary review O’r Pedwar Gwynt published an interview by Shelagh Hourahane (author of an excellent article on Jonah’s work, ‘Carving Our Inheritance’, in Planet, August/September 1987) with the artist and cultural historian Peter Lord, who has done so much to reveal the existence of a visual arts tradition in Wales which was long denied.
Discussing the resistance among many in the Welsh arts world to his theories, Lord cites a couple of individual examples, of which Jonah is one: “…I remember Jonah Jones, Chairman of the Art Committee of the [Welsh] Arts Council, opening a discussion on a paper I had presented to them (‘Cultural Policy’) with the words, ‘We fought wars to stop this kind of thing.’” Scene & Word Ltd feels that some context must be given to this observation.
There is no specific record in Jonah’s journals of this incident, but it must have taken place in 1986, when he was chairman of the WAC’s Art Committee. However, his thoughts written on 23 December in anticipation of a meeting in January are revealing. While he accepted the WAC had to have a financial policy for the assessment of quality, disbursement of funds and so on, he was “puzzled about the term ‘cultural policy’[…] culture, surely, is not ordained by policy – in essence ‘cultural policy’ is for me an oxymoron. Culture is natural, wild growth, so ‘policy’ is inimical to it. Policy is ‘the settled method of conducting affairs…’ to which, surely, ‘culture’ is inimical. For this reason alone, I’d be glad not to chair such a meeting!”
Jonah was a lifelong idealist, a believer in a liberal form of socialism and internationalism. He also believed deeply in the importance of freedom, both as a prerequisite for creative art and as the antithesis of the brutal totalitarianism whose effects he had witnessed in Europe. At heart he was an individualist, wary of party lines, and it is in this light that we must interpret his suspicion of a concept like “cultural policy”.
With his beliefs and background (an incomer to Wales from County Durham), it was understandable that he was at first worried by the rise of Welsh nationalism in the late 1960s on. As his daughter Naomi recalls, the very word “nationalism” had “dangerous and evil connotations” for him after what he had seen during the Second World War. Later, after he got to know his local Plaid Cymru MP, Dafydd Elis Thomas, and talked to other friends and family members who were Welsh nationalists, he came to see that the movement in Wales was the opposite of fascism and xenophobia; he saw that celebrating differences was actually the opposite of the thing he loathed and feared so much.
It is true that Jonah, like so many others, did express the view that there was comparatively little by way of a visual arts tradition in Wales. In a radio talk in 1961 (published later that year in the Welsh-language magazine Taliesin, and later reprinted under the title ‘Not Built But Truly Born’ in The Gallipoli Diary in 1989), he argued: “Recently I was asked if there was evidence of a renaissance in the visual arts in Wales. The answer is No[…] The Welsh, if they are not iconoclasts, certainly have not been the most active of image-makers, and one cannot therefore talk of the renaissance of what has never really existed.” Essentially he thought this came down to Wales’s peripheral location relative to European civilization, its distance from the Mediterranean heartland. This was a conventional view for his time, based on the idea of a “canon” of great art from the main cultures of Europe which disregarded the art of smaller, more “peripheral” countries. If Jonah had lived later than 2004, one can imagine that he would have absorbed Peter Lord’s findings and appreciated the Welsh tradition of portraiture going back some four centuries.
What is undeniable is that, as early as 1973, Jonah demonstrated an understanding that Wales was a separate entity, that this distinctiveness was important and valuable, and that the arts would play a part in asserting it. In an essay published in Artists in Wales 2 edited by Meic Stephens (republished as ‘Gwynedd Freeman’ in The Gallipoli Diary), he argued that “internationalism” (what is now referred to as “globalisation”) had “flushed life out of too many communities at this late 20th century stage”. “Against its momentum, individual communities suddenly realise that they are being swept aside, and history has shown what sacrifice they will make, what creative surges they will activate to reassert that identity. There are signs that Wales is facing the issue right now.” He concluded: “I believe that the role of the arts in their widest sense will be a major factor in reviving or sustaining what is, after all, a distinctive community.”
Jonah gave physical embodiment to these words in much of his work, most notably his sculptures based on the Mabinogi and related themes drawn from Welsh history. In her essay ‘Carving Our Inheritance’, Shelagh Hourahane observed of Y Tywysogion (The Princes, 1968): “It is not surprising that during the 1960s an artist of Jonah Jones’s sensibility and concern for Wales would be influenced by the political atmosphere in which he lived. He acknowledged the growth of his own sense of Welsh identity in the sculpture that he made in 1968 for Aberffraw. It was fitting, he explains, that in the year of the Investiture of Charles as Prince of Wales an artist should make an alternative reference to the native mediaeval princes who had created and sustained Welsh identity at their court at Aberffraw […]”
Having made a living from the arts in Wales from 1952 on, Jonah felt an obligation to give something back by serving on public bodies like the WAC, which he did for many years. He was not, though, a natural committee man, finding the constant travelling from North to South Wales, the loss of working time and income, the personality clashes and the bureaucracy irksome and tiring. Any resultant irritability may have partly explained his intemperate remark about Peter Lord’s policy paper. This should not, however, obscure the fact that Jonah identified wholly with Wales, and gave so much to it in so many ways.