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Obituary: Gareth A Davies - full obituary

Sadly, as many members will know, Emeritus Professor Gareth Alban Davies died on 9 February 2009. Friends and former colleagues of his have contributed the following obituary.

Born in south Wales in 1926, Gareth Davies was one of the Bevin boys who, because of his native Welsh, was sent to join the South Wales miners during the mid-1940s. This tough work brought him into contact with the harsh living conditions of Welsh miners and gave him a lifelong sympathy for the disadvantaged in society.

In academic terms, Professor Davies won a scholarship to The Queens College, Oxford, and graduated with a First in French and Spanish in 1950. He went on to undertake research on the seventeenth-century Spanish poet and dramatist, Hurtado de Mendoza, for which he was awarded his D. Phil in 1955; his thesis later served as the basis for his much-acclaimed book, A Poet at Court: Antonio Hurtado de Mendoza, 1586-1644 (Oxford: Dolphin 1971). He first came to Leeds as an Assistant Lecturer in 1952 and, apart from a number of visiting appointments at University College Cardiff, Dartmouth College in the USA and the Australian National University in Canberra, he spent the whole of his academic career thirty-four years at the University of Leeds.

Promoted to Lecturer in 1955 and to Senior Lecturer in 1968, he was appointed Cowdray Professor of Spanish in October 1975. He served as Head of the Department of Spanish and Portuguese Languages and Literatures between 1975 and 1983, founding the Medieval Judeo-Spanish Research Seminar, which gained national and international significance; it was held in Leeds for several years after its inauguration and subsequently hosted by other participating institutions in the UK.

As well as being a gifted enthusiast and a versatile and innovative teacher, Professor Davies ranged widely in his scholarly interests and publications. Apart from his studies of Spanish poetry of the Golden Age, he also published on nineteenth-century Spanish Literature, the Spanish song books of the German Romantics and on a number of other topics in Spanish and Argentinean literature, history and culture. He was also very conscious of the Departments commitment to language proficiency, pioneering the use of the language laboratory in the mid 1960s and of transformational grammar in the 1970s, as well as co-editing Langenscheidts bilingual English-Spanish dictionary in 1966.

On his retirement in 1986, the Department published a book of studies in his honour, A Face not Turned to the Wall: Essays on Hispanic Themes for Gareth Alban Davies, comprising essays by fourteen former colleagues and students. Professor Davies retained an enthusiasm for Welsh history and literature throughout his life. He wrote poetry and prose in the Welsh language and was elected to the Welsh Academy and the Gorsedd of Bards. During his time at Leeds, he published a monograph on the Welsh migr community in the Chubut valley of southern Argentina, and one of his outstanding achievements following his retirement was his impressively illustrated Welsh-language volume on the architect Owen Jones, who in the 1830s and 1840s produced a series of ground-breaking studies of the Alhambra in Granada. Also written after retiring from Leeds was a long (two-part) study of the English translation of the sixteenth-century Spanish novel Lazarillo de Tormes and its likely translator, the Welshman David Rowland.

Gareth Davies was a first-rate scholar, but those who worked with him will remember him as much for his approachable and sympathetic nature and his piquant sense of humour. He was a good orator and performer, and his intense but non-conformist spiritual formation led to an ecumenical spirit which displayed great interest in and sympathy for all religions and spiritualities.

He is survived by three daughters (Eleri, Catrin and Gwen), a son (Rhodri), and several grandchildren.

Droog Robinson, a member of staff in the Academic Quality and Standards Team, has contributed the following personal recollection of Professor Davies, from his time as a student in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese Languages and Literatures.

I first met Gareth Davies when I came to Leeds as an undergraduate in 1985.

Gareth cared deeply about those in his charge. He was always approachable for advice and took care to criticise fairly and constructively, always getting the best from his students in return. Gareth was one of those rare people who convinced you on encountering him for the first time of his passion for his subject, be it Argentinian culture, Spanish Golden Age poetry or his beloved Wales. He had the happy quality of being able to make a fifty-minute lecture seem like five; speaking without notes, popping in the occasional joke, holding the interest of every member of his audience, all of whom would be scribbling furiously in notebooks, trying to catch every word.

Gareth was a born entertainer and a noted raconteur; his anecdotes, and there were many, delivered with a Celtic twinkle in his eye, brought joy to everyone fortunate enough to hear them. He loved to laugh, even when the joke was on him. One day, he knocked repeatedly on a door of one of the rooms in the Spanish patio. This continued for some minutes before he realised that the door on which he was knocking was his own, at which he roared with laughter; a lesser man would have attempted to spare his blushes. On another occasion, we were attempting without success, neither of us being of a technical bent, to unlock the mysteries of one of the first generation of word processors. In his frustration, Gareth began to talk to the machine somewhat robustly in Welsh, which reduced me to helpless laughter and caused Gareth to succumb in turn, much to the consternation of the Departmental Secretary, who came to see what all the noise was about.

It was a joy and a privilege to be taught by, and to know, Gareth Davies.

Published: 23 February 2009