Doomsday Davidson by David Rudd

Photo by Henar Langa on Unsplash

Controversial Painter Vanishes!

Doomsday for Davidson!

Deranged Davidson Disappears!

It’s now almost twenty years since those headlines, following Charles Davidson’s strange disappearance in 1965. As someone who knew him well, it was to my door that the media initially came. At the time, I told them nothing, but as I now start to feel my years, I realise I ought to set down these biographical observations.

I had known Davidson since we were both at a minor public school in the 1930s. I was his oldest friend, there’s no doubt about that. Back in those early days, I can’t say we were very close, but I would certainly count myself one of his confidants.

Davidson (I always called him by his surname: a hangover from public school, I suppose) was drawing those eerie cityscapes even as a fifteen-year-old. Indeed, I don’t think his style changed at all, though I have read critics who try to chart its subtle development. As far as I’m concerned, his pictures were always and forever the same: paintings that seemed to envelop you in their gloomy depths. His modern-day evocations of Piranesi-style buildings made you feel infinitesimal, incapable of comprehending their vastness, and you began to think that these constructions were never intended for mortal eyes. You can imagine their initial impact on me, as a teenager, especially knowing that one of my contemporaries was creating such visionary stuff.

I think one of the best descriptions of his work came from a critic intending to be dismissive, who said that Davidson’s work gave viewers an unsolicited, first-hand experience of modern-building syndrome. However misguided that critic’s intentions, he hit the nail on the head, for Davidson’s canvases are undoubtedly disorienting. One minute you are standing there, an outsider, gazing at one of his decaying cityscapes; the next, you find yourself trapped within, seeking a way to escape their oppressive depths.

For those that knew the man, his paintings seemed even more incongruous, for they were on such a grand scale, whereas Davidson himself was a small, dapper chap, always wearing those round, wire spectacles that seemed to distance him from his surroundings. He looked more like a banker than a painter. In fact, Magritte’s bowler-hatted figure comes to mind ­– especially apposite when one recalls the surreal world that Magritte’s anonymous men inhabited.

After we left school ­– Davidson going off to the Slade, me to the University of Exeter – we lost touch for a number of years. When I next encountered him, in the late 1940s, he was in his twenties and already an established artist. I came across him in a small pub in Soho. It had been a fruitful morning on my part, touring the antiquarian bookshops around Charing Cross, buying some military history on behalf of a collector.

It was Davidson who grabbed me – and grabbed is the word. He tugged at my sleeve, as though I were some crook he was apprehending. The man was certainly the worse for drink.

“I can’t keep going,” he declared. I wondered whether he had really recognised me or, in the manner of some ancient mariner, was just buttonholing anyone who would listen to him. It was not the sort of greeting one expected from a long-lost school-friend.

“It’s Davidson, isn’t it?” I said. He physically recoiled.

“Day vision,” he said. At first I thought he was struggling with his wayward tongue, but then he added: “More like night vision!” and I realised he was being serious. “Doomsday Davidson – child prodigy!” he continued. “Treading in the muddy footsteps of Fuseli, Piranesi and Blakey… and some would rather he didn’t!” His voice trailed off, as though he were walking out of earshot.

“Do you not know me, old man?” I demanded, sounding like someone out of King Lear.

He looked at me more intently through those globular specs, then seemed to break out of whatever mental turmoil possessed him. “‘Course I do. It’s…” he surprised himself, “Worthington. Colin Worthington!” There was a pause before he added: “That’s why I came across.” His eyes twinkled mischievously.

“Well, it’s good to see you, old man,” I said. “Do you drink here regularly?”

“If you mean, do I do a lot of drinking here, I suppose the answer’s yes. It’s the watering hole closest to my studio.”

We began reminiscing about the good old days and must have talked for an hour or so before he invited me back to this studio. Davidson’s spirits seemed to have lifted remarkably, so I felt that I should stick by him for a while.

His studio was a revelation – and a nightmare. It was crammed with those intimidating canvases of his, which, en masse and up-close, are even more disquieting. They enveloped us, each canvas like a building block from one of his monstrous cityscapes. I am not, by nature, claustrophobic, but as I said before, his paintings gave the viewer a horribly oppressive feeling: the great girders of those buildings bearing down, casting malevolent shadows; those pulleys descending from giant beams, disporting ropes from which noose-like shapes tantalisingly dangled.

