Francis Davison

Brilliant Black


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Not on display

Francis Davison 1919–1984
Printed papers on paper mounted on board
Unconfirmed: 1425 × 1460 mm
Purchased 1986

Catalogue entry

T04865 Brilliant Black 1982

Collage 1425 × 1460 (56 × 57 1/2) on millboard 1523 × 1525 (60 × 60)
Inscribed ‘FD’ b.r. and ‘FRANCIS DAVISON | H2 BRILLIANT BLACK | COLLAGE 1982 | 61 1/2 × 61 1/2’ by Margaret Mellis, the artist's wife, on back of millboard b.r.
Purchased from Redfern Gallery (Grant-in-Aid) 1986
Exh: Francis Davison: Paper Collages, Hayward Gallery, Feb.–April 1983 (no number, no title, repr. [p.12] in col.); Francis Davison 1919–1984: A Retrospective, Redfern Gallery, May–June 1986 (32)

‘Brilliant Black’ is a work from the late phase of Davison's career. It is a collage of coloured papers on an off-white sheet of paper mounted on millboard. The layers of coloured paper are arranged within a square format. There are four main colours: a dark brown area to the left; a vertical strip of grey in the centre; a large black square at top right and a dark purple square at bottom right. Along the far left edge are fragments of paper: red, grey, dark purple, black, light brown and black. Arranged on top of the dark brown area are a roughly diagonal strip of light brown paper with traces of green paper, a white rectangle on top of a large grey rectangle, and a diagonal strip of black. On the vertical grey strip in the centre is a dark purple rectangle which is overlaid with a red square with a trace of yellow paper. A black rectangle overlaps the bottom edge of the grey vertical strip and the edge of a small red piece of paper at bottom left. Above the black square at top right is an arch of black against the white sheet of paper. Within the black square is a square of light brown paper at top left (traces of light brown paper at the bottom left of the black square suggests that Davison revised the position of this shape). A horizontal strip of dark purple and a diagonal strip of dark brown cross the black square. The dark purple square at bottom right is overlaid at top left with a white square on top of a light brown square and at bottom right with a black square. In its centre are three grey strips and to the right of these is a white L-shape. Along the right edge of the collage is a strip of red, overlaid towards the bottom right with a strip of deep purple. The colour of the reproduction of T04865 in the 1983 Hayward Gallery exhibition catalogue differs from the colour of the work as it is now. In particular, the deep purple paper appears to be a much brighter colour in the reproduction, possibly due to the way in which the collage was lit for the purposes of photography.

Davison began to make collages from previously used, ready-coloured papers in 1952. He had been painting and drawing seriously since his marriage to the artist Margaret Mellis in 1948. In 1951 Davison began to paint simple shapes, often in white, which were divided by black lines, as in ‘House and Field’, c.1951 (oil on board, repr. Redfern Gallery exh. cat., 1986, pl.5). According to Mellis, Davison's transition from working in oil to making collages was inevitable. She wrote on 14 October 1994 in reply to a questionnaire sent by the compiler: ‘If you look at his paintings of this period you can see how they were thought of almost as collages. It was just the next step in his discoveries. Also he didn't want to do the same thing as I was doing. The first reason was the main reason’. During the 1950s Davison's collages used simple shapes mounted on Essex board and were small in scale. Davison often used brown wrapping paper owing to the restricted availability of used papers and concentrated on tonal contrasts (see, for example, ‘Black Landscape’, c.1952–60, collage on Essex board, repr. Redfern Gallery exh. cat., 1986, pl.1).

By the mid-1960s Davison had abandoned the use of board but maintained a broadly rectangular format for the arrangement of his papers. He expanded his range of colours as dyed wrapping papers became more widely obtainable. In the early 1970s Davison began to make larger collages and to explore the possibilities of cutting holes into large, simple shapes which when positioned within a collage would reveal the colour of the paper underneath. As a result Davison's images became increasingly fragmented and complex.

In 1976 Davison and Mellis moved to Southwold on the Suffolk coast. Here Davison continued to work on a large scale and began to re-use sections of earlier collages which he combined with ‘new’ used paper. In the process of tearing off layers of collage, traces of coloured paper would be left on the pieces below. Davison fragmented the collages as he had done earlier but instead of leaving the spaces empty, he began to work with white sheets of paper.

