George Dannatt

After 1963, when he first visited St Ives and befriended many of the leading artists of the modern movement, Dannatt supported and avidly collected their work while joining their ranks as a fellow abstractionist using a neo-constructivist geometry, tactile and expressive collage or a painterly gesturalism linked to the irrepressible local landscape. While he retained a personal touch in this work, it reflected the art of John Wells, Alexander Mackenzie, Terry Frost, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Roy Conn, Patrick Heron and others whose work he collected and lived with and who so directly inspired his own output.

Dannatt entered this illustrious milieu as a distinguished arriviste with a past career as Chartered Surveyor, music critic for the London News Chronicle and a burgeoning patron, collector and connoisseur. Music inspired his work directly and so it automatically accorded with the longstanding modernist ethos that saw abstract art as a kind of visual music and certainly in Dannatt’s rapidly developing oeuvre there are discernible qualities of harmony, melody and rhythm. Klee and Kandinsky pointed the way and it is undeniable that Dannatt, while steadfast in his allegiances to St Ives modernism, looked further afield to continental Purists and Concretists who were perhaps more aligned to the architectural or the mathematical than the more romantic, nature-orientated English school.

The longevity of his relationship to Ann Doncaster, whom he married in 1943, provided domestic stability and an ongoing sense of purpose throughout. Beyond the bedrock of this partnership Dannatt’s architect and interior designer brother Trevor, later a Royal Academician, proved useful. Trevor’s historically significant installation design for the Fitzroy Street weekend exhibitions in 1952 of advanced abstract art in Adrian Heath’s studio proved a seminal pointer to George’s adoption of an art career.

Since his death, choice examples from his collection together with samples of his own work have been bequested to Pallant House Gallery, Chichester and to Southampton City Art Gallery. In the recent exhibition ‘Shared History: The Art of Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, George Dannatt and John Wells’ at Dannatt’s London dealers Waterhouse and Dodd and the 2015 exhibition ‘George Dannatt and Friends’ at his then London dealers Osborne Samuel emphasis was placed on the symbiotic relationship between Dannatt and those artists whose work he collected. These relationships were social as much as professional.

Living at East Hatch on the Wiltshire/Dorset border the financially secure Dannatt worked at a geographic – but never spiritual or aesthetic – remove from Cornwall which he did however regularly visit. He also holidayed with Denis and Jane Mitchell in Devon and entered into a long 30-year correspondence with Wells, perhaps ultimately his foremost colleague.

The Fitzroy weekend exhibitions culminated in critic Lawrence Alloway’s landmark book Nine Abstract Artists of 1954. Alloway detected an aesthetic fault-line within the nine, between the Purists and Concretists on the one hand and the softer St Ivesian landscape tendency on the other. Dannatt swung both ways. The hard logic of mathematics certainly appealed less to George than the more human realm of nature, landscape and music. Dannatt did, however, persevere with the beauties of geometry as we see here with White Circles with a Red Complex (1995), Linear Inversion Ochre (1976), Linear Form with Blue Circle (1998), Fanfare (1974) and the double sided Vaporetto (1977). Collage undoubtedly appealed to George with its rich, mostly local, cultural references. In A Swiss Collage (1985) and Milano (1977) Dannatt paid homage to Kurt Schwitters or Max Bill, works that use the Merz master’s lettering or else transform found posters into expressive papieres déchirés.

One of the foremost features of the current survey is the extent of Dannatt’s experimentation with different graphic media. There is a marked relish for utilising the intrinsic physical and plastic properties of media encompassing pencil, charcoal, gouache, extrinsic collage, wash, tempera, ink, crayon, pastel or paint. In works like White Sea (1960), Ariel Movement (1962) and Tuscania (1969) Dannatt emulates the tactile expressiveness of Paul Feiler, William Scott or Terry Frost, while the playful geometry of John Wells is never far away. Such versatility made Dannatt at his best a virtuoso plastic performer able to stand squarely on his own distinctive and individual terms alongside his established Cornish colleagues.