George Dannatt was an outstanding and inspirational figure in the story of the later St Ives School. He represented a rare breed of cultural polymath: musician, critic, practising artist, connoisseur and collector of modern art. He also belonged to a small group of patron collectors who practised what they preached. Dannatt produced a solid oeuvre of abstract painting inspired by, and in concert with, the St Ives Modernists whose work he so admired. Like London-based collectors John and Anne Christopherson and Ken Powell, George and Ann Dannatt systematically collected art one can summarise as three-quarters geometric and abstract, but with an oblique sensuality and associative landscape naturalism. Over many years Dannatt collected the work of, among others, John Wells, Terry Frost, Denis Mitchell, Alexander Mackenzie, Patrick Heron and Roy Conn. Many choice items from this second wave of Cornish Modernism have been donated to Pallant House in Chichester and a smaller group of works to Southampton Art Gallery, together with good examples of Dannatt’s own work.
The joy of connoisseurship, which motivated and found creative sustenance in Dannatt’s own artistic practice, was pursued at a geographic – but never spiritual or intellectual – remove from Cornwall. Born and raised in Blackheath, South East London, Dannatt studied to become a Chartered Surveyor at London University during the second half of the 1930s. He joined the family firm Blake and Dannatt in 1940, the year he became a member of the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors. Wartime army service followed and in 1943 he married York-born Ann Doncaster, entering into a solid 66-year marriage, which provided the consistency of purpose and stability that accompanied his art career. By the end of the war, therefore, Dannatt’s course was already mapped out, through his long and fruitful engagement with the British art scene, for which he is chiefly remembered today, would not be apparent until after 1960.
After the war, the newlyweds lived in the family home in Blackheath. His architect and interior designer brother Trevor worked for the well-known firm Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew, and after 1948 George joined the London County Council before establishing Trevor Dannatt and Partners in 1970. The brothers’ inroads into the art world sometimes overlapped as George made early art world contacts through Trevor’s jobs, which included designing the Fitzroy Street Studio exhibitions of abstract art organised by Adrian Heath during the early 1950s. At this early point though, it was not art but music that engaged George professionally and he became the appreciative and informed music critic for The News Chronicle from 1944 to 1956. The Dannatts and Arthur Bliss and his wife Trudi became close friends and Dannatt was elected Vice-Chairman of the Arthur Bliss Society when it was founded in 2003.
Dannatt’s earliest art world exploits coincided with his leaving The News Chronicle in 1956. The following year he and Ann acquired East Hatch in Tisbury on the Wiltshire/Dorset border, which became, from 1981 onwards, their main residence. An architect friend, John Shaw who was a partner in the Denys Lasdun’s practice, was introduced by his brother Trevor. Shaw was a frequent visitor to East Hatch and designed the conversion, initially begun by Trevor.
From the beginning Dannatt favoured a small scale in which he fashioned exquisite, thoughtful abstractions of landscape themes deemed by the academic and Dannatt Trustee Brandon Taylor to have ‘evoked natural vistas of the sublime.’ No doubt such a feeling stemmed as much from his deep appreciation of classical music as from actual visual observations of landscape. The formal disciplines of design from his professional training also exercised an influence. A noticeable surface sensuality in terms of paint handling – with or without the interception of extraneous collage elements – also registered, imparting an expressive tactility and verve. Dannatt’s tastes therefore pre-dated his actual collecting of St Ives art.
Those tastes were in fact predicated on the Fitzroy Street exhibitions leading up to the Redfern Gallery’s Nine Abstract Artists in early 1954. An accompanying booklet written by leading critic Lawrence Alloway identified an aesthetic fault line within the nine, namely between the artists of purist or concretist intentions like the Martins, Hill and Pasmore and those ‘softer’ abstractionists like Scott, Hilton and Frost who used, in Alloway’s memorable, indeed legendary, words, ‘irrational expression by malerisch means’. Dannatt sided with the latter camp whose ‘irrational expressions’ accorded with the Dannatts’ fledgling interests in a kind of painterly art premised upon suggestive rather than descriptive means; ‘abstraction with glancing references to place and atmosphere.’ Brandon Taylor also estimated that the purists’ ‘very exacting formal methods proved unappealing to the Dannatts’ always romantically inclined vision.’
The year 1960 ushered in what would become a memorable decade and proved a turning point for the Dannatts. That year George and Ann visited the Venice Biennale where their first acquisition as rather untypically, a figurative non-British work by the Canadian artist Jean Paul Lemieux. However, when the couple visited Cornwall for the first time in May 1963, the artcollecting floodgates opened. Perhaps inevitably, Patrick Heron and Terry Frost were the crucial conduits, Heron introducing the Dannatts to Denis and Jane Mitchell with whom they would holiday many times at Dartmouth in the coming years. An even more important contact was John Wells, whom Dannatt met in 1963 through Mackenzie. An intrepid letter writer, Dannatt entered into a regular, 30-year plus correspondence with Wells, Frost and, after the 1970s, with the painter and former Newlyn Art Gallery Director Michael Canney. The Wells correspondence is revealing in that it sheds light on Wells’ inertia, artistic menopause and general depressive withdrawal, due perhaps to his remaining a bachelor. It also reflects shared interests – particularly classical music – and attests to the development of the younger man’s work under the Wellsian wing. Though symbiotic, Taylor estimates that the ‘relationship was in another sense unequal. George was cosmopolitan, wealthy, and still finding his stride as an artist,’ Wells was ‘isolated, impoverished and often depressed at his inability, as he saw it, to create’.
