David Jones at Mells: Conversion, Catholicism and Community

Essay by Tom Bromwell

On the second floor of the Manor House, Mells, a window beneath the roof gable looks east towards the neighbouring Anglican Church of St Andrew. It was from this vantage point that the Anglo-Welsh artist and writer David Jones started to paint in 1939 (fig. 1; MM91). The depiction of the church is from a loose perspective above that of the view from the window, and at some hundred metres more distant than it is. Jones’s line reveals his searching out of the form of the church, while his agitated use of subtle colours unifies the composition. The main architectural subject is the sixteenth-century tower of the church, behind which the foreshortened nave recedes into a landscape populated by horses. The art work records the proximity of the two buildings. In the foreground are glimpsed fragments of the Manor House, particularly the roof of the adjoining loggia designed by Edwin Lutyens, while the chimney of the Music Room (also by Lutyens) extends above the boundary wall between the grounds of the house and the churchyard. Jones had recently been too depressed to work but he found his spirits lifted, having come to stay at Mells at the invitation of Julian Asquith, then twenty-three years old, the 2nd Earl of Oxford and Asquith.

St Andrew’s Church, Mells

Figure 1.
David Jones, St Andrew’s Church, Mells, 1939. Black and coloured chalks and watercolour on paper, 61 × 49 cm. Mells Manor.

Digital image courtesy of Dave Penman. (All rights reserved)

This study explores the proximity of religion and the Manor House. Using David Jones as a focal point (fig. 2), it addresses the inter-related issues of religious conversion, Catholicism and community at Mells through select items in the house’s art collection and specifically looks at how art interacts in subtle ways with the formation and reaffirmation of a new sense of self-identity. The causes of religious conversion are complex. The adoption of a new religious identity is often close to other events identified as transitory or to periods of adversity. Religious conversion indicates a radical change in personal beliefs as well as in associated behaviours and social affiliations, presenting the convert with an opportunity to embrace a community of faith that has the capacity to support, nurture and offer guidance through life.1 According to the historian Marc Baer, whose research addresses the interconnectedness of the Abrahamic religions, through conversion a person ‘becomes someone else because his or her internal mind-set and external actions are transformed. . . . Conversion has an internal component entailing belief and an external component involving behaviour, leading to the creation of a new self-identity and new way of life.’2 Katharine Asquith (née Horner; fig. 3) and her son Julian converted to Roman Catholicism after the First World War and following a period of personal hardship. She had been widowed in September 1916 when her husband, Raymond Asquith, was killed in action in the Great War while serving on the Western Front. A year later Park House was devastated by fire. The following month Katharine’s brother, and heir to Mells, Edward Horner, was killed by a sniper at the Battle of Cambrai. Over the coming years the Manor House and Mells became a locus for members of the British Catholic revival including Hilaire Belloc, Siegfried Sassoon, Evelyn Waugh and David Jones.

1921. Glossy bromide print, 16.2 × 11.2 cm. National Portrait Gallery, London (NPG x200107).

Figure 2.
G Methwyn Brownlees, (Walter) David Michael Jones, 1921. Glossy bromide print, 16.2 × 11.2 cm. National Portrait Gallery, London (NPG x200107).

Digital image courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, London. (All rights reserved)

June 1920. Vintage snapshot print, 7.9 × 54 cm. National Portrait Gallery, London (NPG Ax140822).

Figure 3.
Lady Ottoline Morrell, Katharine Frances Asquith (neé Horner), June 1920. Vintage snapshot print, 7.9 × 54 cm. National Portrait Gallery, London (NPG Ax140822).

Digital image courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, London. (All rights reserved)

In the early months of 1939 Jones was in correspondence with Julian Asquith regarding his visit to Mells. Jones had already given up a visit owing to a bout of ill health and gastric ’flu. The international situation exacerbated his usual poor health and he confessed to Julian that he had been hoping to get down to writing but the prospect of war had ‘made my mind numb and my spirit flat.’ He continued, ‘It is very ignominious to feel so afraid.’3

Jones was attempting to follow up his first book, published on 17 July 1937, In Parenthesis; however, he was struggling ‘to write my stuff . . . it’s all nonsense as its [sic] all rambling and something too deep for me.’4 His art had been similarly afflicted. A semi-autobiographical prose-poem, In Parenthesis dealt with Jones’s experiences during the Great War on the Western Front. It proved instrumental in making the acquaintance of the Asquiths. Katharine had read the book and was a great admirer of the work. She was compelled to write to Jones, introducing herself modestly as a ‘stranger’.5 Her letter acknowledges that the correspondence ‘may seem rather impertinent. I cannot remember even doing this before – but I have a great wish to say how much I admire it . . . it has cost me a great deal to read it. It must of course have cost you far more to write it’.6 It is unlikely that she knew the truth of her words. Jones suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after the war.7 The decline in his health tallied with his attempts to write In Parenthesis, which he had started in 1928. The impact was most severely felt in Jones’s art and he was advised by his doctors not to paint following a breakdown in 1932. He speculated to Julian that if he had not written the book, ‘I should probably be painting still. In fact I’m starting to wonder if doing it didn’t partly bring on this break down.’8 Nevertheless, he was looking forward to making his first (and only) trip to Mells later in the year.

