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Francis Davison 1919 -1984


Francis Davison (1919-1984). Painter and collagist, born in London. He was married to the artist Margaret Mellis. Davison was brought up by adoptive parents in France and England. After reading English and anthropology at Cambridge University he wrote poetry, then began to draw in 1946. Moving to Suffolk in 1948, he settled in Southwold. By the early 1950s his paintings became simplified shapes, then in 1952 he became a collagist. Over the next 20 years reference to landscape disappeared and the colour range was extended. Davison said that he was the only true collagist, as he relied entirely on found, used and not painted papers. He exhibited at MoMA, Oxford; Hayward Gallery, London and Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge. Price £10.00

Francis Davison 1919 -1984

Essay by Adrian Lewis


First published in the United Kingdom in May 2010 by Goldmark All rights reserved Text Š Adrian Lewis 2010 Photography Christian Soro Design Porter/Goldmark We are grateful for the assistance of Telfer Stokes, Simon Hilton and David Buckman ISBN 978-1-870507-63-9

Goldmark Gallery 14 Orange Street, Uppingham Rutland, LE15 9SQ 01572 821424

half title: 1.

Green and Black collage 59 x 65 cm

Francis Davison

When Francis Davison achieved metropolitan art world recognition with his 1983 retrospective at the Hayward Gallery in London, he had been committed to visual art practice for around thirty five years. Sixteen months later he died from a brain tumour. An adopted child brought up in the south of France, Davison initially oriented himself towards poetry writing and studied English and Anthropology at Cambridge University before the war. During the war, as a conscientious objector, he did social work before taking up painting in a committed way as a result of the stimulus of his second wife Margaret Mellis. A privileged interlude of two years living in his childhood home, the Chateau des Enfants at Cap d’Antibes, was followed by twenty six years (1950-76) working as a smallholder at Syleham in Suffolk. What turned out to be the great late period of his work from 1978-83 emerged from a twelve foot square bedroom space in a domestic house in Southwold, where he spent the last eight years of his life. Though he made efforts to enter the art world in the late 1940s and first half of the 1950s, the lack of interest when he showed collages at Roland, Browse and Delbanco in 1955 seems to have

led to a withdrawal from the idea of pursuing an art career of any sort. The sudden snowballing of interest from 1979-83 onwards was more the result of championing by art world movers, Julian Spalding in particular, than his own inclinations. The work was unsigned, undated and untitled by the artist, who resisted any information about himself being used to mediate the presentation of the work in 1983. The materials were commercially coloured papers, previously used, laid onto laminated cardboard. It is a challenge to say why it is exactly that Davison’s late work seems as impressive as it does.

It is not really an explanation of their greatness to say that they came out of a focused development going back nearly three decades, as what counts here is less continuity than the deepening shifts brought about by tough self-criticism drawing on the attitudes of French early modernism, with its culture of difficulty, independence, and spirituality. Davison’s Venice and Cap

d’Antibes works of the late 1940s indicate cultural sophistication, despite his lack of formal art training, in their poetic vision, dramatically synoptic imagery and bold formal manipulations. This French-oriented style of painterly reverie was suddenly rejected for a carving up of the pictorial field into geometric zones which still echo rural buildings, fields and roads, as in the early 1950s Farm House, with its reliance on differences of graphite handling and oil surface. Davison was distancing himself from an aestheticised painterly poetry in favour of a more basic marking of the picture surface. Associations of the geometric with the aesthetically elemental and primitively rural were typical of this period. Davison’s oils of the early 1950s seem pitched somewhere between the abstracting of rural scenery associated with St. Ives and the more formal division of the pictorial field associated with Camberwell and the Central School, which developed with other artists into collage, relief, and constructivist sculpture. Davison’s turning from oil-painting to collage in subsequent years did not proceed in this sort of literal direction, even though the move to collage seemed to banish

the aesthetic qualities of a potentially lush medium. Over the next decade, tonally quiet papers build up shapes and divisions suggestive often of rural buildings amid wider spaces encapsulated by the rectangular edges of the collage. It looks as if the next clear decision was deliberately to remove associations with clear imagery. This move seems to have been connected with the perception that the rectangular format of the collage was too illusionistic a staging of pictorial space, undercutting the sense of physicality of the collage. Thus, from around 1963, while the pictorial discipline of the rectangle continued, the irregular edges, extensions and removed corners increased the sense of the collage both as physical shape (often with a sense of damage or frangibility) and as a form implicitly extending beyond its own edges. The discipline of image association and rhyming was replaced by a logic of building physical elements such as bars that become both quasi-sculptural shapes and visual tracks. In the two c1970 drawings on envelopes in the current show, we see the suggestion of wooden pegging together of elements. The collages of this period have a carpentry-like

character, which seems to have been important as part of the illusion of downto-earth physicality. Paradoxically the shapes also interlock in ways totally optical. Colours become brighter, but are harmonised in related groups and a strong tonal contrast is integrated with the colour pattern. An intermittent tendency towards a squarish format came ďŹ nally to dominate Davison’s collages. Equalizing the dimensions of each side made the collage more concentrated and unitary. In Beige, Black and White (1978-80) (I use the non-authored titles for pragmatic reasons but reluctantly throughout), this object-like quality is pierced by the white light of various papers, suggesting space showing


