Alan Davie (1920-2014)

Alan Davie was born in Grangemouth on 28 September 1920. To mark the centenary of this remarkable artist, Patrick Elliott, Chief Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art looks back on visits to the artist’s studio.

Davie in his studio, 2009

Alan and Bili Davie lived in rural Hertfordshire. You got off at Stevenage railway station and Alan met you in his car - a big silver one, something like a Mercedes-Benz or an Audi. 

He was an impressive sight with his silky white hair and long beard. He wore bright colours, often a sky-blue jumper, an orange or yellow shirt and leather sandals. You got a big smile and a big hug. 

It was then a 15-minute drive to his house, a converted stable block near a country house. They had lived there since 1954. Bili met you at the door, her accent and welcome pure Edinburgh. Slim and chic, she wore neat checked dresses which she made herself. 

The 1970s staircase mural in the artist's home, pictured in 2009

There was a big wall mural on the left and a slatted wooden staircase which led up to the kitchen. No tea or coffee just yet, though.

You turned right and went through the sitting room, past a red 1960s swivel chair, a Niki de Saint-Phalle sculpture, a grand piano (he had been a professional musician in his twenties and still played numerous instruments) and across a chartreuse green carpet and then an amber-coloured thick-pile rug.

The sitting room in the artist's home, 2009
Davie playing with Catherine Elliott, 2009
Davie's studio, 2009

The studio was a big, white, brick-built extension which you reached via a little office.

In the office, Bili typed out the details of every new work, logging every sale and every exhibition onto little sheets which were filed in a multi-volume catalogue.

If a show featured fifty of Alan’s paintings, she’d add the details to fifty different sheets, carefully typing out each one.

The trolley which acted as Davie’s palette and brush-holder

Bili and Alan had married in 1947 and were inseparable, but she never lingered in the studio. 

There were a couple of plan chests in the middle of the room; a metal trolley-come-palette covered with the accretion of years of dried oil-paint; books and open magazines; an exercise bike; lots of little doodles in blue biro.

A narrow wooden shelf ran all the way around the studio: Alan balanced the small works on it and hooked the bigger works over it.

There was an alcove where he stored recent pictures in thin baton frames, all packed tightly together.

The titles were written on the sides, so he knew which was which. Well into his 80s, he would slide them out and spin them round with gymnastic grace.

You looked at them all, one by one, and each time he waited for your reaction.

He referred to himself in the third person, as ‘Davie’, but you got used to it and eventually found yourself doing the same. Two or three hours would be spent looking at the paintings and talking about them and his amazing life. 

He always wanted to talk about his most recent works, but with a bit of persuasion would open up another store and show you rack upon rack of earlier works, some dating back to the 1930s. Great times.

Tea followed in the upstairs kitchen, surrounded by African sculptures he had bought in Paris in the 1960s. It was a good idea to bring Toblerone, preferably one of those giant ones you get at airports. This was his treat. 

He and Bili lived a quiet, ascetic life. They rarely went out or saw shows. We sometimes went to their favourite local Italian restaurant where they knew exactly what Alan and Bili liked and didn't need to ask.

Ida Kar Alan Davie 1959 © National Portrait Gallery, London

In the 1960s Davie was probably the most famous British artist of his generation. He featured in Sunday supplements, drove an E-Type Jaguar, piloted a glider (Bili followed in the E-Type, ready to pick him up), owned a yacht and spent the winter months in their second home in St Lucia.

He had met Jackson Pollock, Rothko and De Kooning when he had his first solo show in New York in 1956 but he was not in awe of them or anyone. In fact, he was disapproving of their hard drinking. He had a phenomenal work ethic right up until the end of his life: time spent hanging out in bars was time wasted when you could be in the studio. The paintings flowed from his brush like fruit growing from a tree.

Patrick Elliott is Chief Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the National Galleries of Scotland. He organised three Alan Davie exhibitions: Alan Davie Drawings in 1997 and Alan Davie: Works from the Collection in 2000, both at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art: and an exhibition The Creative World of Alan Davie at the Dovecot Studios in Edinburgh in 2009.

Alan Davie in the studio, 1960

In this footage from 1960 shot by the artist's wife Bili, Alan Davie is shown working in his studio. Archive footage used courtesy the estate of Alan and Bili Davie. All Rights Reserved.

28 September 2020