Though George and Ann Dannatt lived for the later part of their lives in Tisbury, Wiltshire, from the start they were enamoured of the landscape of what we now call Wessex – stretching in their minds from Hampshire in the east to the western limits of Dorset and onwards towards Devon and Cornwall on the other side. There are records of them visiting Shaftesbury, Dorchester, Abbotsbury, and Weymouth in the late 1940s, walking and bicycling in the Wessex landscape and learning about its ancient as well as its modern lore. Their decision late in the 1950s to collect modern art coincided with two other circumstances. George had recently given up his post as music critic on the London News Chronicle and had become fascinated with such modern and abstract art as might be seen in the London galleries – his architect brother Trevor often acting as a guide to the new shows and personalities on the scene. Spurred by a visit to the Venice Biennale in 1960 where they looked admiringly at contemporary Italian painters such as Antonio Corpora, George and Ann were immediately emboldened to buy and value more. Frequenting Gimpel Fils, the Beaux Arts Galleries, the Redfern, Hanover and Waddington Galleries back in London provided further exercises in the refinement and definition of their tastes – tastes which by natural chemistry invariably coincided. By the start of the 1960s the painters and sculptors of Cornwall and St Ives were attracting attention, and purchases of works by Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Terry Frost and Paul Feiler were among the earliest works that represented for the Dannatts, as for the story of British modernism more widely, that special artistic idiom that attends simultaneously to properties of the medium in question as well as to sensations of the landscape, coast and sea. From correspondence with Terry Frost beginning in 1962 there flowed recommendations to visit St Ives in person and visit Alexander Mackenzie, Denis Mitchell and John Wells, and of course Patrick Heron, the doyen of St Ives painting in that decade and himself a powerful critical voice in art. By the time of the Dannatts’ first visit to St Ives in 1963 the celebrity of post-war St Ives was already in its third decade. The Russian Naum Gabo had been sequestered in the village during the war, Ben Nicholson had been a resident, and Barbara Hepworth was still there, all of them researching that inventive compromise between the more the formal requirements of European geometrical abstraction, represented by Gabo, and the more lyrical sensibility prompted by immediate experience of the place itself. It is in that compromise, or amalgam, or sublation – the terms remain contested and imprecise – that is what we call the St Ives manner was born.
And now a third, personal circumstance enters the story of George and Ann’s growing collection of art. George, combining a sense of rhythm from music with an innate grasp of visual form deriving from a still earlier career in surveying, now takes to painting himself – and begins to produce, from the early 1960s onwards, small abstract landscapes done on paper in gouache or oil and sensitive above all to shape, line, mass, relationship and tone. These early paintings (they have still not been exhibited together) show the beginnings of that modulation between the geometry of the painting format and evidence of the seen landscape that cannot ever be completely resolved. For the next fifty years he would continue to sketch, photograph, paint and to a lesser extent make constructions ‘from the Wiltshire and Dorset landscape and perhaps especially from the Cornish countryside and the objects found within it’. He tells us that ‘circles in a landscape, the predominance of small areas of brilliant red, the age-old markings on stones and in field patterns of which I am ever aware, are there always. Thus I move backwards and forwards, forwards and backwards, in the hope of finding a satisfactory solution to my search for lyricism in form’.
Written for a catalogue of his own work in 1981, the statement to a large extent summarises his and Ann’s approach to collecting as well. On the one hand they were drawn to the paintings of natural pattern, tone and rhythm; on the other to the formal purity of the Russian pioneers such as Malevich and Rodchenko, qualities to be seen in Michael Broido’s nearly-Suprematist paintings on paper or in Victor Vasarely’s careful geometrical art. Particularly relevant here is George’s close friendship with the Newlyn artist John Wells, at one time an acolyte of Gabo and Nicholson but latterly the owner of an extremely distinctive small-painting style of his own. Wells liked to paint – and he painted best – on board, scraping and abrading the surface to give a certain antiquity to his paintings, or evoke the heights of air and the depths of the sea. Those potentially divergent qualities were not incompatible in his art: George and Ann’s patronage of John Wells during the years of their long friendship did much to raise the Newlyn painter to the reputational heights he well deserved. Their support of the sculptor Denis Mitchell, for most of the 1950s an assistant to Barbara Hepworth before devoting his energies to subtly curved forms in bronze, was also both indispensable and well-judged. As to the relative smallness of Wells’ and Dannatt’s work – almost always domestic in scale in the sense of fitting comfortably into an ordinary interior – it can be said to define not only a practical function but an important aesthetic category of its own. Very likely the mentor for both artists here was Paul Klee, who in the years immediately following the Second World War was among the most admired modern European painters in London as well as being widely celebrated in the press. When it came to placing Klee’s distinctive idiom in the story of mid-century abstract the American critic Clement Greenberg, in the first of his great essays on the artist’s style, says that ‘it pretends to no statements in the grand manner; it concentrates itself within a relatively small area, which it refines and elaborates’. And Klee’s art was provincial in another sense, he says, that of belonging to a place ‘comparatively remote from the nervousness and personal uncertainty of the metropolis, where it is still possible to be bourgeois and to have a strong personality’. The critic’s language serves to remind us that in St Ives generally and in Dannatt’s quiet studio in particular, the ebb and flow of international politics was hardly to be discerned. St Ives remained remote from the metropolis for good reason. In the politics of art also, during the turbulent 1960s and throughout the 1970s, Dannatt and those he supported remained aloof from ideological commitments and did not waver from their pursuit of a manner both rigorous in its form yet lyrical in its graphic organisation. With few exceptions – for better or worse – George and Ann’s collecting remained aligned with St Ives in its championing of a generally affirmative phenomenological style.