Balcony in Venice 1948, oil on board 39.5 x 29.5 cm


Still Life and Window 1948-49, oil on card 28 x 17 cm


Gondolas 1948, oil on card 28 x 38 cm

through the assembled shapes. The sheets are patched to look like more heavy elements, quasi-sculptural and yet generating a play of colour and space. The square seems both penetrated from the outside and also opened up from within. The squarish configuration seems dented and shored up on the right, cobbled together provisionally top left, where it seems built out from. It is as if two or three rectangles had been fused contingently into a square that is not exactly a square, certainly not in terms of the attributes of finality and stasis that we normally give the square. Here the settled form contains within it different internal bandings, tilts and movements. The palette of raw and burnt umber, sienna, warm greys and earth blacks enlivened with terracotta and blue traces and sharpened with white introduces a new sophistication of light-colour atmosphere.

Pink, Orange, Black and Grey (c.1980) shows Davison’s enrichening and heightening of colour, integrated with other significant developments. More varied contrasts of rectangulation and arcing directions produces a series of contrapuntal rockings. The pink bar on the right shores up the black hook that

resists the arcings transversing the upper part of the image. The orange arc resists the top arcs with its strong contrary direction. We also see here the sticking and removing of layers of papers, said to have come from bowdlerising his own earlier work but maybe quickly becoming part of his own consciously exploited resources. Suggesting more rapid action than the layering of paper sheets normally involves, it also leaves the appearance of painterly trace. The most anti-painterly of practices, using given sheets of commercial paper, achieves perversely the look of painterliness. It is an illusory painterliness austerely resisting any overall delectation in painterly effects and involving instead highly intentioned decisions about the more integrated modelling of areas and suggestions of pictorial movement. In Green, Black, Yellow, Pink and Blue (c.1978-83), a tallish square format has been found by reduction, tearing into a fuller design around the yellow bands that form a top right-angle and then damaging that block with a massive square tear at the bottom left. Two wide bars criss-cross, the horizontal one held by brackets, the other extruding from


Farm House 1950-51 pencil and oil on board 25.5 x 31.5 cm


Cottage c1950-57 pencil and oil on board 27 x 40.5 cm


Cottage and Field c1950 pencil and oil on board 27.5 x 41.2 cm


Aerial View 1950-51 pencil and oil on board 25 x 31 cm

the bottom edge, while contrasting lighter bands produce free-floating shapes that play with and against naturalistic colours. Indeed, in Davison’s late work, while associations with naturalistic imagery have been expunged, colours related to grass, earth, sky, flesh, sunlight and shadow abound (as in de Kooning’s painting), suggesting a powerful bucolic vision. Aesthetic effect operates within codes and conventions by means of similarity and difference. Here what would normally be seen as the tradition of collage (the juxtaposition of different imagery and material) does not pertain. While tearing had been exploited by Jean Arp and the rotational composition of Matisse’s The Snail (1953, Tate) may have stayed in Davison’s mind, the light arbitrary quality of the former and painted papers of the latter were eschewed. The example of Davison’s collage can be read above all in relation to the conventions of earlier European abstraction. Much of Mondrian’s mature work is square or nearly so in format, and often seems to extend beyond the pictorial edge while being dynamically balanced at the same time within it. Davison’s mature work plays against the

tendency of a squarish format to enclosure or containment through its removed, dented and extruded edges and its general visual impression of being assembled from constituent rectangles. The deployment of used, creased papers, coupled with their irregularly torn and clipped edges and evident traces of paper removal, suggest human use and poignancy that punctures the generally impersonal removed look of interwar abstraction. Worn surfaces and frangible-looking edges imply a human imperfection and contingency against the Mondrianesque model of perfection and completion. In Black, White, Red and Green (c.1980), the square format has been swivelled, as it were, around its roughly central axis. Insubstantial papers become visually like chunks of wood. (The interactions between Davison and his wife Margaret Mellis, who was getting into her stride with driftwood-derived sculptures in the late 1970s, have yet to be fully explored.) The descending swing of the right side is counteracted by an irregular light form rearing up. The colour is smoulderingly rich in harmony and yet sharply dramatic in tonal contrast. Each formal element


Colourful Cottage c1950/51, oil on card 28.5 x 40 cm

seems integrated into the action and vision of the artwork. What characterises much of Davison’s mature work and can be seen clearly here is a binary contrast between on the one hand settled rectangulated areas and on the other rhythms and swings suggesting excitation, yearning and aspiration. Within that basic structural contrast, what makes the work so satisfying is the modulation right down through the powerful major contrasts to every minor aspect of the formed image, from smaller colour areas to traces of detached papers. In Paul Valéry’s 1939 text Poetry and Abstract Thought, the poet imagines the artwork as a pendulum swinging

between form and content, defined as 'all significant values, images and ideas, stimuli of feeling and memory, virtual impulses and structures of understanding'. Valéry argues that any sense of content only comes embodied in (and continually recalling) the formal means, 'as though the very sense which is present to your mind can find no other outlet or expression, no other answer, than the very music which gave it birth.' The young poet Davison may well have identified with the tradition of early modern French poetry and its related aesthetic stances which came through the likes of Mallarmé and Valéry. Valéry separates the historical figure of the artist from the artwork in terms of the artwork’s completeness within


