GEORGE DANNATT – AN APPRECIATION
Three obituaries have appeared in the national press following the death of George Dannatt. All have paid tribute to his multiple talents, and in particular, to his important work as an artist. This appreciation emphasises Dannatt’s musical interests and activities.
On 17 November 2009 George Dannatt died at the age of 94 after a long and creative life, during which he mastered and balanced three seemingly disparate activities with distinction – chartered surveying, art and music – activities which in the event influenced and informed each other.
Dannatt was born on 16 August 1915 in Blackheath where his father was head of the family firm of chartered surveyors, and appeared pre-destined to join the family firm. From the age of 11 (1926) he attended Colfe’s Grammar School before, at 19, becoming an articled pupil to Surveyors, Land and Estate Agents at the College of Estate Management of London University. At 25 (1940) he qualified as a Chartered Surveyor (F.R.I.C.) and joined the family business. Earlier, while still at school, his gradually developing interest in music led him to become closely involved in music studies, the catalyst for which was a 15th birthday treat when he attended a concert at the Queen’s Hall. He heard, and was deeply impressed by, the Ravel Piano Concerto for the Left Hand and works by Berlioz and Hindemith. Dannatt himself claimed that this concert opened up a world and a commitment which he sought and pursued ever after. In addition to his studies for professional examinations to become a Chartered Surveyor he took lessons in piano, harmony, counterpoint and composition (mainly song-writing), studying in the evenings at the Blackheath Conservatory. He was told by Scott Goddard, who discussed the progress of his songs, saying that while he would never be a Schubert, he might well prove to be a Hugo Wolf.
There emerged some serious prospects for study under Michael Tippett and possibly with Mátyás Seiber, prospects which were sadly dashed by the outbreak of war and Dannatt’s call-up to the Army in 1940. Songs written in 1941 and 1942 were composed while on temporary transfers from the Royal Artillery into building requisition work related to his qualification as a chartered surveyor, and others were written prior to his discharge from the Army in 1944 on health grounds. An important personal milestone was reached during the war with his marriage to Ann Doncaster in 1943.
Dannatt’s first foray into music criticism also dates from the time of his wartime service, with an article for Augener’s Monthly Musical Record in 1943. This was the prelude for his entry into specialised musical criticism with the liberal newspaper News Chronicle, Penguin Music Magazine and later as a freelance writer, this at a time when most national newspapers regularly covered music, opera and ballet in a literary and non-academic capacity. He is said to have been a highly perceptive writer, using meticulous and informed prose in the interest of critical integrity; he was a sympathetic champion of modern music, particularly where he recognised honest talent in its composition. In 1948 he was elected to The Critics’ Circle (Music Section), of which he later became an honorary member.
Dannatt’s first steps towards life as a professional artist are probably traceable to his pre-war interest in photography and, in particular, its application to landscape in abstract form. Family influence may also have been a factor, as his father had been an enthusiastic amateur photographer. Later, in 1955, while still a full-time surveyor, he was introduced by his architect brother, Trevor, to the artist Adrian Heath at the latter’s London studio. Heath was prominent in the group of artists known as Constructivists, who produced work in an abstract genre, minimal, geometric and spatial, which had derived and developed from several different movements of the early 20th century. Following his first visit to Cornwall in 1963, Dannatt was attracted into the group of St Ives painters and benefited especially from his association with the artist John Wells and the sculptor Denis Mitchell. Wells, like Dannatt, had had a previous career – as a doctor – a fact that gave him encouragement that a trained and disciplined mind from a “worldly” profession could form a sound basis for creative expression in the visual arts. Initially Dannatt had no intention of exhibiting his works, but was urged by friends and colleagues to do so and, having joined the Newlyn Society of Artists, his first exhibition was held in St Ives at the Penwith Gallery in 1970.
Referring to himself as a “late starter” as an artist, he could not know that in 2009, 46 years after his first visit to St Ives, he would still be hard at work in his studio and still exhibiting. Though reluctant to be “pigeon-holed”, he has referred to his style as that of a “lyrical constructivist”, implying perhaps a personal and gentler touch compared to the bold geometrics of the “pure” constructivists, which in the view of the writer is to be found especially in those of his works based on landscape. One is reminded too that “lyrical” bears the connotation of song, which brings us back to the songs he had worked on between 1939 and 1947, songs for which he had great affection and to which he much later returned, having them privately printed and recorded in 2005/2006. Dannatt exhibited his work between 1970 and 2008, most frequently in Cornwall and the south-west of England, but also in London, Basel and Germany, where he developed a particularly fruitful relationship with a gallery in the North Sea coastal town of Cuxhaven.
