Alan Davie was born on 28th September 1920 at Grangemouth, Scotland, to a pianist mother and artist father. Davie studied at the Edinburgh College of Art from 1937 and was awarded the Andrew Grant Scholarship in 1938 and 1941. From 1941–46, Davie carried out his military service with the Royal Artillery, during which he received the Guthrie Award for best painting at the Royal Scottish Academy summer show of 1942. He also discovered a passion for writing and reading poetry, in particular the work of Walt Whitman. In 1945 the artist was impressed by exhibitions on Picasso and Klee which he visited while on leave in London. Demobilised from the army, Davie held his first one-man exhibition in a bookshop in Edinburgh in 1946. On a visit to London that same year, an exhibition of African sculpture inspired a profound interest in primitive art. The following year he married Janet (Bili) Gaul, an artist/potter, and became a full-time jazz musician, playing tenor saxophone with Tommy Sampson’s Orchestra. He also began making and selling silver jewellery (in 1951, jewellery designed by Davie was worn by Vivian Leigh in Anthony and Cleopatra). Davie took up his deferred scholarship and travelled throughout Europe in the late 1940s through France, Switzerland, Spain and Italy, holding exhibitions in Florence and Venice, where he met and sold a painting to Peggy Guggenheim in 1948. Guggenheim also showed Davie her important collection of modern art, which may have been his first glimpse of American Abstract Expressionism. In 1950 he held his first solo show at Gimpel Fils, London and exhibited there every two years after that. Davie bought a cottage in Land’s End, also in 1950, which he visited during the following summers. In 1954 the artist converted stables at Gamels, Hertfordshire into a home and studio.
Davie’s first American exhibition was held at the Catherine Viviano Gallery, New York in 1956, which he attended, meeting Abstract Expressionists Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) and Albright Art Gallery, Buffalo, purchased paintings from the exhibition. The artist’s interest in Zen Buddhism, inspired by Eugen Herrigel’s book Zen in the Art of Archery, developed from the mid-1950s along with the Jungian idea of the collective unconscious, animating his intuitive, improvisatory approach to painting. Davie taught at the Central School of Art from 1953-56 and from 1956–59 at Leeds College of Art, having been awarded the Gregory Fellowship at Leeds University. Two retrospectives of Davie’s work were held in 1958, at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London (which made an impact on David Hockney) and Wakefield Art Gallery. Retrospectives were also subsequently held in 1993 at the Barbican Gallery, London and in 2003 at Tate St Ives. During the 1960s, he took up gliding and experimented with lithography. He also produced the first of several records by the Alan Davie Music Workshop. In 1963, Davie exhibited in the British section of the Bienal at São Paulo, Brazil, winning the award for best foreign painter. Alan Bowness published his monograph of the artist with Lund Humphries in 1967. Davie was awarded a CBE in 1972 and was commissioned the same year by the architect Peter Haupt to paint the Berlin School Murals. He also produced tapestry and mosaic designs, the latter for his home town, Grangemouth, for which he was awarded the Saltire Award in 1977. From the late 1970s, Davie began spending winters in St Lucia. He was elected a Senior Royal Academician in 2012 and was the subject of a BP Spotlight display at Tate Britain in 2014, featuring the eight oil paintings by Davie in their collection.