• Text size      
  • Send this article to a friend
  • Print this article

Alan Davie

Painter.

Born: September 28, 1920; Died: April 5, 2014.

Alan Davie, who has died aged 93, was regarded by some as the greatest Scottish painter of the post-war period, and his intense, gestural pictures were compared with those of Jackson Pollock during his first one-man show in New York in 1956.

Between the 1950s and the early 1970s his work was acquired by many important public galleries, including the Tate and MoMA in New York, and his paintings captured the Zeitgeist to the extent of featuring in Antonioni's film Blow-Up (1966). But Davie had little interest in the art establishment or the commercial value of his paintings and, although he remained highly regarded by critics and scholars, he rather faded from public view after the Seventies.

There were, however, sporadic retrospectives, notably at the Barbican in 1993 and the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in 2000. A major exhibition of his work due to open at Tate Britain next week seemed likely to revive interest and spark wider reappraisal, but will now inevitably be overshadowed by his death.

Though frequently described as an abstract expressionist, Davie's pictures frequently played with religious symbols - he was interested in Zen Buddhism and other Eastern traditions - and images drawn from "primitive" cultures: Aboriginal, Inca, Celtic.

The "automatic drawing" in a picture like Jingling Space (1950, National Galleries of Scotland) sprang from his background in jazz, and more closely resembles Pollock's paintings from the mid-1940s than the American's celebrated "drip" pictures.

Of those later examples of abstraction, Davie had his doubts. "Being that free was itself restricting," he said. "You can make lovely messes - like Pollock. But the art's not saying anything."

Davie's neglect of his public image as a painter was matched by an extraordinary range of other interests; at various times he worked as a jewellery maker, potter, textile designer, a jazz musician and teacher, as well as being a glider pilot and a poet in the mystical tradition of William Blake and Walt Whitman.

In appearance, he came more and more to resemble Blake's vision of God creating the universe in Ancient of Days (c1794). Short and inclined to wear a fleece, Davie had a muscularity and fondness for working on the floor, occasionally stripped to the waist. As a young man, with his handlebar moustache and spade beard, he resembled the kind of hipster now to be found cluttering up Shoreditch's trendier bars.

James Alan Davie was born in Grangemouth. His father was a schoolmaster and modestly successful artist, and the boy grew up drawing proficiently. "My father had these books of Holbein drawings,' he recalled. "So I started doing my own drawings of people."

It was also a musical household, and the young Alan Davie became an accomplished pianist. After seeing the great jazz saxophonist Coleman Hawkins in Edinburgh, he also took up the tenor sax.

He entered Edinburgh College of Art in 1938, where his contemporaries included Sir Robin Philipson, and - after an early row when Davie improved a brown curtain by making it yellow in his painting - fell under the influence of John Maxwell, who encouraged his growing affinity for colour. His work from this period also demonstrated - despite his later move to abstraction - his remarkable facility for figurative drawing.

He got his diploma in 1941, and also secured the Andrew Grant scholarship, which provided funds for travel, though he was not to take it up until after the war. He served in the Royal Artillery, where he did little painting but became interested in poetry - especially Whitman - and mysticism, and spent as much time as possible playing jazz.

After demob, he taught briefly at a girls' school, and played with a number of jazz bands, including the celebrated big band led by Tommy Sampson, first at Leith's Eldorado Ballroom, then as a highly successful touring outfit.

He developed his jewellery making and in 1947 met and married the artist and potter Janet Gaul (always known as Bili). Putting the Grant scholarship to good use, the pair embarked on a romantic tour of Europe, visiting galleries in Paris and Florence before tipping up in Venice for the Biennale of 1948, where Davie first encountered the work of the American abstract expressionists Pollock, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning.

Galvanised by his experience, Davie returned to painting, working on rolls of paper on the floors of cheap hotel rooms, and managed to sell two of his pieces to Peggy Guggenheim, who showed him round her palazzo and introduced him to the London gallery Gimpel Fils.

The following year he and Bili moved to London, where he had a job teaching at the Central School of Arts and Crafts and where their daughter Jane was born. In 1950 he had his first one-man show with Gimpel. They remained stalwart supporters, though Davie failed to sell any work for several years.

In 1956 he had his first exhibition in New York, and his work sold out - much of it being acquired by major institutions. He met, and earned the admiration of, many of the leading abstract painters, staying for a while with Pollock and his wife, the painter Lee Krasner, in upstate New York.

It was the beginning of a decade during which his star rose, his paintings became brighter, almost kaleidoscopic, and extremely fashionable.

Pictures of Davie driving his E-type Jaguar, or piloting his glider, began to appear in colour supplements. In 1958 David Hockney abruptly changed his style overnight after seeing one of Davie's shows.

But when fashions began to change in the early 1970s, Davie hardly noticed. In 1954 he and his wife had moved to Hertfordshire, where he was to live for the rest of his life. His work became more overtly symbolic and mystical, drawing on a range of exotic motifs - from Jainism and pagan sources as well as Buddhism - and he also drew inspiration from the colours of St Ives, in Cornwall, where he had a cottage.

From 1974, he also spent part of the year on St Lucia, where he had a house, and spent time diving and running an experimental jazz music workshop.

He was appointed CBE in 1972 and a Senior Royal Academician in 2012. His wife died in 2007.

In extreme old age he stopped painting and playing the piano, but continued to draw obsessively while watching television, using cheap ballpoint pens on tiny pieces of paper, telling the film-maker Mark Hudson: "Just making marks becomes an obsession."

Contextual targeting label: 
Arts and Entertainment

Commenting & Moderation

We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis.
If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well and trust you then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules

Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.

225275