Professor David Davies, 1937-2022

David Davies was an active member of ARTES since its inception.

A Welshman from the Valleys, David was a middle weight champion boxer in his youth. He joined UCL in 1967 and is said to have put the History of Art Department on its feet. He was ‘a teacher enraptured by his subject matter’ (Charles Ford Senior Lecturer in History of Art, UCL)

He followed rugby. I understand this, it’s a passion. A Welshman from the Valleys would be there in heart and soul. Once in Cardiff to open a Touring Arts Council Show I rushed to touch the gates of Cardiff Arms Park. My childhood home had echoed with the sound of Welsh rugby supporters singing in the Cardiff Arms stadium.

Holly Trusted aka Majorie Trusted says of David:

‘David was immensely knowledgeable about Spanish art, and immensely generous with that expertise. He visited the V&A stores when I was first working on the collection of Spanish sculpture in the late 1980s to look at and discuss with me sculpture from Seville. He was especially struck by a lead statuette of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception after Juan Martínez Montañés, rightly pointing out that there was an active industry in the eighteenth century of producing such devotional figures for domestic use. On another occasion soon afterwards David showed me a beautiful turned wooden bowl made in Spain that he owned, noting that the wood exemplified the use of wood in Spain for articles both artistic and utilitarian. With both these instances he was emphasising the intertwined nature of art and everyday life.’

As a postgrad student at the Royal Academy Schools, he found me sitting in front of John on Patmos by Velasquez, making a large pencil drawing over several days. He talked to me about Spanish painters and took a deep interest in the drawing and its process. I knew him from the terrific lunchtime lectures he gave in the old basement lecture theatre in the 1980’s which my friends and I would rush to attend – covering the distance in record speed from the RA to the NG. Probably he recognised us, we were always a little late. Erudite, complex, challenging and informative, we were gripped by the content and loved El Greco, discussing paint surface and technique in our studio on
return. His dedication to El Greco scholarship was infectious. Later I sent him a colour pencil copy of The View of Toledo one of several I made when the painting was on loan to the NG from the Met, NY. Later he wrote an essay for the El Greco catalogue, on his landscapes which wasn’t used, but said he propped up the drawing to write the article and that ‘it had something.’

Here is a quote from his catalogue essay for the exhibition at The National Gallery of Scotland, ‘El Greco: Mystery and Illumination’ which he curated in 1989:

‘The dramatic device of painting the city in a thunderstorm might have stemmed from a literary tradition. Pliny in his Natural History acclaims Apelles because “he even painted things that cannot be represented in pictures- thunder, lightning and thunderbolts, the pictures known respectively under the Greek titles of Bronte, Astrape and Ceraunobilia” (XXV.97). Artistically, El Greco is clearly responding to the tradition established by Giorgone in his “tempest” which might have been inspired by the same literary source. Yet El Greco has extended Giorgione’s image by fusing the two traditions of the topographical city view and the emotive landscapes of the Venetian school. The city is identifiable but interpreted subjectively to reveal its individual character. In this manner El Greco has painted an astonishing portrait of the city of Toledo.

Toledo seems to be gripped in the rhythms of the landscape, while the buildings, shown almost as splinters of light, seem electrified. This startling effect is enhanced by El Greco’s treatment of colour whereby the yellowish – white highlights of the grey stone buildings are juxtaposed with blue grey shadows, and the virulent greens make a strident contrast with the red brown earth colours. The townscape is not topographically accurate. El Greco has deliberately removed the Cathedral from the west side of the city and placed it to the left of the Alcazar, the Royal Palace. It would seem he is making some concentrated statement about the pinnacles of Church and State. Both appear to endure in the midst of an apocalyptic storm that has burst upon the city.’

Devoted to teaching in front of the paintings he loved, latterly he was unhappy about a UCL decision not to take students to the National Gallery and discuss works, teaching them how to take time looking and enjoying the experience of thinking ones way through the image. ‘I start with the object’ he said.

One year in front of Titian’s Philip ll he spoke to me about of Philips hose, wrinkle free pale cream, and was amused at how Antonis Mor had shown the court jester’s wrinkled hose, a cheaper version in an adjacent picture. He wrote well on court dress and its symbolism and status.

He was a complex and original thinker, not given to the fashion of the moment, a man who followed his own path. He was raised in a communist party family and in his scholarship took a deep interest in Catholic doctrine and practice. He knew the function of paintings in a liturgical sense. He knew their purpose before they became art objects in galleries. This depth of knowledge is increasingly rare, yet to know it changes how we see the works.

Years later at the Instituto Cervantes he suggested I join ARTES as I was about to go to Madrid to see the Prado Exhibition, ‘The Spanish Portrait’. Always encouraging, he liked the company of painters and when I asked him who to read on Velasquez he suggested Peter Greenham, painter and keeper of the RA Schools. I was surprised but Greenham’s tender description of faces in his Madrid pension as being those of Velasquez sitters seemed modest and true.

He was always at our events, a great supporter of ARTES and at our last meeting met me at South Kensington Station where I drove him to the Sala Luis Vives at The Spanish Embassy. Soon afterwards he posted me ‘The Body politic of Spanish Hapsburg Queens’, a long essay analysing the dress, role and position of the Spanish Princesses Queens at Court in Madrid. He was frail. I did not see him again.

I am grateful to him for his interest and encouragement and my one regret is that I did not study with him as my supervisor. Xanthe Brooke, Xavier Bray and doubtless other ARTES members did. It was a great privilege to have known him.

I will leave the last word to David:

‘Likewise Titian’s mountainous landscape (The Presentation of the Virgin/Accademia Venice) may have been influenced by Petrarch’s “Ascent of Mount Ventoux “ Initially Petrarch climbs the mountain to admire the view but on reaching the summit he read the passage in St Augustine’s “Confessions” in which the saint chides men for admiring earthly things, such as high mountains, and thereby deserting themselves. Stunned by this truth, Petrarch recognised that the physical climb of the mountain should be forsaken for the ascent of the mind to God.’

From The Body Politic of Spanish Hapsburg Queens, David Davies (Madrid: Editiones Polifemo, 2008)

Obituary by Susan Wilson, London, Feb 2022

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