Jones finally made the journey in July 1939. His visit coincided with the visit of another artist, Henry Lamb (1883–1960), who was at the Manor House painting a portrait of Julian Asquith (fig. 4; MM89). Lamb’s broad brushstrokes and handling of paint are evocative of his teacher, the fashionable portrait painter William Orpen. Julian is painted in semi-profile, casually wearing a loose-collared shirt in light blue. According to Jones, the circumstances of the sitting appear to have been comparably relaxed. He was impressed by the Australian-born artist’s ability to ‘paint with chaps in the room walking about and talking.’9 Jones’s stay was marked by visits to Glastonbury Tor and Wells, where Jones noted in particular the ‘noble, grey, winding stone stairs’ leading to the Chapter House in Wells Cathedral.10 Lady Frances Horner, the matriarch of the family (fig. 5), was ill-disposed to Catholicism and conversation about religion was stifled in her presence. Instead much of the notable conversation appears to have revolved round the international situation.11 Jones was nevertheless pleased to meet and talk to Lady Horner, claiming ‘she inspired me deeply.’12 He particularly admired the tapestries that she had made, of which several were designed by Edward Burne-Jones (MM71, MM72), who had been infatuated with Frances and painted her likeness in several works.13

1939. Oil on canvas, 54 × 45 cm. Mells Manor (MM89).

Figure 4.
Henry Lamb, Portrait of Julian Asquith, 1939. Oil on canvas, 54 × 45 cm. Mells Manor (MM89).

Digital image courtesy of Dave Penman. (All rights reserved)

1923-1924. Vintage snapshot print, 10.3 × 6 cm. National Portrait Gallery, London (NPG Ax141636).

Figure 5.
Lady Ottoline Morrell, Frances Janes Horner (neé Graham), Lady Horner, 1923-1924. Vintage snapshot print, 10.3 × 6 cm. National Portrait Gallery, London (NPG Ax141636).

Digital image courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, London. (All rights reserved)

The lifting of Jones’s depression was marked by a periodic re-engagement with visual art. A letter from Jones to Julian dated 3 August 1939 shortly after the visit, tellingly focuses on art. Jones addresses Julian’s portrait and his own painting of the church, while also enthusing about Stanley Spencer’s ‘portrait of a girl’ that he had seen exhibited at Tooth’s gallery in London, exclaiming ‘Lord it was good’. Jones was not universal in his praise of Spencer, stating that ‘some other things of his I did not like very much’; however, in Jones’s opinion, ‘the portrait was the best I’ve seen in a long time’. The letter was illustrated with a cat ‘sitting in the middle of a scrumpled-up rug’ (fig. 6). However, the letter also reveals the cost to Jones’s health. His attempts to draw again had triggered a decline and he had been forced to end his stay prematurely. He candidly told Julian,

‘The [church] picture does not look so bad, but I wish I could have done more. I’m just depressed that [I] know now, after all this time, when I really try hard to draw it usually brings back a bit of the nerve thing, confound it – it’s a bit of a bore.’14

He wrote to Katharine the same day: ‘I’m sorry I made a fuss about not being so well at the end but that’s the worst of this neurasthenia, one never knows when the beastly thing is going to make me feel unwell’. And he continues, ‘I’m awfully glad I did the drawing. I wish it were better. If I did about half a dozen of them perhaps two out of the half dozen might have more exactly what I wanted – however I think it has something, if a bit enfeebled’.15 The painting of the church, when finished, was purchased by Katharine for twenty-seven guineas. Jones, who was financially hard up, told Katharine that he wished he was in a position to give the painting to her. He was glad that she liked it and was pleased to have had the opportunity to have done it.16

Illustrated letter to Julian Asquith, 3 August 1939

Figure 6.
David Jones, Illustrated letter to Julian Asquith, 3 August 1939, Mells Manor Archive.