In a previous catalogue essay, Margaret Garlake commented on how Dannatt’s work ‘lies visibly within the legacy of St Ives, conveying the pleasure that so many artists have taken in the landscapes of South West England.’ In early works Dannatt indeed strikes tactile analogies with landscape topography. Later, Dannatt’s work sang with linear or planar rhythm, the asymmetric geometry of the aptly titled A Landscape by the Sea (2007) evoking the vernacular of sweeping field patterns or undulating hilltops. Dannatt’s romantic intentions were clear too, when following Mackenzie and Wells in a shared tribute to Ben Nicholson’s reliefs and John Tunnard’s visionary surreal landscapes. Their abraded textures amounted to a common sub-style, a de rigueur St Ives School affectation. By using it, Dannatt allowed his work to ‘bristle with antiquity as well as modernity as if these categories amounted to the same thing’, as Taylor put it.
Dannatt’s decision to paint seriously after 1956 coincided with the cultural sea change introduced by the This Is Tomorrow and Modern Art in the United States exhibitions that year. The advent of Pop art and Abstract Expressionism in the wake of these ground breaking exhibitions merely served to ‘provide a benchmark for what Dannatt would not do as a painter’ as Taylor has once again neatly explained. And while a dichotomy had opened up in St Ives during the 1950s between a constructivist and abstract expressionist style, there was no doubt that Dannatt’s allegiance to the former tradition, spearheaded by Nicholson and Hepworth, put him closer to the true roots of the modern movement in Cornwall. The longestablished concept of modern art as a kind of visual music (promulgated by Kandinsky, Klee and Mondrian), coupled with the pre-war relevance of science to abstract art, was keenly felt by many St Ives artists, such as, Winifred and Ben Nicholson and Hepworth, who practised Christian Science in a quest to counterbalance their purest aesthetics with a belief in a divinity or an absolute. Such views were clearly congenial to Dannatt, a music lover, and Wells, a former Scilly Isles physician. The impressive Dannatt collection of Wells, Frost, Barns Graham, Mackenzie, Mitchell and Conn not only reflected these common beliefs and shared enthusiasms, but also strong and interactive friendships. Mitchell had a gift for friendship and so too did Dannatt in his more guarded and circumspect way. Where the long-drawn-out formation of the George and Ann Dannatt Collection was concerned, business was certainly mixed with pleasure and acknowledged the undoubted feeling that St Ives was at heart a large and inclusive extended family. Childless and serious-minded, the Dannatts were also socially engaged and outgoing. Their love of travel and wide interests beyond art made the pair interesting company, yet a certain introspection, preciousness even, was apparent and surely reflected a nonconformist background. Wells, hardly a swinging socialite, teased the Dannatts in a letter describing a Penzance New Year’s Eve party that saw in the 1970s, writing ‘much too crude for you refined people.’ Not long afterwards, at an East Hatch social gathering, a precocious youth, Nick Leigh, the adopted son of the former Hepworth sculpture assistant and architect Roger Leigh, took to the piano, a daring act for his hosts, unused to the unpredictability of youth. An awkward silence was broken by polite applause. My own memory of Dannatt is as a generous sponsor for one of my St Ives books in 1993.
While Dannatt’s work was habitually small-scale, only occasionally veering towards even medium size, it was always exquisitely executed and carefully crafted. As with Wells, Dannatt inevitably used some maths and proportional and divisional techniques to convincingly kick-start the blank canvas or hardboard support. But, in general, Dannatt followed Nicholson, Wells and Alan Reynolds in preferring the judgement of the naked eye to the analytical maths favoured by the Systems artists of the 1960s and 1970s. In Polyphonic Study (1975) Dannatt uses criss-crossing, border-to-border lines to create internal structures in terms of colour bands. The music analogy implied in the title is absent in the pagan geometry of Linear Declination, where cosmological ideas lurk behind an icy blue arrangement. In contrast, the architectural feeling in the Citadel series is by courtesy of a compacted and synthetic grey planarity which, in its post-cubist way, evokes the blocky townscape of the Breton port of St Malo. The concretist element in Dannatt’s thinking extends his work into the third dimension, as we see in his black and white threepart wood-carving Pillar.
Dannatt’s work in this three-dimensional vein reflected the fact he collected the sculpture of Denis Mitchell and Paul Mount, whose tool-shaped or blocky configurations followed the painters in mixing the atavistic with the modern. But, whether exploring the third dimension or not, Dannatt’s work formed, as Taylor remarks, ‘a vital generative role in the activity of collecting itself.’ The collaborative relationship between his lives as painter and art collector sharpened his instincts to the mutual and interactive benefit of both.
PETER DAVIES is an art critic & an author on St Ives and modern British art.