Francis Davison

1919–1984

Born in 1919, Davison was one of four children adopted by George and Joan Davison (who also had a single natural child), millionaires by way of the Eastman Kodak Company. A young Francis lived in their villa in Cannes, until he was sent over to England in 1932 to attend St George’s boarding school in Essex, where he met Patrick Heron, who was to become a lifelong friend. Davison showed Heron his early attempts at poetry, who described this as "a moment of revelation".

 

Although it seems that Davison destroyed most of his writings, a number of jottings survive from the 1930s and 40s, which comprise an unpublished novel called The Burning Cage. Some of the verses echo his later paper collages: “I cut the slanting sunlight beams. All in the hall were strangely moved in a slow kaleidoscope I could not fit the heads to necks there was no socket for each bone and no connection of the parts.” He typed up a selection of poems to TS Eliot at Faber & Faber, who replied with encouragement and comments, but no offer to publish.

 

After school, Heron went to the Slade, and Davison went up to St Catherine's, Cambridge, to read English and Anthropology. During the Second World War, Heron and Davison were both concientious objectors, but Davison involved himself in social work.

 

In 1944, Davison had a year-long marriage to the 19-year-old Brenda Roberts (with Heron as best man), working to supplement his small income in St Edward's School in Hampstead. Following this he spent a period with Heron in St Ives in 1946, where he was introduced to Margaret Mellis, who became his partner after an extended period of tentative friendship. Davison, Mellis, and her son Telfer (Mellis' son by her ex-husband, Adrian Stokes), moved first to London in 1947, and then to Cap d’Antibes, where they lived in Davison’s ramshackle family chateau. It was here that the artist began painting and drawing the surrounding landscape. He treated his early drawings and works in the same way that he treated his writings, destroying large swathes of them at various points. In 1948, Mellis and Davison got married in Nice, and honeymooned in Venice, where they both found artistic inspiration. During this period, Davison was still writing and occasionally translating, for periodicals such as the New English Weekly.

 

In the late 1940s, Heron acted as Davison’s unofficial agent in the UK, forwarding Davison's writings to publishers and journals, and artworks to the Redfern Gallery in the hope that the directors might respond to his work and include it alongside his own. However, this was ultimately unsuccessful. Indeed, Davison struggled to win much recognition for his work, and was never given a solo exhibition by any of the commercial London galleries. He did, however, sell to Peter Pears, and gained the admiration of Roger Hilton, who saw them in a mixed exhibition at Gimpel Fils.

 

After returning to England in 1950, Davison and Mellis moved to Church Farm Cottage at Syleham, Suffolk, where they devoted themselves to farming, the egg market being their main source of income in the following years, eked out by the intermittent sale of paintings and collages. In this same year, Davison was shown alongside Oskar Kokoschka, Merlyn Evans, and Prunella Clough in the Spring Exhibition at St George's Gallery. In 1952 Davison gave up painting and started making collages, initially using a stark palette of browns and greys, dictated by the materials that he had to hand. These also reflected the organic-looking Suffolk houses that were his inspiration. He used Essex board, overlaying paper to create dense colour and reduced shapes. Never cutting, only tearing, he was constrained by the rectangular board that he used until 1963. Once he abandoned the Essex boards, more freedom was afforded to his collages, which became more experimental and ambitious in technique and scale, as well as free from their backboard moorings. Indeed, the early quadrilaterals assumed with time a ragged, near-square shape, which subsequently became more complex through the multiplicity of ways in which Davison tore and reassembled scrap papers, used envelopes or torn paper, which he constantly reinvented through slight manipulations of edges and outlines. He refused to name or to provide any information for these collages, believing that the pieces should speak for themselves. In the 1960s, he also begun to introduce brighter colours into his work, playing with their intensity through layering.

 

In 1975, Davison and Mellis moved from Syleham to Southwold, painting their new house enitrely white, from top to bottom. In 1978, Davison started to produce even brighter work, cannibalising earlier pieces.

 

The late 1970s and early 80s saw Davison finally move out of relative obscurity. In 1979, William Packer included him in his British Art Show, which toured the regions. In 1983 he had a solo exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, London. Very little sold, but it did influence a young Damien Hirst, who was "blown away" by the collages. Since his death in 1984, there have been four solo shows at the Redfern, including a retrospective in 1986, for which Heron wrote the catalogue essay. In 1989 Davison was included in the Arts Council's touring show, The Experience of Painting. In 2007, he was the subject of a well-received retrospective at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge.

 

Francis Davison’s Estate is represented by the Redfern Gallery.

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