Digital image courtesy of Caroline True. (All rights reserved)

In the next few months Jones also expressed how ‘jolly glad’ he was that Lamb was able to keep painting in spite of the contemporary situation.17 Lamb finished Julian’s portrait in 1939 and had Green & Stone provide a frame for it in 1940.18 He was at this time one of the most eminent portrait painters of the era. His sitters had included Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in 1938 and he had previously painted T. E. Lawrence, Stanley Spencer and the Bloomsbury figures Lytton Strachey, Leonard Woolf and Lady Ottoline Morrell. Lamb had also painted a portrait of Evelyn Waugh (fig. 7), a close friend of Katharine, having met the novelist in 1927 through their respective fiancées Lady Pansy Pakenham and Evelyn Gardner, who shared lodgings in London in 1927–8. Lamb was a belligerent atheist who was mistrustful of the Church and organised religion, considering it to be a front for self-righteousness.19 The artist Robert Gibbings, owner of the Golden Cockerel Press, had attempted to commission a ‘sermon’ by Lamb for a forthcoming book in which artists would be given a chance to express their philosophy of life.20 Gibbings had come up with the idea following a 1925 exhibition by the Society of Parson Painters in Bond Street, London. Lamb was one of a number of artists who had been approached.21 He replied to Gibbings’s enquiry: ‘Much as I dislike parsons my aversion from preaching is far greater’.22 Henry was shocked and upset when the Lambs’ eldest daughter, Henrietta, converted to Catholicism after the Second World War. Pansy was different and she found great interest in religion and philosophy, often sharing literature with Katharine.23 Her husband did not live to see Pansy’s own conversion to the faith in 1981.

circa 1928-30. Oil on canvas. Private Collection.

Figure 7.
Henry Lamb, Portrait of Evelyn Waugh, circa 1928-30. Oil on canvas. Private Collection.

Digital image courtesy of Bridgeman images. (All rights reserved)

Henry Lamb shared with Frances Horner the sense of dismay at seeing their own child convert to Catholicism. The Horner family had historically been strong supporters of the Church of England, while Non-conformists – and Roman Catholics – had been prevented from living in the village of Mells up to the First World War. Katharine’s conversion in 1923 had been influenced by Father Vincent McNabb, the writer Maurice Baring (who had converted in 1909) and Hilaire Belloc. Baring identified the difficulty in expressing this new identity in a letter to Belloc: ‘never, never, never talk theology or discuss the Church with those outside it. People simply do not understand what you are talking about and they merely (a) get angry and (b) come to the conclusion that one doesn’t believe in the thing oneself and that one is simply doing it to annoy.’24

Frances received a letter from the writer and Spiritualist Edith Lyttelton (née Balfour) some time after Katharine’s conversion. Frances and Edith had been members of the Souls, a largely aristocratic social group that grew from its inception in 1885 to include leading intellectuals and politicians. Edith speculated that Frances and her husband Sir John Horner would have considered the situation from different angles. She admitted her surprise, and attempted to console Frances, as ‘some minds need this . . . dogma.’25 The judgement from family members was common to both Katharine and Jones’s conversion experience. Jones converted in 1921 and was reproached by his father, James Jones. The Catholic Church was, in James Jones opinion, ‘the enemy of progress and Enlightenment, the friend and helper of the assassin & murderer’. Further it elevated the Church over scripture. It was ‘God de-throned – Man enthroned!’26 David Jones had been closer to his mother, Alice. She had doted on him throughout his childhood and was similarly upset by the news. His conversion appeared to be a rejection of the values his family had attempted to instil in him. Lamb, James Jones and Frances Horner all identified Catholicism with alterity, their own beliefs or identities being in part defined by their opposition to the Roman Catholic Church. The reprimand from these parental figures critically questions the integrity and merit in how the converted individual then self-identifies and frames the conversion as an act of defiance and rejection of themselves and the family unit.

Prior to her conversion in 1923, Katharine had travelled alone to France for a motoring holiday with her close friend Diana Cooper (née Manners). Diana and Katharine made a pilgrimage to Lourdes. According to Diana’s husband, the politician and historian Duff Cooper, when they were there Diana, who had been having difficulties conceiving, prayed that she would have a child, while Katharine prayed for a conversion.27 They had both considered and decided on their prayers in advance of visiting the Lourdes grotto.28 Katharine was galvanised by the experience and afterwards sought material expressions of the new religious identity. She ‘wanted to buy Crucifixes, rosaries, water-bottles in the form of Virgins[,] snowstorms in crystal balls, but Diana dragged her past only allowing her to invest in a few post cards’.29 This response indicates the initial importance that Katharine had placed on the outward material expressions of Catholicism. It is a significant moment in her conversion, as Katharine sought to express her personal sense of a new religious identity.