And these, of course, were just the easy, familiar parts of his paintings – those that you could put a name to. Beyond them, indescribable clots of shadow clawed at your eyeballs. You really didn’t want to look too closely, but you couldn’t help yourself. It was as though you had been strapped to a rack and someone had peeled back your eyelids, taped them open and forced you to gawp. Then you were trapped, and you found yourself clinging tenaciously to those more tangible elements: the huge metal beams, the ropes and chains.

I still find his canvases hard to describe, as you can tell, and I’ve yet to find a critic who doesn’t fall prey to some comforting cliché in order to tame Davidson’s visions.

Davidson was clearly attentive to my initial reaction in that studio. “Not pretty, are they?” he joked, as we navigated the cluttered rooms.

We hadn’t been in there more than five minutes before Davidson grabbed me by the arm again, as he had done in the pub. “Come on,” he said, and hustled me back into the airy street. “Sorry about that,” he added. “Just needed to see your reaction.”

“I don’t think I could live with those paintings of yours,” I confessed. “At school, they seemed quite appealing, but…” I trailed off into silence.

“Let’s get some coffee,” he said.

Looking back, I must have encountered him at exactly the right moment. He opened up as though he’d been ready to burst, and I am glad that I, who had known him so long, was there to respond. After our conversation, I felt far closer to Davidson.

It was at this initial reunion that he told me he had several more studios, just like the one we’d visited, all chocked full of his canvases.

“Are they not selling, then?” I ventured.

He laughed. “They sell – my agent certainly shifts a fair few – but they also have a tendency to come back! ‘Boomerang art’, he calls it. Some people simply consign the things to the attic. You’d be surprised how many houses have a Davidson tucked away somewhere.” He chuckled. “When art collectors of the future start going through people’s lofts, they’ll find more than they bargained for,” he broke off with another strained laugh. “Of course, many punters simply get rid of the things. Burned mostly.”

“People burn your canvases? Surely–”

“No, no,” he interrupted, before conceding the point. “Well, they might. But I was thinking of the ones that I, personally, dispose of for their owners. I must have saved the world hundreds of Davidsons already.”

“But… why? I mean, why paint them in the first place?”

I paint them?” He looked at me, strangely. “They paint me, more like.”

Davidson later became renowned for making this sort of claim. And, certainly, if you’d ever seen him at his easel – I believe there is some footage of him at work – you’d know that his style was quite manic, often working with his eyes shut, as though in thrall to some inner vision. However, on this occasion, I made light of his comment, trying to restore his earlier buoyancy.

“The driven artist, eh?” I said.

“Don’t, old chap. I know you mean well, but I’m not like those posers you see in studios nowadays, fuelled by alcohol, attacking canvases as if possessed.” He paused, then burst out laughing. “Actually, I’m exactly like them, aren’t I? Or appear to be… I wonder if there are others, equally tormented?”

Our conversation drifted away from what was obviously a distressing topic and we agreed to meet again. Indeed, he demanded it, making me promise before he would release my arm.

After that, we met up almost every week. I would like to say he became more at ease as a result, but maybe I presume too much. Whatever was the case, I certainly got to know more about Davidson, the ‘tortured’ artist (and I use that overworked epithet with care).

He told me that, since puberty, he had produced at least five canvases a day, and sometimes a great many more. He also told me that he couldn’t stop this rate of production – not because he was inspired so much as he felt compelled, fearing the consequences of not painting.

At some point, he produced an old scrapbook which I at first thought must contain reviews of his exhibitions. It did not. It was full of newspaper clippings of now familiar, Second World War atrocities: images of skeletal bodies and mutilated corpses. The death camps, Hiroshima, the Burmese railway – they were all there. I must say, we nearly fell out over his scrapbook. I got the wrong end of the stick entirely, thinking that this sort of stuff inspired him. I mean, I know that some of his contemporaries, like Francis Bacon, were taken with it.