Cottage with Smoking Chimney 1950-51, oil on board 50 x 35.3 cm

itself. The artwork is not explained by reference to the historical person of the artist, but must be appreciated as something autonomous in itself. Yet, if that suggests a closed concept of the artwork, the artwork for Valéry is open insofar as it is part of a process of exploring an invariant 'element of existence-consciousness' associated with the self. Valéry’s two decades of artistic silence indicates a completely contrary stance to that which has come to be normal in today’s triumphant art

market. Davison’s self-isolation and desire to exclude any biographical data from the final presentation of his work at the Hayward in 1983 are distinctly Valéryan in outlook. Davison’s stance involves a deep resistance to art world success and biographical self-presentation. He refused the mediation of titles, which as literature always add to or take away from the expression of the artwork. Dating, which again he eschewed, inevitably relates artworks to teleological arguments about art’s development and away from the individual consciousness creatively embodied. We have seen how he resisted the discursive allure of imagery and even the aesthetic qualities of oil-painting in favour of the most ordinary of coloured papers. These materials he presented in blunt forms that assert their presence while finding a realm of distance and illusion within their full-blown modulation as aesthetic form. That form itself incorporated a resistance to containment and selfperfection. Davison’s late collages operate with feet firmly planted on the ground but elevate the spirit and thereby achieve a powerful human poignancy.

I would suggest that ultimately what makes the works of Davison’s last decade, along with Roger Hilton’s oils from the late 1950s and early 1960s, the most intriguing and satisfying British abstract works produced since the war, is their access to a longer cultural radition of modern art that goes back to the mid-19th century. This tradition involves a tension between the self and the social world, a focus upon identifying the artwork with 'existenceconsciousness', a sense of resistance to forces that work against that, whether in commentary, marketing or the various styles of art history desirous of integrating artworks into smooth stories of cultural progress. It is such earlymodern premises which underpin Davison’s drive towards making artworks that refuse easy mediation but offer rich rewards to those who persist with them, that operate on their own independent terms but ultimately embody the artist’s developing vision. Davison’s 'originality' (as T.S. Eliot might have said) is due to the fact that his individual talent is predicated on an extensive and intensive sense of the modern as tradition.

Dr. Adrian Lewis is a painter and senior lecturer in History of Art & Material Culture at De Montfort University, Leicester. He has written extensively on mid 19th century French art and post-war American and British art including an important monograph on the life and work of the

Adrian Lewis 2010

painter Roger Hilton.

The Collages

Working drawings for collages


Boat c1952-63, collage 67 x 87 cm


House c1950s, collage 45.5 x 61 cm


Kites c1950s, collage 50.6 x 52.5 cm


Two Cottages c1952-63, collage 50.5 x 60.5 cm


House with Pond c1952-63, collage 60.5 x 50.5 cm


Mountain Cottages c1952-63, collage 62 x 74 cm


Cottage In Brown Landscape c1963, collage 49.5 x 60 cm


Pink and Pale Blue with Green c1965-71, collage 66 x 60.5 cm


Faded Black and Blue with Green Path c1965-71, collage 82.5 x 77.3 cm


Red and Black Circles 1969-70, collage 91 x 90 cm


Small Squares, Green, White, Grey and Brown c1965-71, collage 60 x 49 cm


Rose, Terracotta, Tan and Blue 1970, collage 88 x 84.5 cm


Blue and Green Squares and Holes 1971-73, collage 86 x 64 cm


Black, White, Red and Green 1978/79, collage 77 x 86 cm


Beige, Black and White 1978-80, collage 58.5 x 60 cm


Pink, Orange, Black and Grey c1980, collage 74 x 76 cm


Green, Black, Yellow, Pink and Blue c1978-83, collage 66 x 60 cm


Black, Green, Brown Curve Through Squares c1963-65, collage 56 x 64 cm


Green and White c1980, collage 52 x 44.8 cm

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Francis Davison People often ask what is the aim, what is the meaning of the collages, instead of looking to see what has been made with paper instead of paint. So I don’t explain them. I look at them again and see that what was obviously a mess has taken shape. There’s something, it’s flat, there are empty spaces, there’s slight relief, one piece of paper goes behind, another comes in front. There are false starts, crossings out, suggestions that are not followed up. This work the paper is doing gradually arrives at something ‘made’ cutting away what is not wanted, adding more and taking away, more of this colour, less of that, simplifying, messing until everything is lost or saved. The whole process is there, even what was cut out or what was used and discarded until something modest appears, a satisfactory balance and stillness, a suggestive form.

Found amongst Davison’s papers after his death.


Francis Davison 1919 -1984  

Goldmark Gallery exhibition catalogue of work by Francis Davison from May 2010.

Francis Davison 1919 -1984  

Goldmark Gallery exhibition catalogue of work by Francis Davison from May 2010.