The conversion process was not straightforward. Katharine struggled with eschatological dogma.30 According to the biographer A. N. Wilson, Katharine

‘found, for a long period, that she was unable to believe in life after death, still less in the resurrection of the dead. But, the more she grieved and fretted, the more intolerable, and unreasonable, her unbelief appeared to her’.31

Father McNabb took responsibility for guiding Katharine on the dogma of the institutional faith and moral and ethical issues arising from it. He assured her: ‘Do not think you are not a good catholic merely because you are near of kin to St. Thomas the Apostle who thought he doubted.’32 Katharine also received spiritual direction from McNabb, who guided her to ‘become sensitive to God’s presence, deepen the personal relationship with Christ and attend to the action of the Spirit in one’s life.’33 Spiritual direction identifies the director and the directed as pilgrims sharing in the experience of the spiritual life. It also creates the sense of guidance, belonging and understanding that one who has converted seeks in order to foster his or her new self-identity.

Lewis R. Rambo, the scholar of psychology and religion, observed that ‘all conversions are mediated through people, institutions, communities, and groups.’34 Lady Horner discouraged Katharine from inviting Catholics to Mells, ostensibly considering them to be religious bores. The effect was to stifle Katharine’s initial community. Father Martin D’Arcy, S.J., the Rector and Master of Campion Hall, Oxford, later boasted that he was the first Roman Catholic priest to whom Frances had granted admittance to the Manor House.35 The Mells community slowly began to flourish in the 1930s. Katharine’s eldest daughter, Helen, was received in 1927 into the Church by the writer and theologian Monsignor Ronald Knox (fig. 8) and her youngest, Perdita, followed in 1930. Knox had been ordained as an Anglican but converted to Catholicism in 1917. (His father responded by cutting him out of his will.) Waugh, who had converted in 1930, was introduced by Father D’Arcy to Katharine in 1933. Her quiet authority appears to have appealed to Waugh, and Julian’s son Raymond, the present Lord Oxford, sensed that Waugh felt liberated from having to play the fool; Raymond was Waugh’s godson and remembers him as ‘a most assiduous and imaginative godfather’.36 A number of Waugh’s friends – largely old Oxford friends, fellow converts, or both – congregated in and around Mells.37 The earliest was Christopher Hollis, who had studied with Waugh at Oxford and converted in 1924. He had moved to Mells initially for six months following a suggestion from Katharine in 1936.38 He remained there for the rest of his life.

8 October 1926. Half-plate film negative. National Portrait Gallery, London (NPG x41417).

Figure 8.
Lafayette, Ronald Arbuthnott Knox, 8 October 1926. Half-plate film negative. National Portrait Gallery, London (NPG x41417).

Digital image courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, London. (All rights reserved)

It was Father D’Arcy (fig. 9) who had been responsible for introducing Katharine Asquith and David Jones in person in 1937. Jones and D’Arcy had known one another from Eric Gill’s community in Ditchling in 1921 and, from 1922, Jones was invited to stay at Campion Hall (previously ‘Pope’s Hall’), where D’Arcy had studied (fig. 10). Catholics had only been allowed to become full students at the university in 1895. When Father D’Arcy became Rector and Master of Campion Hall in 1933 it was still regarded as something of a Catholic interloper in the university environment. D’Arcy was instrumental in initiating the art collection at Campion Hall when, in 1935, he acquired a seventeenth-century Spanish polychrome relief sculpture of St Ignatius through Edwin Lutyens. A number of art works were gifts from Catholic converts. There was a clear sense of purpose to Father D’Arcy’s subsequent collecting ambitions. They contributed to the recognition and standing of Campion Hall and articulate an international Jesuit Catholic identity. D’Arcy insisted that the principal reason was, however, theological and involved ‘the vast importance beauty does and should play in the Catholic faith’, on the grounds that ‘Possibly more glimpse the truth and reality of the Christian religion and its liturgy and devotions through beauty than by reason’.39 Art was, in this conception, a route to the divine.

1938. Half-plate film negative. National Portrait Gallery, London (NPG x11223).

Figure 9.
Howard Coster, Martin Cyril D’Arcy, 1938. Half-plate film negative. National Portrait Gallery, London (NPG x11223).

Digital image courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, London. (All rights reserved)

Group at the opening of Campion Hall including Sir Edwin Lutyens, Father Martin D'Arcy, the Duke of Alba, A D Lindsay (Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University), Mgr Ronald Knox, Evelyn Waugh and Katherine Asquith

Figure 10.
Group at the opening of Campion Hall including Sir Edwin Lutyens, Father Martin D'Arcy, the Duke of Alba, A D Lindsay (Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University), Mgr Ronald Knox, Evelyn Waugh and Katherine Asquith, 1936. Photograph. Jesuits in Britain Archives.