The Dannatts’ friendship with Arthur and Trudy Bliss started in 1953 when the composer and his wife visited their home, at that time in Blackheath; the composer was already 64 years old. Bliss had been knighted in 1950 and became Master of the Queen’s Music in 1953, following the death of Sir Arnold Bax. They found they had much in common over a wide spectrum of activities: music, painting, literature and life in general. Trudy and Ann were deeply involved in the study of geology, and the four of them were frequently together at Canterbury, the Cheltenham International Festival of Music (of which Bliss became President) and London musical events. It was during this period, in 1957, that the Dannatts bought a cottage on the Wiltshire/Dorset border as “a part-time residence” and after the Blisses gave up their modern-movement house Pen Pits in Dorset in 1955, from time to time they borrowed the Dannatts’ country retreat. Bliss’s work had always appealed to Dannatt, along with other post-Elgar British composers and although Dannatt had not yet taken up painting in a serious way, it is tempting to speculate that an attraction was the parallels of organisation, dissonance, intervals, space and colour present in both art-forms. Above all, for Dannatt, the parallel struggles of the painter and composer to achieve form from chaos, form in which both order and dissonance could equally be present, were a driving force.
Much later, for Bliss’s 80th birthday (1971), Dannatt produced a painting based on the composer’s Colour Symphony which was written for the Gloucester Three Choirs Festival nearly 50 years earlier. This remains the composer’s best-known, and probably best-loved, large orchestral work, not counting the film music for Things to Come, and one which frequently serves as an entrée to Bliss’s music. Dannatt has referred to Bliss’s penchant for experimenting in tone colours, for the timbre produced through the association of certain instruments, much as a painter has in his trial mixings. It was while staying at the Dannatts’ cottage that Bliss was inspired by a series of Dannatt’s paintings called Tantris to compose a major commissioned work in variation form. This became the magnificent Metamorphic Variations (1972); indeed Dannatt played a further part by helping Bliss to decide on the final title. The work was dedicated to George and Ann Dannatt and in one of the movements, actually called Dedication, Bliss made use of the initials GD and AD to provide a further dedication in sound. It turned out to be Bliss’s last major work and is unquestionably one of his finest, though remaining unjustly neglected in concert and record performances.
George Dannatt shows his autographed copy of the score of Bliss’s
Metamorphic Variations to a young music graduate, 2008
Cuxhaven, and in particular the Galerie Artica, became a memorable place, not only for the Dannatts but for Trudy Bliss also. Examples of Dannatt’s paintings appeared in three separate exhibitions there – in 1981, 1984 and 1990, the last two being one-man shows. The gallery’s owners were accustomed to the combining of art exhibitions with chamber music concerts or recitals. When Dannatt learned that for his 1984 exhibition no less an ensemble than the Delmé Quartet would be engaged, he requested that the two Bliss string quartets should be played and that he would give introductory talks. George was to write the scripts and Ann would translate and deliver them. When Trudy Bliss heard about this forthcoming double event, she travelled to Cuxhaven to join the Dannatts and became completely involved with the gallery and its owners. It was the second of these quartets that Bliss described as the best of his chamber works. Those who know the Clarinet and the Oboe Quintets might put them forward as worthy contenders. The two nights in Cuxhaven when the quartets were played, with the painting display all around, remained a most memorable experience for the Dannatts and for Trudy Bliss. A happy example, perhaps, of the perfect synthesis of painting and music.
In 1981 the Dannatts moved from their London home in Belgravia to live permanently in the Wiltshire cottage. Considerable changes were made to the property including the addition of a spacious music room, which easily accommodated two grand pianos, and the creation of an extensive garden.
When, in 2003, at the instigation and with the great encouragement of Lady Bliss, the Arthur Bliss Society was formed, she became its President with George Dannatt as Vice-President. Many years previously, after a chance meeting between Trudy and the Society’s Chairman, Gerald Towell, she had introduced him to Dannatt. George, though by 2003 almost 90, typically took an active and serious interest in his role in the Society, frequently contributing material for its twice-yearly newsletter and always ready to provide generous advice and support. When Trudy Bliss died in 2008, George seamlessly stepped into her role, but sadly for less than a year.
A view in George Dannatt’s studio, 2008
Always something to look forward to were the occasions when the Society’s committee and guests would descend on the Dannatt home for meetings or purely social occasions. It was always a special delight to relax in the beautiful garden of the house in its secluded setting, a location which sometimes posed a challenge to the map-reading capabilities of the driver! George’s conversation was often spiced with amusing and mischievous reminiscences, with Ann proving to be the ideal foil and companion. Any “business” would invariably be followed by a pub lunch, then by a tour of the studio, hidden away in the grounds, where one would marvel not only at the cornucopia of past and continuing artistic achievement, but also at the meticulous tidiness and the total lack of clutter that might have been expected in an archetypal artist’s lair. Was this yet another example of the discipline of one of George’s careers playing out through another?
Arthur Bliss Society
© The Arthur Bliss Society
Two exhibitions will shortly be held to commemorate the life and work of George Dannatt:
on 17 – 28 February 2010 at the Osborne Samuel Gallery, 23a Bruton Street, London, and
on 20 February – 13 March 2010 at the Lemon Street Gallery, Truro