James Alan Davie was born on September 28, 1920, in Grangemouth, Scotland. From 1937 to 1940, he studied at the Edinburgh College of Art, and began to develop an interest in jazz music. He spent the war years in the Royal Artillery, but all the while concentrated on poetry and in 1945 spent part of his leave in London, where he was introduced to the artist Paul Klee and the work of Pablo Picasso. When he was discharged from the army in 1946, he returned to Edinburgh and had his first solo exhibition at Grant’s Bookshop. In 1948, after a brief period working as a saxophonist in a jazz orchestra, he travelled to London, Paris, Switzerland, and Italy, during which time he exhibited in Florence and Venice. It was there that he first met Peggy Guggenheim. The following year, Davie visited the south of France and Spain, and in 1950 the first of his many solo exhibitions took place at the Gimpel Fils Gallery, London. During this time he also met Herbert Read and Roland Penrose.

He traveled to the United States for the first time in 1956, where he was the subject of a solo exhibition at the Catherine Viviano Gallery, New York, and was introduced to Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Mark Rothko, and Willem de Kooning. That same year he won the Gregory Fellowship in painting at the University of Leeds, Great Britain, which was followed by a cycle of conferences and a period of teaching. Important retrospectives of his work were presented at the Whitechapel Gallery, London, in 1958, and at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, in 1962. He took part in the São Paulo Bienal in 1963, receiving the prize or best foreign painter. Besides exhibiting, painting, and producing lithographs and watercolors, Davie continued his activity as a musician. In the 1970s he often presented concerts to accompany his exhibitions and released many recordings. In 1979 he travelled to Australia and exhibited in Sydney.

During the 1990s, Davie was the subject of many retrospectives, among them a 2000 exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and a survey held the following year at the Cobra Museum for Modern Art in the Netherlands. Since 2003 the artist has been living and working in Hertfordshire and Cornwall. Most recently, in 2003-2004, the Tate St. Ives, Cornwall, organized a retrospective of his work. The artist died on April 5, 2014.