Digital image courtesy of Jesuits in Britain Archives. (All rights reserved)

At Lady Horner’s death in 1940 Katharine inherited the Manor House and the remaining collection of which some was, coincidentally, sympathetic to Catholic iconography. It included a small number of works from William Graham’s collection of Italian Renaissance painting and both Graham’s and Lady Horner’s remaining collection of Pre-Raphaelite art. Katharine was also liberated to modify the house in a way that would express her Catholic identity. A servant’s bothy in the grounds was converted into a chapel since priests were often present.40 Other visitors newly welcome included Belloc and Knox. The latter moved into the Manor House in 1947 where he effectively became Katharine’s personal priest until his death in 1957. Waugh’s biography of Knox describes the Manor House thus at this time:

Inside, wherever the eye moves it lights on something lovely. The residue of the notable William Graham collection of Italian Masters hangs beside Rossettis and Burne-Joneses and panels of Lady Horner’s needlework. Two libraries divide the leather-bound volumes inherited from Mells Park and Lady Horner’s own collection of all the chief publications of her lifetime, a great part of them a gift of the authors. Open Tudor fireplaces are discreetly reinforced by central-heating.

Mrs Asquith had added an oratory, a converted bothy, and hung over its altar one of her finest pictures, a crucifixion by Matteo di Giovanni. When Maurice Baring died she inherited the Stations of the Cross which Mrs. Arthur Pollen had painted for his chapel at Rottingdean. Plain oak benches completed the furniture.41

Matteo di Giovanni’s The Crucifixion (fig. 11; MM12) is a predella panel from a polyptych. It had been acquired by William Graham and had stayed in the family after the sale of his collection in 1886 a year after his death.42 Graham’s patronage and collection of art accorded with the ethos of ‘art for art’s sake’.43 Thus the image had shifted from its intended religious context to the secular context of Graham’s collection. Katharine oversaw its subsequent conversion from a secular collection back to a religious purpose by displaying it as an altar painting, which, in some way, marked the generational shift from Victorian aestheticism to the modern. The changing display of the painting in the light of this realigned identity reveals the power of images in the construction and projection of a new sense of self. Conrad Russell, an agnostic friend of Raymond Asquith’s at Oxford and a neighbour in Mells, was critical of all the changes. He was a frequent guest at the Manor, and prospective suitor for Katharine after Raymond’s death, but he found himself bored by discussions of Catholic theology, complaining about them in letters to Diana Cooper (whom he had known since his youth).44 In 1947, when Russell was seriously ill, he moved into the Manor House. Unexpectedly, he called for a priest and asked for a deathbed conversion to Catholicism. He died days later.45 Katharine alleged that his conversion was a miracle.46

The Crucifixion

Figure 11.
Matteo di Giovanni, The Crucifixion, 1476. Tempera and gold leaf on wood, 37 × 70 cm. Mells Manor.

Digital image courtesy of Dave Penman. (All rights reserved)

Mells had played a significant role in Siegfried Sassoon’s conversion. The poet was received into Catholicism on 14 August 1957 but from 1954 he had been visiting Mells, where Katharine and the Mells circle gave Catholicism ‘a social as well as aesthetic appeal’.47 Sassoon had hoped that Knox (then resident at the Manor House) would instruct him when he decided to convert but Knox, who was by this time ill, instead put him in touch with Father Sebastian Moore, a Benedictine monk from nearby Downside Abbey. Monks from the Benedictine monastery were a regular presence at the Manor House, with many from the Mells coterie making the journey in the opposite direction.48 The community at Downside Abbey offered Sassoon a nuanced and empathetic understanding of his wartime experiences, with fifteen of the monks having served as Chaplains in the Great War. Moore had been a military man (having joined the Royal Navy in 1934, during which time he read Sassoon’s poetry); he was also a convert to Catholicism and had been received into the Church in 1938. After being ordained as a priest in 1947 Moore went on to achieve a first-class degree in English at Christ’s College, Cambridge, and became a poet of considerable depth in his own right. It became his practice to write a sonnet every day. As Raymond Asquith, 3rd Earl of Oxford and Asquith, has since observed, Knox had made an inspired choice: ‘putting two ex-military men/two poets together made for an especially fertile and comfortable environment for Siegfried’s spiritual journey.’49

Many of those in the Mells coterie were also contributors to other social circles. From 1929 through to the start of the Second World War, Jones had met for discussion with close friends on Saturdays at 40 St Leonard’s Terrace, Chelsea. This gathering, which has been dubbed the Chelsea Group, was predominantly Catholic.50 Indeed, Katharine Asquith attracted a number of this group to Mells, including Hollis, Waugh, Father D’Arcy and John Douglas Woodruff, the editor of the Catholic weekly review The Tablet. The topics of conversation involved literature, art, culture and history. Catholic Christianity featured heavily and mediated the discussion. As with many prominent Catholics intellectuals at the time there was a tendency in the group to identify with the political right.51 This was not reciprocated at Mells. Katharine did not have strong political views and certainly did not support this disposition.52

