The Gregynog Journals by Jonah Jones

by Wynn Wheldon

Friendship often defies explanation, as such a beautifully complicated, living thing ought. Jonah Jones and my father, Huw Wheldon, were friends for forty years. They met in Palestine in 1946, both serving under the British mandate, teaching at Mount Carmel. ‘Bash-on’ Wheldon was a decorated warrior whose father had been knighted twice; Jonah was a convinced pacifist whose father had been a miner.
    What was it, then, that gave them the common ground on which to build a friendship? Curiously, because my father was a deeply impractical man, I believe the answer lies in Jonah’s insistence that the place where he worked was not a studio, but a workshop. “Only God creates” my father used to say, “men make”. And perhaps Jonah shared that view, although both men had heroes – Tolstoy, Brancusi, Lloyd George, Noguchi.    There was in them - both good, honest, intelligent, successful men - that modesty which attaches to those who know that fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Their works were acts of praise. I don’t think “self-expression” was considered by either of them as anything other than the inevitable by-product of work.
    For 15 or 16 years in my childhood, during the sixties and seventies, we unfailingly spent our summer holidays at Cricieth, down the road from Jonah and his family.There were cousins about, but they were always older than us and their Welsh-speaking made us feel a little excluded (my father signally failing to teach us Welsh). Once Jonah had built Tyddyn Heulyn, overlooking the estuary of the Afon Dwyryd, a stone’s throw from Portmeirion, it became our favourite place to visit.
    To begin with I was a little disappointed with the house. I remember being excited by the site, and when the house was finished I thought it was rather, well, boxy. It had, however, a peculiarity right from the start. It was tall. And this gave elegance to its austere functionality .
   Clarity of form is central to the appeal of Jonah’s work, and Tyddyn Heulyn was wonderfully clear, and of course Jonah knew what it would become. It had the most wonderful sunken garden, like a kind of green swimming pool, which you could dip into from the side of the house. Indoors it was an utter pleasure, two simple rooms downstairs, one of which was rich with art, the other of which was rich with the heady odour of whatever Jonah had just cooked. Usually, this was bread. Jonah made bread as he made art, with love and curiosity. He’d tap on the loaf to make sure the density was gone, and make one of his lovely, growly sounds of contentment. His voice, like his bread, was like the very stone he so gave life to with his hands.
    Jonah started to keep journals relatively late in life. Indeed, I believe the Gregynog journal was the first to be kept with any regularity. Jonah was already 63. He had found a facility for writing some time earlier, while Director of Dublin’s National College for Arts and Design.    That it should have been in him would have surprised no-one.    Words after all meant a great deal to Jonah, starting of course with the very shapes involved in making them. He was, too, married to a novelist; most of all, he was curious about the world. Among other things, The Gregynog Journals touch on the weather, on the ethics of treason, on how monks might have overcome the boredom involved in transcribing particularly dull passages of the bible, on trees, on the purpose of art, on war, on reading, on music; and in them we
meet a Nigerian student afraid of snow, grousing farm hands, American academics, Irish academics, BBC TV producers, artists, writers, friends. There are stories about Arthur Balfour and Patrick Kavanagh and Khruschev and Anthony Blunt. And all these subjects and characters appeared in sketchbooks rich with drawings and lettering, and written in a wonderful italic hand both formal and free and with hardly a blot. The truth is that writing, to Jonah, was as much a physical act as was stone carving, and making sculpture as much a mental act as writing.
    Jonah was, to use a vulgar but particularly apt expression, all of a piece: his pipe and his bread and his pen and his stone and his slate-thin whippets and his voice and his hooded, kindly eyes, these were not an assemblage, but elements of one and the same piece of human clay. I loved him because he confirmed what my witnessing of my parents suggested to me – that the world was good. 
    Jonah, I think, liked to think of himself as removed from the madding crowd, but these journals, with their width of reference, and their sophistication, tell us that he was a man of the world.  What he was not. and what my father was also not, was cynical.  these two were men full of curiosity and delight in the world, angered chiefly by the petty.  they knew the value of things.
    My father and Jonah laughing: Asbestos gelos - inextinguishable laughter - for I hear them together laughing still.

The Gregynog Journals is available here.

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