An exceptional painter of awe-inspiring landscape works, artist Neil Davies is a force to be reckoned with
PUBLISHED: 14:48 19 August 2013 | UPDATED: 15:09 19 August 2013
It hardly needs saying that Cornwall has more than its fair share of outstanding landscape painters, but I have a personal shortlist of exceptional artists and right at the top you'll find Neil Davies. When I came across Davies' work in 2009, during his first solo show at St Ives' New Craftsman Gallery, I experienced something like falling in love.
Taking in one of his huge, brooding canvases I felt suddenly hot; falling metaphorically underwater I became deafened to the chatter of the people around me and folded my arms, smiling at the floorboards for a moment to contain an embarrassing rush of heady delight. I bit my lip and began to think of the things I could sell in order to own such an artwork.
Few painters of the Cornish landscape manage to free themselves from the figurative restraints of this county’s hypnotic beauty without dissolving their canvases into highly abstracted patches of colour. That’s fine with me, since my personal preference in painting is for works with significant emotional punch but in Davies’ work, you’ll see a perfect balance between the awe-inspiring visual truth and the powerful emotion possible in contemporary abstraction. Many of Davies’ works are pretty monumental in size which only adds to their power. Standing before his larger paintings, every corner of your vision is consumed by the energy of his unrestrained marks. They are works created with a passion for the raw beauty and turbulent weather systems of our remote Atlantic coast. Compare these to his sensitively rendered tonal drawings and you have an artist with a wide emotional range and impressive technical skill.
Working from his studio just above St Ives, Neil Davies is preparing for his fourth solo show at New Craftsman this August entitled Braving the Elements. Preferring to work on the robust surface of board, which more easily stands the vigour of his painting, he uses brushes, a palette knife, his fingers and even a blow torch to work with his oil paints. “Oil is my medium,” he says. “And is the most versatile since it mimics all other mediums and has its own strength and energy. With oil I can work fast and work instinctively - I love the alchemy of the paint and all the accidental qualities that can be achieved through the breaking of rules.”
And there’s no doubt his technical skills in oil are considerable. On leaving art college at the age of nineteen Davies set off on his own version of the classic 19th Century Grand Tour, when aspiring painters travelled to experience the art culture of Europe before embarking optimistically on their careers.
At the Uffizi in Florence, Davies ‘discovered both the scope and scale’ of works by artists such as Botticelli and Caravaggio, and seems also to have absorbed the oil techniques of the Great Masters; today Davies is still translating the rich texture of Sgraffito, the light and dark of Chiaroscuro and the vivid colour of expertly applied oil glazing into 21st Century painting.
Having returned ‘with a bump’ from Italy to the reality of life as a struggling artist, Davies at first tried to make a living in portraiture before accepting a teaching position at the Guildford School of Art. Over the following years the joys and demands of raising a family left him little time to paint, but as his children approached independence he took the decision to leave work and go back to college to recharge his artistic batteries and develop his painting. In 1988, on the strength of his graduation show, he was offered his first solo exhibition and, still supplementing his income with part-time work, went on to exhibit in mixed shows throughout Somerset. In 2000 he made the risky decision to move to Cornwall to live the life of a full-time painter.
“It takes time to find out who you are as an artist, to explore the nature of yourself as a painter,” he says. “At that point I had matured as an artist, I had life experience, and I had to go for it.” That decision, now completely vindicated, has brought him a career as one of Cornwall’s most brilliant landscape artists. “I spend a lot of time walking in the landscape, and I’ll suddenly see something that inspires me – a transient thing like gorse bursting into colour or a shaft of sunlight falling onto a cottage. I’ll take out my sketchbook before rushing to my studio where the alchemy really begins. The beauty in bringing that memory back to the studio is that imagination and intuition are free to kick in and that first, fleeting image becomes my own.” Braving the Elements is on show at The New Craftsman Gallery, St Ives throughout August and until 7 September. n
New Craftsman Gallery, 24 Fore Street, St Ives, TR26 1HE / newcraftsmanstives.com