Jones’s relationship with fascism has proved controversial.53 While he did not identify with fascism or National Socialism, he was in accord with certain ideas.54 On rereading the English translation of Mein Kampf in April 1939 Jones told his friend Harman Grisewood that he was ‘deeply impressed by it, it is amazingly interesting in all kinds of ways – but pretty terrifying too. God, he’s nearly right – but this hate thing mars his whole thing’.55 In May 1939, just before Jones’s visit to Mells, Jones wrote an essay intended for publication in The Tablet expressing his sympathies for Germany in the 1930s and Hitler. It proved too long for publication in a newspaper and, on reflection, was not published for fears it would be misrepresented as pro-Nazi.56 Jones wanted to avert a further war with Germany but he was not a pacifist. He had heralded Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement. On 18 December 1938, three months after the Munich Agreement, Jones wrote to Chamberlain enclosing a copy of In Parenthesis: he thanked the prime minister for his efforts to heal the rift in Europe and avert war, and recorded his regret that peace and unity between former enemies had not been realised.57

It appears that both Jones and Katharine abhorred the prospect of another war with Germany. Jones added the postscript ‘Heil Chamberlain & others’ in a letter to Katharine dated 3 August 1939, a month to the day before Britain declared war on Germany.58 Exclamations of ‘Heil Chamberlain’ had been used both to criticise and support the policy of appeasement under Chamberlain. In Munich the prime minister had been greeted by it, while a member of the opposition in Parliament taunted him with it when Franco’s victorious regime was formally recognised by Britain as the legitimate government of Spain.59 Jones and Katharine apparently maintained their faith and hope in Chamberlain’s policies through to the last month before the Nazi invasion of Poland.

The discussions provided by the group at 40 St Leonard’s Terrace proved important to Jones’s conception of history and his subsequent attempt to recover an imagined idea of Wales. A second work at Mells by Jones, Cunedda Wledig from 1948 (fig. 12; MM92), addresses the relationship of the Roman Empire, Wales and Christianity. Cunedda Wledig was the progenitor of the royal line of North Welsh princes that ended with Llewelyn ap Gruffydd in 1282. This period of nearly a thousand years was, according to Jones, the age of the authentic Wales.60 Receding above Cunedda’s shoulder in Jones’s depiction is Hadrian’s Wall, where Cunedda was supposedly stationed before being relocated to northern Wales. Jones thought of Cunedda as a Romano-British official who in all likelihood subscribed to the official religion of the Empire, Christianity. His heirs gave their names to the Welsh regions. For Jones, ‘Welsh history obscures entirely whatever veneer of Romanity [sic] marked the circumstances of the beginnings.’61 True Welsh tradition preserves its links with the Roman Empire.62

Cunedda Wledig

Figure 12.
David Jones, Cunedda Wledig, 1948. Black and coloured chalks on paper, 57 × 43.5 cm. Mells Manor.

Digital image courtesy of Dave Penman. (All rights reserved)

In the lower right of Jones’s painting of St Andrew’s Church (see fig. 1) is a headstone in the churchyard marked with the Chi-Rho. The symbol (the first two letters in Greek of ‘Christ’) denotes the triumphant resurrection of Christ; however, it fell into disuse after the fall of Rome, with the Cross supplanting it. While the two art works by Jones in the collection at the Manor House are not religious subject paintings, they assert a connection with a Catholic, Roman past. The churchyard at St Andrew’s, although Anglican, reveals the central importance of Mells to the Catholic community. Along with many members of the Horner family lies Monsignor Ronald Knox. Yards away is the grave of another convert, Siegfried Sassoon, who had requested to be buried at Mells because of his closeness to Knox and Katharine Asquith. Indeed, Lord Oxford recalls ‘often sitting in Katharine’s day room while she and Siegfried talked for hours about literature, West Country gossip, religion etc’ during Sassoon’s regular visits between 1961 and his death in 1967.63 Christopher Hollis was likewise buried nearby. The intimate connection that stemmed from a shared Catholic identity and the community that was established around Mells resulted in the art works and their acquisition. Katharine Asquith’s gesture of buying art from her friends contributed to unifying the community and for the Catholic converts among them provided the material expression of the new conversion identities they shared. The arts at Mells, which had played a vital role there under Frances Horner, were gently reconfigured to affirm Catholic identity.


  • Tom Bromwell completed his AHRC-funded doctoral research at the University of York. His research addresses religion and identity in early-twentieth century British art, and he is currently working towards a monograph on apocalypse in interwar British art and visual culture. He has previously published on modern British art and artists including Stanley Spencer and David Jones.


  1. Lewis R. Rambo, Understanding Religious Conversion, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1993, p. 2.

  2. Marc David Baer, Honored by the Glory of Islam: Conversion and Conquest in Ottoman Europe, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2008, p. 7.

