Lot 28
  • 28

Alan Davie

50,000 - 80,000 GBP
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  • Alan Davie
  • Ancestral Spirit
  • signed and dated 55
  • oil on board
  • 151 by 121cm.; 59½ by 47½in,


Catherine Viviano Gallery, New York, 1956
Private Collection, U.S.A.
Their sale, Sotheby's London, 30th June 1993, lot 71, where acquired by the present owner


New York, Catherine Viviano Gallery, Alan Davie, March - April 1956, cat. no.12.


Alan Bowness (ed.), Alan Davie, Lund Humphries, London, 1967, cat. no.86, illustrated;
Douglas Hall (intro.), Alan Davie, Lund Humphries, London, 1992, cat. no.116.


There are some old creases and cracks to the board that are likely to have been caused by the artist himself, perhaps from walking over the board as was his usual practice at the time (there are footprints on the reverse). These run through the centre of the composition, not wholly visible from the front of the work. This has been restored in a very sensitive manner, probably initially by the artist, with only very minor cracks visible to the front of the work. There is minor surface dirt and discolouration to the white in the upper left, with flattening to one or two of the thicker globules of raised impasto. Ultraviolet light reveals some traces of fluorescence and probable sensitive retouching to the aforementioned areas of restoration to the board, with a few further, smaller traces to the extreme edges, most probably in line with a previous framing. Housed in an ornate, Italian-style wooden frame. Please contact the department on +44 (0) 207 293 6424 if you have any questions regarding the present work.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

Andrew Causey named 1955, the year Ancestral Spirit was painted, as Davie’s ‘break-through year’. This was a time when Davie’s reputation was growing rapidly; one of the leading contemporary galleries in London, Gimpel Fils, was representing him, giving him solo shows in 1950, 1952 and 1954. A year later Davie would travel to New York for the opening of his first show at the Catherine Viviano Gallery in which Ancestral Spirit was included and where he would meet leading figures from the New York school, including Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. 

Davie had already gained exposure to the work of the American Abstract Expressionists as early as 1948 through the legendary collector Peggy Guggenheim, who he met in Venice and whose recent acquisitions by Pollock and Rothko he would have seen housed in her palazzo. Indeed, in Ancestral Spirit the scale of the canvas, gestural brush-strokes and spontaneous fluidity of the spattered paint is testament to the knowledge and influence of these artists on Davie’s work. However, it is significant that it was in the heart of Europe, whilst on a year-long tour, that Davie came across these American artists, who were to be only one strand of inspiration to him during this formative period. He also saw exhibitions by leading artists of the European Avant-garde, including Pablo Picasso and Paul Klee; these artists with their concern with the symbolic image and interest in so called ‘primitive’ cultures were a particular influence. During his travels, Davie was also soaking up experiences of earlier artistic movements, delighting in the early Christian mosaics that he saw and the power and mystery of the Romanesque architecture of the churches. Over his life-time this interest in ancient cultures and rituals led to his notable collection of African, Oceanic and North American art. In this work, the ambiguous figurative forms shrouded in priestly white, elevated against the sombre earthy colour tones of the background, take on pre-historic forms evocative of Neolithic cave painting or the Greek icons, even borrowing elements of early renditions of Christ on the cross. The mystery and sensuous vitality of this work places it alongside other masterpieces by Davie painted in 1955, including Tate, London’s Birth of Venus.  

By the mid 1950s, the originality of this pictorial language with its vitality and intensity was beginning to be recognized. Peggy Guggenheim had already purchased two works and the show in New York the following year was to be a sell-out with many of Davie's works going to major American institutions. Davie died in Apirl 2014 and his obituary described how ‘His exuberant improvisatory canvases had a ruthlessness … a sense of mystery and ritual that made the efforts of his British peers look positively effete in comparison’ (Mark Hudson, Daily Telegraph, 22 March 2014).