Liverpool sunset

by Mic Dover / 04 February, 2006
In a previous life, Nelson art world figure Austin Davies was married to Beryl Bainbridge ("we were too alike") and taught painting to John Lennon ("one of my worst students").

Since arriving in New Zealand in 1975, Austin Davies has probably been better known as the director of Nelson's Suter Gallery than as an artist. Yet, in a little-known previous life, Davies was a celebrated rising star of the British art scene, husband of nascent novelist Beryl Bainbridge and an art teacher to two embryonic Beatles.

Looking back on his life, Davies acknowledges that the need to earn a living has always come first, so his career in art administration has meant long periods of nil artistic output. But retirement has allowed him to become a fulltime painter for the first time in 60 years, and recent work suggests that his muse retains both freshness and vigour.

I interviewed the artist in his spartan studio, a white room with no curtains, nestled under his weatherboard Nelson home. Animal skulls hang on the wall, looking down on the quiet proceedings. A faded white sheet blocks the distraction of sea and mountain views and produces a diffused, gentle light for the workspace. He paints most days and looks in good health, currently producing around 40 works a year for collectors around the world.

Davies's childhood is a familiar story of well-to-do but absent, dysfunctional parents. Both were later to commit suicide, but Davies is cold on the subject. "I was seven when they split up. Mother went to Paris to study art, my father to London with a girlfriend. I was dumped in some bleak Gothic mansion in Yorkshire - there wasn't much schooling, gardening mainly ... but I read a lot." This was the start of a lifelong love of literature and theatre that was to permeate his art and career.

Eight years later, in 1941, as the city of Liverpool reeled from the Blitz, his mother suddenly reappeared in his life. Realising he had artistic talent, she encouraged him to work towards a place at art school. As the war ended, he secured a place at Liverpool Regional College of Art. "It was pure joy," says Davies.

He graduated, did some travelling in war-torn Europe and completed an interior design course. By this time, the 27-year-old Davies was earning a reputation as one of Britain's best up-and-coming Expressionists, but "I was tired of being penniless", so he accepted the offer of a fulltime lectureship at his old art school.

It was Davies's enthusiasm for theatre that led him to the Liverpool Playhouse, where he encountered a young actress called Beryl - now Dame Beryl Bainbridge, the acclaimed novelist. A relationship soon developed, followed by marriage in 1954 and two children. Davies's portrait of Bainbridge from this period ("Portrait of the Painter's Wife") still hangs in Manchester City Art Gallery.

Around this time, he found himself teaching art to Beatles Stu Sutcliffe and John Lennon. Sutcliffe's sense of style contributed to the band's iconic look - he was the first to have a "Beatles haircut", but he was no musician. Sadly, having quit the band to pursue a career in art, he died suddenly from a brain haemorrhage.

"It was a tragic loss," says Davies. "Stuart was a terrific painter. In contrast, John Lennon was one of my worst students. Many times I had to tell him to put his guitar away, he was wasting his time. If he'd taken my advice, he wouldn't be dead now."

Bainbridge's acting career was spasmodic, the zenith being a bit part in a new soap called Coronation Street. But she was already writing by this time, and getting work reading her own stories on radio. As a young artistic couple, Austin and Beryl were part of Liverpool's "scene", mixing with people like poet Adrian Henri and Brian Epstein. But the marriage was stormy and lasted only four years. "We were too alike," says Davies. The divorce was amicable and he continued to support the family for many years.

Despite the separation, the whole family moved to London in 1960 when Davies became head of art & design at a new college. "I was free to create whatever courses I liked. Masses of space, almost unlimited funds - the dream job, really, but I didn't find much time for painting."

However, one morning on the Tube, he did find time to get chatting to Belinda, a young Kiwi who had studied at the Slade School of Art. Marriage followed, but 11 years into his dream job, a different dream beckoned - to become a fulltime artist. He duly resigned and set up a company to convert Georgian terraced houses into luxury flats.

He owned six properties when Britain's property market crashed in 1974 - he was overcapitalised and lost the lot. Luckily, Belinda's nationality afforded a fresh start, and they arrived in Auckland in 1975. Within a year, his wealth of experience landed him another plum job, as the first director of the Suter Gallery.

Davies launched a period of intensive, often controversial, modernisation. The gallery boomed, earning a reputation for innovation and community involvement, generating a high throughput of exhibitions and unprecedented cashflows.

He oversaw the design and building of a theatre within the gallery and fought to incorporate a cafeteria - one of the first galleries to do so. Davies smiles at the memory, "that idea shocked people at the time. To get it past the board, I had to call it a 'member's lounge' on the plans. Now every major gallery has a café." Davies attempted to redefine what a provincial art gallery should be, insisting that, "art alone is not enough, you have to engage the community".

But in the early 90s, a new chairman arrived who wanted greater income generation not community engagement. A long-running battle for the soul of the Suter ended with the chairman unilaterally sacking Davies. However, the resultant public outcry culminated in Davies's exoneration, his job back and the chairman's resignation. Austin retired in 1994, but conflict still lives on at the Suter, with fund-raising for a massive upgrade of the gallery currently struggling, while opponents lobby for a cheaper vision that has less environmental impact and retains the community theatre.

Davies's enthusiasm for drama can be seen in his use of theatrical planes, stage lighting and the dreamlike quality of his paintings. His more recent artistic signature has been the illusion of three-dimensional panels as seen in works like "Days in Takaka" or "Another Long Year", and more recently a move to three dimensions in works like "The Empty Chair". In photographs of these works, it is impossible to tell which are two- and which are three-dimensional.

As Davies talks, you feel part of him is elsewhere, observing you like one of the backstage players in his trademark tableaux. There is a pleasing combination of seriousness and playfulness in his figures with distorted heads, merely flattened in earlier works, now almost featureless, just a hint of humanity. "It's what I feel comfortable with - figures in spaces, just sort of hanging around." But there is always a truth, a light in his shadows - like deep, dark truthful mirrors.

Davies cites the work of Abstract Expressionists like Tapies and Rauschenberg as influences and enthuses over the Kiwi icons Hotere, McCahon and Woollaston. As he turned 80 in January, a retrospective is to be held, appropriately, at the Suter. It opens in May and will be a rare opportunity to view 60 years of excellence from an artist and art administrator whose innovation and dedication have enriched both the British and the New Zealand art scenes.

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