  3. David Jones to Julian Asquith, 5 February 1939, Mells Manor Archive, 0/01/1475.

  4. Jones to Asquith, 12 March 1939, ibid.,01/01/1475.

  5. Katharine Asquith to David Jones, 17 August 1937, David Jones Papers, National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth, CT3/1 (74).

  6. Ibid.

  7. In 1934 Jones was treated by Dr Charles Burns, a neurologist who specialised in shell-shock. Thomas Dilworth provides an account of Jones’s symptoms and treatments in David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet, London: Jonathan Cape, 2017, especially pp. 52, 156–8.

  8. David Jones to Julian Asquith, 21 March 1939, Mells Manor Archive, 01/01/1475.

  9. Jones to Asquith, 3 August 1939, ibid, 01/01/1475.

  10. Jones to Katharine Asquith, 3 August 1939, ibid., 01/01/1475.

  11. Ibid.

  12. Jones to Katharine Asquith, 5 March 1940, ibid. 01/01/1475.

  13. Jones to Katharine Asquith, 3 August 1939, ibid. See Caroline Dakers, ‘Frances Horner and Mells: Model, Muse, Hostess, Friend, Patron, Collector’, figs 1 and 5, in this project.

  14. Jones to Julian Asquith, 3 August 1939, ibid.

  15. Jones to Katharine Asquith, 3 August 1939, ibid.

  16. Jones to Katharine Asquith, 13 September 1939, ibid., 01/01/1475.

  17. Jones to Katharine Asquith, 21 September 1939, ibid., 01/01/1475.

  18. Pansy Lamb (Henry’s wife) to Katharine Asquith, 22 January 1940, ibid., 01/01/1479.

  19. Keith Clements, Henry Lamb: The Artist and his Friends, Bristol: Redcliffe, 1985, pp. 16–17.

  20. Robert Gibbings, ed., Sermons by Artists, London: Golden Cockerel Press, 1934, featuring essays from ten artists: Paul Nash, David Low, Robert Gibbings, Eric Kennington, Leon Underwood, Stanley Spencer, Edmund Sullivan, Roger Fry, Will Dyson and Percy Smith.

  21. Among the other artists approached were William Orpen, C. R. W. Nevinson, Jacob Epstein, Wyndham Lewis, Augustus John and Sir William Rothenstein.

  22. Henry Lamb to Robert Gibbings, 1931, quoted in Martin J. Andrews, The Life and Work of Robert Gibbings, Bicester: Primrose Hill Press, 2003, p. 395.

  23. For example, Pansy Lamb to Katharine Asquith, 19 November 1941, Mells Manor Archive, 01/01/1479.

  24. Maurice Baring to Hilaire Belloc, 24 September 1916, in J. N. Hillgarth and Julian Jeffs Wilby, eds, Maurice Baring: Letters, London: Michael Russell, 2007, p. 115.

  25. Edith Lyttelton to Frances Horner, c.1923, Mells Manor Archive., M/01/1265.

  26. James Jones to David Jones, 1921, quoted in Dilworth, 2017, 67.

  27. Duff Cooper, Old Men Forget: The Autobiography of Duff Cooper, New York: E. P. Dutton, 1954, p. 119.

  28. Katharine Asquith, typed diary, 3–7 June 1923, entry dated 3 June, Mells Manor Archive, 0/02/1503.

  29. Ibid. (Katharine referring to herself in the third person).

  30. Christian eschatology addresses death and the end of the world, the Four Last Things: Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell.

  31. A. N. Wilson, Hilaire Belloc, London: Hamish Hamilton, 1984, p. 245.

  32. Vincent McNabb to Katharine Asquith, 18 February 1925, Mells Manor Archive.

  33. James McCready, ‘Spiritual Direction as Pilgrim and Companion’, in David Fleming, ed., The Christian Ministry of Spiritual Direction, St Louis, Mo: Review for Religious, 1996, p. 113.

  34. Rambo, 1993, p. 1.

  35. H. J. A. Sire, Father Martin D’Arcy: Philosopher of Christian Love, Leominster: Gracewing, 1997, p. 77.

  36. Raymond Asquith, Earl of Oxford and Asquith, private communication, 4 July 2020.

  37. Evelyn Waugh, A Little Learning: The First Volume of an Autobiography, London: Chapman & Hall, 1964, pp. 200–1.

  38. Christopher Hollis, Along the Road to Frome, London: Harrap, 1958, pp. 168, 242, 248.

  39. Martin D’Arcy, ‘Treasure Hunting’, Jesuits in Britain, Archives, https://www.jesuit.org.uk/blog/archives-d%E2%80%99arcy-papers (accessed 29 May 2020).