The main exceptions to that statement stem from the late-Romanticism of British art that flourished in the later 1930s and 1940s. The Dannatts acquisition of Ceri Richards’ The Hand that Whirls the Waters in the Pool, one of a lithographic set that provides imagery for Dylan Thomas’ poem The Force that Through the Green Fuse, written in 1933, is one example: nature is here represented in terms of a male figure’s struggle for power over the natural elements, alongside a female figure personifying a principle of generation, flowering and life. The darkness of mood enveloping both figures can be put alongside the oil on paper drawing acquired from William Crozier of 1962 that offers a view of nature as swollen, blistered and proliferating, a series of clustered growths defining not space – the mantra of the Cornish artists – but something disturbing and intense. The Dannatts also showed a taste for the paintings of the Scottish artists Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde, each, like Crozier, an important exponent of what is effectively an anti-Cornish sensibility and style – one dominated at base by fears of annihilation in an atomic war. Perhaps we can say that each group, through their differences, mark the extremes of an occluded link between separated parts of a Celtic tradition, the darker expressionist work constituting the shadow or negative unconscious of an otherwise irretrievably celebratory west-country style.
A further possibility is that the Dannatts in their collecting retained a barely perceptible – but nevertheless real – affinity for works that encroach upon the difficult topic of the boundary between land and sea. It is obvious in one sense that a painting by Terry Frost or Patrick Heron responds to the special sights and sensations of the coast. In one sense, all the major figures associated with St Ives and the Cornish peninsula take as their subjects the geometry, the light and the material spectrum of rocks, water, sun, sea and sky. Yet a significant number of other works in the Dannatts’ collection suggest how that same continuum lends itself to metaphors of considerable suggestiveness and power. Two fine lithographs by Paul Nash in the collection, both dated 1920, render the coastline at Dymchurch, Kent, at a moment in Nash’s life shortly after his demobilisation for a nervous breakdown: in which we see turbulent seas insistently lapping upon beaches provided with strange fortifications, as in a dream of cosmic conflict made over into form. One of Nash’s titles, Strange Coast, provides a clue to the psychic dislocations embodied in an otherwise innocent scene. And ‘strange coast’ might be the title of the Cornishman John Tunnard’s small oil-on-board painting known as Cat’s Cradle (Sphere and Cradle), painted in May 1940 probably at Cadgwith and therefore further west than St Ives, which in one interpretation appears like a half-waking fusion of barrage-balloon defences combined with Cubist-Surrealist tokens such as a double-curved side of a guitar, a suspended sphere, and delicate wire frameworks involving nets, webs and moonlight. The Dannatts were also quick to acquire two etchings from David Jones’ series The Ancient Mariner – illustrating Coleridge’s poem of oceanic crossing combined with the Christian symbolism of anguish and rebirth. I can remember from conversations that George himself was preoccupied with the sea as a symbol of psychic quest and survival, and though he never saw active service in the Second World War, he never forgot his own nervous collapse and hospitalisation in 1944 to which music, and eventually art, were among the solutions. Though he never painted the sea directly, the material culture of ports and harbours frequently inhabits his art. In what may be one of his finest works, The Newlyn Quay Drawings of 1981, he examines from every angle the shapes of random bits of clutter on the harbour jetty. ‘My forebears were Huguenots’, he wrote, ‘and were sailmaker and ships chandlers. The shape, texture and colour of the random collection of ships and ship-repairing materials remains a constant source of interest to me’. An important late coastal painting entitled Ominous Landscape of 2007 suggests the limits of his anxieties on this score.
From the 1980s onwards George and Ann would travel to Switzerland and Germany to meet there with artists, dealers and collectors who shared their appetites in modern art, and in the collection are a number of small yet significant works by Eduardo Chillida – given to him as a gift by Ernst Beyeler in Basel – Hans Hartung, Georges Noel, Pierre Soulages, Werner Möller, Fritz Hermann, and more, all of them standing as potent reminders that the Dannatts were as resolutely European in their sensibility as they were rooted to the English and specifically the Wessex scene. Yet in some ultimate sense their tastes were rooted in a sensibility of modest pleasure and careful design rather than in location or nationhood alone. It may explain why they chose at various points to de-acquisition works by artists as important as Picasso, Alfred Wallis and Roger Hilton – all valuable in financial terms even if deemed incongruous within the span of their collection as a whole. Their decision, later in life, to found a Trust in order that the collection be managed ‘for the purpose of advancing the education of the public in the visual arts’ was a gesture comparable with those of the nineteenth-century philanthropists who believed in the salutary effects of the fine arts. In line with Ann’s Quaker background and with George’s non-conformist commitments to the social good, the Trust has given over 170 works in bequest to Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, Southampton City Art Gallery, Dorset County Museum and Bournemouth University, not to mention many personal gifts. The exhibition that travelled to Dorchester in the closing months of 2015 was among the first in which selections from the Dannatts’ remarkable collection could be collectively seen.