‘Brilliant Black’ was titled and dated posthumously by Mellis who is in the process of cataloguing Davison's work. The title is descriptive, as Mellis explained: ‘I think it is a brilliant collage and it is black (one gets tired of lists of colours) I try to make the titles out of what are the most obvious characteristics’. Davison was reluctant to title or date his works as he considered such details were distractions from the aesthetic experience of the work. As Julian Spalding explained in his introduction to the 1983 Hayward Gallery exhibition catalogue [p.7]:

There are not titles in this exhibition because these collages do not refer, even obliquely to things outside themselves; they create a purely visual experience for which it is difficult and often misleading to find an equivalent in words. This visual experience, moreover, is remarkably free from references to natural, man-made or imaginary worlds.

Although T04865 is an abstract image, Davison was not concerned only with the formal and aesthetic qualities of arrangements of shapes and colours. According to Mellis, he was dealing, rather, ‘with his own experience. When his inner feelings have become the material, that is where the satisfaction lies’ (Margaret Mellis in The Experience of Painting, South Bank Centre, exh. cat., 1989, p.14). When asked what these experiences might be, Mellis wrote, ‘The ‘experiences’ turned into visible collage. The experiences would be colours, shapes, the feeling of landscapes or forests or water or mountains. How houses sometimes (particularly in Suffolk) grow out of a field or join onto each other or sink into the ground. (All in colours and shapes)’. Moreover, ‘They don't refer to actual houses and fields because they have become meaningful relations between shapes and colours but there is a kind of emanation say of fields’ (letter dated 14 October 1994).

T04865 was made in the front bedroom of Davison's and Mellis's house at Southwold. Davison would work with the blinds down in order to create a subdued light. Mellis observed in her letter.

He worked with blind down because the colours of the papers look much better and brighter, or rather more glowing in a lowish light. Very bright light tends to suck the colours out. Any medium has a particular light which suits it best. You have to experiment to find the best light for anything. So, yes, he did want his work to be seen in a fairly subdued light.

Davison worked directly with the papers and did not use preliminary studies. However, Mellis said that, ‘he sometimes did a little line drawing on an envelope, only a rough indication of the sort of shapes he might start making. But he didn't work from that. He worked with the paper itself which would take over’. The shapes in T04865 were made by tearing and by cutting the papers with scissors. It was important to Davison that the paper he worked with was used and pre-coloured, as Mellis explained in her letter.

‘arty looking’ papers looked too slick and he didn't like their artificial looking colours ... If you paint the paper you alter the whole texture - an unthinkable thing to do if you contemplate the subtlety of the colours and the textures. You would be bringing in a different spirit. It would no longer be a true medium, - or you would have to paint the paper first before using it.

The structural relationship between the fragmented pieces of coloured papers and the white sheet of paper was described by Julian Spalding: ‘instead of leaving the paces empty, he floated the whole conglomerate on sheets of white’ (Redfern Gallery exh. cat., 1986, p.[12]). However, Mellis explained that it was Davison's practice to start with the sheet of white paper, onto which he arranged and rearranged the coloured papers:

White was one of the last colours he conquered. He found it difficult to use to start with then he made it work. But it would not have worked if he had floated the rest of a collage onto white because all the white would be at the back of the collage and it is essential to have all areas coming to the front as well as the back. There are several collages which use areas of white and have empty spaces as well. So although it might look as if that is what he did, he could not have arrived at a meaningful configuration if that was what he did. In other words he used white in the same way as all the other colours. If you merely floated a collage on white (or green or red or any colour) it would be like mounting a collage on a background. Not using it in the collage as an integral part.

Davison worked on one collage at a time until it was completed. When asked if the collages influenced each other in any way, Mellis replied:

They don't in the way you can use an ‘idea’ from a painting and do several versions of a painting. The great thing about a medium like collage is that you don't have to have an idea in your mind consciously. You work with the paper with your hands, feeling it out without any preconceived ‘ideas’ it is the ultimate immediate medium particularly as paper is so malleable.

This entry has been approved by Margaret Mellis.

Published in:
Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, London 1996

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