Hertford Heath, England
One of Britain’s most acclaimed 20th century artists, Alan Davie continues to create paintings, watercolors and prints and is also an accomplished jazz musician and silversmith. The style of his art evolved over his long career from Abstract Expressionism to works filled with symbols inspired by ancient petroglyphs carved by Carib Indians, symbols on Hopi pottery and Byzantine art, with the more recent addition of obscure texts. Born in 1920 in Grangemouth, Scotland, some twenty miles west of Edinburgh, Davie’s father was a painter and printmaker who taught art at the local secondary school. Davie studied drawing, painting and jewelry making at the Edinburgh College of Art from 1938 to 1941. Hearing the American jazzman Coleman Hawkins play in the late 1930s inspired him to take up the saxophone. The College awarded him a traveling scholarship in 1941, but he was drafted for service in the Royal Artillery before he could travel. Assigned to an anti-aircraft unit, he spent the war in Britain’s Midlands. He played the saxophone in Army jazz bands and occasionally at jazz clubs in London when on leave, where he saw exhibitions of works by Paul Klee (1879-1940) and Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). After World War II he worked as a jazz musician for about two years, during which time he married Janet (“Bili”) Gaul, a fellow artist, although he resumed painting and had an exhibition in Edinburgh. In 1948 Davie took up his traveling scholarship and traveled with his wife to France, Switzerland, Italy and Spain. In Paris they met members of the CoBrA group of avant-garde artists. They saw works by Klee and the European Surrealist and contemporary American works in Peggy Guggenheim’s (1898-1979) collection displayed at the 1948 Venice Biennale, which made a deep impression on Davie. The early work of Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) particularly inspired him and convinced him to take up art full-time. Davie made about one hundred monotypes while in Italy and had small gallery exhibitions in Florence and Venice; Guggenheim visited the latter exhibition, bought a work and became a good friend. On their return to London in 1949, Davie supported his wife, himself and a new daughter primarily with the sale of silver jewelry. An introduction from Guggenheim led him to the Gimpel Fils Gallery in London, which held his first London one-man exhibition in 1950. He bought a home in 1954 near Hertford Heath, some 25 miles north of the center of London, where he still keeps a studio. His first American exhibition was at the Catherine Viviano Gallery in New York in 1956. While visiting New York he was introduced to Pollock, Robert Motherwell (1915-1991), Mark Rothko (1903-1970) and other artists, whose enthusiastic support of his works led to purchases by the Museum of Modern Art and the Albright Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo. The Gregory Fellowship awarded to him by the University of Leeds in 1957 and increasing sales of his works gave him economic security. He also taught at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London. Surveys of his works were shown in exhibitions in London in 1958 and Amsterdam in 1962. He received the prize as the best foreign painter at the São Paulo Bienal of 1963. Davie began making lithographs in the 1960s. He was recruited by Walasse Ting (1929-2010) to contribute two color lithographs to his 1964 book of poetry and lithographs, 1¢ Life; Sam Francis (1923-1994) was the editor. Queen Elizabeth made him a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1972. Davie and his wife wintered on the island of St. Lucia in the Caribbean Sea in 1974 and so liked it that they bought a house and spent there winters until 1991. He discovered the Carib petroglyphs on the island that inspired much of his art. Davie made a jazz recording in 1971 and often gave concerts in connection with exhibitions of his art during the 1970s. Among his many exhibitions was a traveling exhibit of works on paper organized by the British Council that toured Europe, South America and Australia from 1992 to 1997. Davie was a lecturer (1977) and a Senior Fellow (1991) at the Royal College of Art, London and a visiting professor at the University of Brighton School of Art in 2002. A large number of his paintings, drawings, gouaches and prints are in the collection of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, which exhibited them in 2000. The Gimpel Fils Gallery celebrated his 90th birthday with an exhibition in 2010 and held another exhibition for him in 2012, the year he was elected as a member of the Royal Academy of the Arts. Davie died on April 5, 2014 at his home in Hertfordshire.(TNB 3/2014) Selected bibliography: Elliott, Patrick. Alan Davie: Work in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. Exhibition catalog. Edinburgh: Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, 2000.