Portraiture – Alan Thornhill’s study of Colin Davis

I spent some time with sculptor Alan Thornhill just before Christmas, talking about a work he was re-acquainting himself with, that he created in the early 1970s. Thornhill noted:

I first met Colin Davis as he then was at several supper parties with friends in North London. In the course of conversation we discovered that he frequently visited friends living very near us in Putney.

To our pleasant surprise he began dropping in on us for a chat on his way to visit them at the other end of the road.

Of course I complied with his curiosity to have a peep at my largish studio at the end of the garden where there were bits and pieces of my work lying about including portrait heads as yet still being worked on.

I expressed an interest in doing something with him as my subject. He said that might be possible but only if it didn’t require an interruption between him and any work he was involved in at the time. No sittings were permitted but I was allowed to attend rehearsals in a disused cinema in the East End where I could place myself near the centre of things – and subsequently I worked on this head from a box in Covent Garden during the final rehearsals of Nabucco.

I did further work in the studio from drawings and from memory to complete the head. It is perceived by those who knew him as a good likeness. For me it is a study of a thoughtful, interior listening.

Colin Davis’ first months in charge at Covent Garden Opera House were not easy ones; booing was heard at the performance of Nabucco in 1972. But despite the teething problems in his 15 year tenure at Covent Garden, he performed 30 operas there and was noted for his pre-eminence as an interpreter of Britten and Stravinsky. Davis was appointed CBE in 1965, knighted in 1980 and appointed Companion of Honour in 2001. He was awarded the Royal Philharmonic Society’s gold medal in 1995 and the Queen’s Medal for Music in 2009.

This terracotta head of Sir Colin Davis (1927-2013) deserves to be more widely known. Working from life when not in the setting of a formal sitting is difficult. Yet this head demonstrates that a perceptive artist working from an active, moving figure has captured the conductor in complete concentration, at one with his inner thoughts; in the zone, so to speak.

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