  40. Georgina Blakiston, ed., Letters of Conrad Russell 1897–1947, London: John Murray, 1987, pp. 192, 202–5.

  41. Evelyn Waugh, The Life of the Right Reverend Ronald Knox, London: Chapman & Hall, 1959, p. 309. Daphne Pollen (née Baring; 1904–1986) had trained at the Slade School of Art under Henry Tonks and became known for her large-scale mural paintings. Her father, Cecil, brother of Maurice Baring, discouraged her friendship with Katharine and other Catholics for fear of their influence. Daphne converted in 1926 when marrying Arthur Pollen, a cradle Catholic. He was a sculptor who had also attended the Slade. The Pollens both specialised in religious subjects and had been Catholic acquaintances of David Jones since the early 1930s. They moved to Mells for a period during the Second World War, while Jones stayed in their London house. Their eldest son, Francis Pollen, later became a distinguished architect; his eldest child, Clare, married Julian Asquith’s eldest son, Raymond, in 1978.

  42. William Graham sale, Christie’s, London, 2–3 April 1886.

  43. Dianne Sachko MacLeod, ‘Art Collecting and Victorian Middle-Class Taste’, in Titia Hulst, ed., A History of the Western Art Market: A Sourcebook of Writings on Artists, Dealers, and Markets, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2017, p. 232.

  44. Blakiston, 1987, pp. 235–40, 244; Philip Ziegler, Diana Cooper: A Biography, London: Penguin, 1983, p. 293.

  45. Ziegler, 1983, pp. 292–3.

  46. Blakiston, 1987, p. 268.

  47. Jean Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon: The Journey from the Trenches: A Biography (1918–1967), New York: Routledge, 2003, p. 396.

  48. Lord Oxford recalls that frequent visitors included the theologian Fr Illtyd Trethowan, the medieval historian Fr Aelred Watkin and the composer and stonemason Fr Laurence Bevenot (Bevenot taking up stone carving after meeting Arthur Pollen in the early 1940s): Raymond Asquith, Earl of Oxford and Asquith, private communication, 4 July 2020.

  49. Raymond Asquith, Earl of Oxford and Asquith, private communication, 4 July 2020.

  50. Elizabeth Ward, David Jones, Mythmaker, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1983, p. 45.

  51. James R. Lothian, The Making and Unmaking of the English Catholic Intellectual Community 1910–1950, Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2009, p. 249.

  52. Raymond Asquith, Earl of Oxford and Asquith, private communication, 4 July 2020.

  53. Ward, 1983, argues that fascism is an undercurrent throughout Jones’s writing in her book. This viewpoint has been rejected by Thomas Dilworth and others, notably in Dilworth’s ‘David Jones and Fascism’, Journal of Modern Literature, vol. 13, no. 1, 1986, pp. 149–62; Paul Robichaud, ‘David Jones, Christopher Dawson and the Meaning of History’, Logos, vol. 6, no. 3, 2003, pp. 68–85. Thomas Villis offers a balanced account in ‘Catholicism, Modernism and Fascism: The Politics of David Jones’, in Jamie Callison et al., eds, David Jones: a Christian Modernist?, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2017, pp. 123–36.

  54. Villis, 2017, p. 130.

  55. David Jones to Harman Grisewood, 24 April 1939, quoted in Joseph Pearce, Literary Converts: Spiritual Inspiration in an Age of Unbelief, London: Harper Collins, 1999, p. 211.

  56. David Jones’s essay was published without redactions in ‘David Jones essay on Adolf Hitler’, in Thomas Berenato, Anne Price-Owen and Kathleen Henderson Staudt, eds, David Jones on Religion, Politics and Culture: Unpublished Prose, London: Bloomsbury, 2018, pp. 45–99.

  57. David Jones to Neville Chamberlain, 18 December 1938, Harman Grisewood Papers, Part 1, Box 3, folder 1, Georgetown Library Special Collections, David Jones Collection, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, Mass.

  58. Jones to Katharine Asquith, 3 August 1939, Mells Manor Archive.

  59. ‘Agreement reached at Munich To-Day’, The Times, 30 September 1938, p. 12; ‘The Recognition of General Franco’, The Guardian, 1 March 1939, p. 6.

  60. David Jones, Epoch and Artist, London: Faber & Faber, (1959) 2017, pp. 41–2.

  61. Ibid., 42.

  62. Harman Grisewood, ed., The Dying Gaul, and other Writings: David Jones, London: Faber & Faber, 1978, p. 120.

  63. Raymond Asquith, Earl of Oxford and Asquith, private communication, 4 July 2020.



by Tom Bromwell
20 November 2020
House Essay
CC BY-NC International 4.0
Cite as
Tom Bromwell, "David Jones at Mells: Conversion, Catholicism and Community", Art and the Country House, https://doi.org/10.17658/ACH/MME590