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. During World War II, he was enrolled in the Royal Artillery, and developed an interest in poetry. In 1945 Davie spent part of his leave in London, where he was introduced to 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, and exhibited in Florence and Venice, where he met Peggy Guggenheim. The following year, Davie visited the south of France and Spain, and in 1950 the first of many solo exhibitions took place at the Gimpel Fils Gallery, London. During this time he also met Roland Penrose and Herbert Read.

He traveled to the United States for the first time in 1956, where he held a solo exhibition at the Catherine Viviano Gallery, New York, and was introduced to Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko. That same year he won the Gregory Fellowship in painting at the University of Leeds, which was followed by a series 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 for best foreign painter. Besides exhibiting, painting, and producing lithographs and watercolors, Davie continued his activity as a musician. In the 1970s he often gave concerts accompanying his exhibitions and released numerous recordings. In 1979 he travelled to Australia and exhibited in Sydney.

From the 1990s onwards, Davie was the subject of many retrospectives, among them an exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in 2000 and one at the Cobra Museum for Modern Art in the Netherlands in 2002. In 2003 Davie started living and working in Hertfordshire and Cornwall. in 2002–2004 the Tate St. Ives, Cornwall, held yet another retrospective of his work. Davie died on April 5, 2014.