Davy’s Gray is a soft grey colour developed by Winsor & Newton in the 19th century, traditionally made from powdered slate pigments. A transparent grey with a greenish tone, it is described in Ralph Mayer's ‘The Artist's Handbook of Materials and Techniques’ (1940) simply as: “Powdered slate”. This simple and pure explanation about the origins of Davy’s Gray is in keeping with the humble but ubiquitous character of slate; a natural material found around us in the form of roof tiles, kitchen tops, electrical panels, old school chalkboards and even beneath the green billiard cloth of professional snooker tabletops.
Slate is a fine-grained metamorphic rock that breaks or splits naturally into thin slabs. It is a strong, durable material, fireproof and a good electrical insulator. It possesses very low absorption making it near waterproof and for that reason ideal for roof tiles, kitchen tops and tiles in wet rooms. Today most of the slate in Europe is sourced in Spain but at one time Wales produced almost all the British Isle’s slate. Slate is full of wonder and surprises and its description as ‘grey’ is somewhat inaccurate, something that David Batchelor expands on in his book, The Luminous and the Grey, and the way grey offers a hidden range of colours and responses. In truth, slate can vary in many colours including shades of green, black, purple and brown. In Dinorwig, Wales it is lilac whereas over the hill in Penrhyn it is heather red. Other Welsh quarries produced slates of willow, sea green, sage and even bronze.
At its height, the slate industry supported and shaped whole communities in Wales. Quarries created ecosystems where Quarrymen worked and lived together. During breaks in ‘Cabans’ they would meet to sing, debate, discuss various topics and exchange stories and often notes would be kept from their meetings in the form of minutes. As new materials replaced slate these glimpses of the past have become mythic snapshots of a bygone era.
Romans are known to have quarried slate in North Wales. Historically it has been used in Abbeys and Castles but the first slate roof on a private house is recorded circa 1300 in North Wales. Recently the landscape surrounding Snowdonia in Gwynedd, described as a place of breathtaking beauty was awarded the title of Unesco World Heritage site; the 33rd site in the UK to be bestowed this honour.
Davy's Gray is named after Henry Davy, born in 1793 at The Poplars (today known as Birketts Farm) in Suffolk, East Anglia in England. Davy's father was a farmer, and after an initial spell as a grocer’s apprentice, Davy made what we would call today a ‘career change’ becoming an artist’s apprentice to the famous English watercolourist, marine and landscape painter John Sell Cotman, after whom our Cotman series of watercolours are named. A leading member of the Norwich School of painters, Cotman was also an etcher and illustrator and Davy went on to contribute to Cotman’s Norfolk engraving series (1818 and 1819). The same year Davy completed his apprenticeship and continued his training under George Cooke in London; from then continuing to work largely as an illustrator and engraver publishing architectural etchings such as his ‘Series of Etchings Illustrative of the Architectural Antiquities of Suffolk’, published in 1827.
By comparison to Cotman and other artists of the time, Davy’s success was modest. Davy supported his family, including six children, by selling engravings and etchings but also through drawing lessons and on occasions even selling furniture and books. However, his legacy lives on through the honour of his name attributed to this unique colour.
Artists’ legacies live on in many ways. For 23 years the artist Ian Hamilton Finlay and his wife Sue Finlay collaborated on an interactive artwork; a poetic garden in Stonypath, Lanarkshire, in the Pentland Hills southwest of Edinburgh, having first moved there in 1966. By the name of ‘Little Sparta’, this is more than just a garden; it is a heterotopia – a world within a world – encapsulating Finlay’s aesthetic sensibility combining sculpture and landscape-based poems with words written directly onto stone. In this story of Davy’s Gray, there’s a poetic resonance through this colour’s associations with Henry Davy, and Davy’s architectural etchings of Suffolk, and Finlay’s ‘Little Sparta’, where words are etched onto stone – such as slate – leaving the natural qualities and beauty of this ancient rock unmodified to speak for itself.
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