“Inspired!!” he spat. “It doesn’t inspire me! I paint to prevent this sort of thing happening.” I must have looked completely blank, for his spectacled eyes were suddenly fiery, boring into my own. “When I try to stop, as I did in the early 1950s,” his voice had become slow and measured, “something unspeakable happens, like… like the atrocities of the Algerian War.” He broke off for a while. “It’s quite simple, really. The more I paint, the safer the world is.”

“Come on, old man,” I said. I don’t know why we called each other “old man” – probably another hangover from public school days – but in his case it seemed most pertinent. Though still relatively young, he spoke as though he had been around for aeons, like some hapless Wandering Jew. “Come on,” I repeated, trying to make light of his claim about saving the world through painting. I’m not a psychologically oriented person, but I was sure there was a name for the sort of condition he presented: paranoia, schizophrenia, that sort of thing. “It’s just a coincidence,” I said.

He had obviously enacted this conversation many times before. “I know what you’re thinking. I’ve wished it were so myself, but the evidence is against it.” Again, those gimlet eyes were fixed on me. “When I first began painting seriously, that’s when all those bloody conflicts,” he gestured to his scrapbook, “ended.”

“Even so. I mean… it can’t just be you.” I was annoyed with myself for even giving him the benefit of the doubt. “It just can’t be!” I concluded feebly.

I have reported the above as though it were one conversation, but it is really an amalgam of many similar discussions we had, ones that Davidson would usually initiate only to shut them down shortly thereafter.

Another event in his life that had obviously had a huge impact was his relationship with Judy Bigma, whom he met at the Slade. He was more expansive about her. She had been his first serious girlfriend. Apparently, she tried to restrict his painting in order that they might spend more time together. She used to hide his paints and brushes – and, with her, it seemed to have worked: he had complied. They were clearly very much in love. Indeed, he told me as much.

But then she fell ill: a period of delirium with a high temperature quickly leading to a catatonic state that mystified everyone. As Davidson tells it, he spent many hours by her bedside, initially respecting her wish that he shouldn’t paint. But then the craving became too strong, and, well, I happen to have his account recorded on my old tape recorder, so I’ll let him tell it:

“I seized her lipstick and started scrawling over some paper that her flowers were wrapped in. The usual shapes started to appear under my hand, albeit smudged and messy, until there was a whole lattice of beams on the paper – great fortifications that seemed capable of containing the negative energy emanating from her.

“When I’d finished, I looked up to see Judy staring at me. She hadn’t stirred for weeks, yet here she was: back, conscious! I summoned the nurse, and the story of her remarkable recovery soon went round the hospital. I knew the two events were connected: my drawing and her recovery. More importantly, I knew that my initial failure to act had been the cause of her deterioration. I couldn’t tell anyone else, of course. They’d have thought me mad.

“Our relationship never really recovered, though. Judy had been incensed seeing me at her bedside doing the very thing she’d asked me not to. She could never understand that it is what saved her.”

Unfortunately, my machine has chewed up the rest of the tape. But, in any case, Davidson said little more. He became increasingly morose and clammed up. Undoubtedly, her illness had a huge impact on him. That was when he really started painting like a man on a mission. “Painting,” as he always liked to say, “keeps the monsters at bay.”

I am aware that this memoir is sounding increasingly implausible, but, as I said earlier, I need to set it down for the record – for my own sake if for no other. So, please, bear with me.

To fully understand Davidson’s outlook, you need to know a bit more than I’ve already told you, for he held to the strange belief that this world we inhabit has a dark underside. Manichaeism, I believe. Don’t ask me how it all works but, in simple terms, Davidson would refer to another realm, deep beneath the surface of the earth. He would consistently point downwards when speaking of it, though he also seemed to see it as being inside us, within our heads. This other world was – is, in his terms – a strange, oppressive place, consisting of huge caverns in which dark, shadowy, half-formed creatures exist. And, as you’ve already seen, it’s the world of his pictures.

Davidson believed that this underground realm was always in danger of erupting, of invading our own world and, as a result, causing violence and destruction. In some of his notebooks – which have yet to see the light of day – he has tried to explain much of this, pointing to various episodes in history when irrational behaviour has been at its most virulent and destructive.

