Alan Davie: the greatest artistic improviser?

Artist Alan Davie in his Rush Green studio in Hertfordshire in 1967

Alan Davie in his studio in 1967 - Credit: Alan Davie Estate courtesy of Alan Wheatley Art, London

Collected by the world's great galleries, Alan Davie spent much of his long life living and working in a Hertfordshire hamlet. A new book looks at his remarkable creative life, coinciding with a plan to create a permanent gallery of his work in Hertford, writes Sandra Smith.

During the decades that Scottish born painter, poet and musician Alan Davie lived in the hamlet of Rush Green on the outskirts of Herford he generated a huge portfolio of exuberant images, vividly colourful and wildly uninhibited, that have been compared to Kandinsky and Basquiat. Eight years after his death aged 93, art critic of The Independent, Mark Hudson, has captured the energy and drive of this extraordinary painter in his new book, Alan Davie in Hertford. 

The Studio No. 29 by Alan Davie

The Studio No. 29 - Credit: Alan Davie Estate courtesy of Alan Wheatley Art, London

‘Throughout his career Alan dived off in different directions,’ explains Mark. ‘Though the most revolutionary path occurred in the late fifties when he immersed himself in gestural abstractionism probably before anyone else in Britain.’  

Having attended Edinburgh College of Art before serving in the Second World War, this decade was one in which alongside painting Davie played tenor saxophone in jazz bands up and down the country before embarking on a trip around Europe where he met art collector Peggy Guggenheim who recommended him to an avant garde gallery in London that signed him up.  

In 1956, having barely sold a painting in his home country, he visited New York where he was treated as a kindred spirit by the likes of Jackson Pollock. Then UK recognition began to gather momentum. A breakthrough exhibition at London’s Whitechapel Gallery in 1958 was followed by inclusion in Tate’s American Abstract Expressionism the following year, summoning an era in which his increasingly respected work sold widely. Today his work is held by The Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, National Galleries Scotland, New York's Museum of Modern Art, Victoria and Albert Museum, and Tate, London.

Hopi Studies No. 21 by Alan Davie

Hopi Studies No. 21 - Credit: Alan Davie Estate courtesy of Alan Wheatley Art, London

Around the same time, tiring of the urban environment in which he never felt comfortable, Davie and his family settled in Hertfordshire, living on the upper level of a derelict coach house. The ground floor initially served as his studio until replaced, during the sixties, with a purpose built, glass topped workspace. It was photographed by Lord Snowdon who featured Davie’s paint pots on the front cover of Private View: The Lively World of British Art.  

An eccentric character who found great affinity with the art of non-Western and ancient cultures as well as Zen Buddhism, Davie’s intuitive style was instrumental in how he began each day.  

Alan Davie's studio in Rush Green. Hertfordshire

Alan Davie's studio in Rush Green - Credit: Alan Davie Estate courtesy of Alan Wheatley Art, London

‘He would just paint randomly on pieces of newspaper which were then thrown away until he got into the zone at which point inspiration flowed, the artist allowing one thing to lead to another.’ Mark says. ‘He went to great lengths to get into a state to be able to paint without thinking about what he was doing. The result was he regarded his paintings as having come from somewhere else, he was just the medium.’ 

Softly spoken and wiry, he had phenomenal physical energy. He felt fulfilled when painting and frustrated when anything got in the way. Fundamentally he was a happy person, self-sufficient, and interested in everything around him Mark says.  

‘Of course, he would have liked more acclaim for his later work. The art that meant most to him was that of places such as Africa and Oceania which provoked spiritual power. In fact there was a museum quality to his home, which housed plenty of African art. Music also continued to be an influence in his life, right into his nineties. Every day he would play the piano for a couple of hours, either jazz standards or just improvise.’ 

That Davie’s work remains fresh and modern is testament to an artist who was unbound by convention or expectations. And although his popularity dipped during the eighties, the turn of the century witnessed a revival of interest, particularly in his early canvases.

The Studio No. 28 by Alan Davie

The Studio No. 28 - Credit: Alan Davie Estate courtesy of Alan Wheatley Art, London

Right now a site is being sought by Hertford Arts Hub to create a public gallery in the town with a permanent collection of the artist's work. And Mark Hudson’s book is an eagerly anticipated celebration of one of the great figures of 20th century British art, responsible for more than 4,000 paintings. 

‘From the few hundred left in his estate I selected 35 of the best ones, those that represent every aspect of Davie’s career and which tell his story in the strongest possible way,’ Mark says of the illustrations in his book.  

Although many Hertford residents were unaware of their famous neighbour, Davie loved this rural idyll. Indeed, the county can claim to have been the hub of his remarkable creativity for more than 50 years. 

Alan Davie in Hertford by Mark Hudson is out now.  A free exhibition focussed on the artist's fascination with Hopi symbolism, Alan Davie: Sunbirds and Skybands, is on now at Hertford Arts Hub.