So, Davidson saw himself in that very ancient, but now unfashionable role: as an artist who suffers on behalf of mankind. As far as he was concerned, those canvases with their intimidating grids and lattices were his attempt to contain that destructive internal world, to keep the enemy in check. In fact, he often said that he was like a locksmith, except that, instead of oiling mechanisms, he had to oil his canvases.

I didn’t really take Davidson too seriously when he started expounding this stuff, although I always tried to be a receptive audience. But then he performed that disappearing trick. He was always unpredictable, so I wasn’t too surprised at first: perhaps some sort of bender or reclusive retreat? It could have been any number of things.

But after a few weeks – just before the police launched their investigation, in fact – I paid a visit to his Soho studio. I hadn’t been there for a quite a while, but I did know where he used to hide his keys. By Davidson’s claustrophobic standards, the flat was not quite full, but I immediately felt that old revulsion as the canvases seemed to close in on me, and the smell of oil and turps were the final straw. I felt nauseous, unable to breathe and, after only a few minutes, headed back to the front door. But in the hallway – one of the few areas with any floorspace ­– I stumbled into his easel, on which was mounted what was, presumably, his final canvas.

In my haste, I dislodged the painting and it came crashing down on me. Instinctively, as though it were attacking me, I fended it off. As I propped it back on the easel, I could not but help look at it more carefully than I would otherwise have done. The massive pillars were there, as ever. But, behind one, and seemingly out of place, lurked a figure. Without a doubt, I could discern a hand reaching out towards me and, behind it, an anguished face. Not just any face. It was Davidson’s, I swear! Having realised this, I looked more closely still. Wasn’t there a paintbrush in his hand – that hand on the wrong side of the canvas – seeking, so it seemed to me, to give more painterly weight to the oppressive fortifications that contained him?

I saw no more. I fled, only returning under escort when the police investigation was fully underway. That final painting was still on the easel, but I looked in vain for that trapped figure within the canvas. All I could see was a smudgy cocoon of paint where I thought Davidson had once been. I still have nightmares about this diminutive version of the man, arm outstretched on the wrong side of the canvas. In these dreams, Davidson invariably becomes enveloped in sticky black threads excreted by large spidery creatures (and I’ve since discerned similar arachnid forms in most other canvases of his).

I know. You must think that I too am of “unsound mind”. And I wonder about that myself. But Davidson’s fate remains a mystery. His body has never been found. And, of course, this whole intrigue had a huge impact on his estate; the value of his paintings soared. At auction, even some semi-charred canvases have commanded record figures.

Personally, I have kept a low profile, though nowadays I do keep a closer eye on world conflicts. Is it just me, or are they really spreading? Davidson’s disappearance had barely been acknowledged before the Indo-Pakistani War broke out, featuring the worst military hardware battles since World War II. Then there came the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the Six-Day War, the Nigerian Civil War – the list is endless. And I can’t help but contrast this with the period when Davidson started painting professionally, shortly after he and Judy Bigma separated in the late 1940s: peace in our time, they were declaring, and then came the Welfare State and the Marshall Plan.

I’m not one for media-hype, for moral panics, but I do find myself looking round at Davidson’s canvases in a more sympathetic way nowadays. I have several mounted around our home, despite my wife’s distaste.

I’d like to think that, out there, somewhere, there might be a younger artist, someone with Davidson’s peculiar gift, who is even now honing his or her skills, trying to construct an effective barrier against what lies without – or, more precisely, within. Perhaps an entire school of artists could be tasked with such a project. Would the MOD countenance it?

But then I can also imagine the hysterical reaction that would greet any mention of his name, given the public’s memory of ‘Deranged Doomsday Davidson!’ They’d have a field day, and they’d probably lock me up too, though I’m not sure that being behind bars would make me feel any more secure.

Perhaps if I could just acquire and display more of his works, and persuade others to do so too, perhaps that might help.

About The Author

Dr David Rudd, aged 70, is an emeritus professor of literature who has published extensively in academia but only recently turned to creative writing. His stories have appeared in Horla, TigerShark, Erotic Review, Black Cat Mystery Magazine and a Didcot Writers anthology, First Contact. He also enjoys playing folk/blues music.

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