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George Dannatt

Brandon Taylor



The death of George Dannatt at the end of 2009 brought to a close a remarkable creative life in art and music. In fact Dannatt was a musician before he was a painter and it was his musical life that shaped the art that he would later produce. The story begins in 1930, the year when, as a schoolboy in London, he began attending the Queen’s Hall Promenade Concerts and where he would hear Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, Hindemith’s overture Neues Vom Tage and, some years later, in the spring of 1937, the first performance in this country of Busoni’s Doktor Faust, conducted by Sir Adrian Boult and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. It was a landmark performance that excited and baffled musical London in about equal measure. One critic for The Musical Times wrote that, from the ‘brainy nonsense’ of his dissonant verbal and musical textures, Busoni had achieved greatness ‘on a musico-philosophical plane’; that discomfort in the presence of Busoni’s music ‘may almost be taken as a sign of grace’1.

The critic’s words convey something of the puzzlement and enthusiasm with which post-classical music was registered in London in the years before the Second World War, and they serve as a fitting introduction to Dannatt’s own youthful energies. Already we find him combining a day-job as a surveyor with lessons in music harmony and composition from Harry Farjeon at the Blackheath Conservatory, and we find him composing his own songs, the scores of which have recently been published for the first time 2. What is notable about them – the majority are set to poems by James Joyce – is the close-textured and mournful character of their tonality and phrasing. The voice is asked to leap across dangerous sevenths and ninths, while the piano harmonies are squashed and often somewhat acid in tone. In talking about his musical sensibilities, Dannatt liked to dwell on the early English composer John Bull (1563-1628) and the Dutchman Jan Sweelinck (1662-1621), whose tonalities then became reflected in the revolutionary work of Alban Berg, Anton Webern, and Arnold Schoenberg. Dannatt’s sense of his own musical sensibilities – so important for his later painting – did not however veer towards modernist mysticism, rather to a thorough commitment to the significance of interval, shape and motif as features that must govern any medium capable of being plastically formed. He realised that in the case of modernist music, motifs and shapes – even basic shapes or Grundgestalten as Schoenberg liked to call his own – could be organised with the right kind of manipulation into total compositions. Early twentieth-century music with that kind of organisation incorporates all the relations of inversion, reversal, transposition and mirroring that give rise to the concept of musical construction, through which sounds must renounce their narrative mission in favour of deep relations of horizontal and vertical organisation.3 Dannatt seemed to grasp at some intuitive level that the correspondence between such musical relations and visual geometry was immediate, obvious, and fertile. One only needed to add the possibilities of musical texture – abrupt, harsh, jagged, sweet, smooth, and so on (not to mention musical colour) and one had a full lexicon of formal devices that join the two art forms together.

Yet although the language of music is already visual, it was not until many years later that Dannatt first took up paintbrushes, scrapers and colour. Invalided out of Army service with the Royal Engineers in 1944 following a nervous breakdown, he took a post as a music critic for the London newspaper The News Chronicle, a paper with broadly liberal sympathies to the modern arts. There, and for twelve years, he became a deft commentator on the London musical scene. We find him defending the most difficult modern works as well as fresh and vital interpretations of the classics. To read through Dannatt’s voluminous music criticism from those years is to notice some revealing patterns in his thought. He could be scholarly as well as pop, while his patient and elegant writing, quietly exhortative and always beautifully phrased, was shot through with a mischievous humour that, even at the end of his long life, he retained in conversation and storytelling. He managed to combine enthusiasm for the harsh dramatic content of Busoni’s music, or the no less anguished tone of Berg’s opera Wozzeck, which he heard at its first British performance at Covent Garden in 1952, with a deep appreciation of the English originals, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Benjamin Britten, Michael Tippett, John Ireland – and especially Arthur Bliss.

I remember asking Dannatt what made him take to painting so soon after his News Chronicle job ended abruptly in 1956 (the newspaper itself would fold in 1960). He gave no direct reply – yet the answer may lie in the same natural sympathy for several forms of art – be it European literature, architecture, or music – that marked his intellectual make-up as well as his daily routine. And without doubt it was a tolerance underscored by acquaintance with the Quaker values of the family of his widow Ann, who was his constant partner in work and play and who sustained him throughout the remainder of a long creative career. As it happens 1956 was also the year of This is Tomorrow at the Whitechapel Gallery, as well as the Tate Gallery’s Modern Art in the United States, two epochal London exhibitions that marked the critical decline of geometric art in England and the beginnings of a series of new debates about popular culture, on the one hand, and size and expressiveness in abstract painting on the other. Their importance lies in the fact that they provide a benchmark for what Dannatt would not do as a painter from around 1956 onwards. Largely due to his musical background, his instinctive sympathies would lie in the kind of constructive abstract art being explored in the Fitzroy Square group in London that gathered in the early 1950s around Adrian Heath, Anthony Hill, and others, and of which George’s brother Trevor Dannatt was the architect member.

It was that alternative or ‘neglected’ artistic avant-garde that was perhaps the immediate seedbed of Dannatt’s work as a painter4. Immediately, the sight of some Terry Frost exhibitions in the early 1960s at the Leicester Galleries and at Waddington's, as well as the Fitzrovia discussions just mentioned, helped propel Dannatt towards one wing of the St Ives colony in Cornwall, which, taken as a whole, had been a base for Constructivist art in Britain due to the presence there of Ben Nicholson and Naum Gabo during the years of the war. Meeting the painter Patrick Heron personally in about 1960 or 1961 (Dannatt was engaged as the structural surveyor of Heron’s London studio) he found himself invited, like so many others, to visit the painter’s idyll at Eagle’s Nest in Zennor, just down the coast from St Ives, and it was in that village that Dannatt fell into conversation with artists such as John Wells, Denis Mitchell, Bryan Wynter and Alexander Mackenzie. It was immediately obvious to him that their very un-Fauve-like precision stood apart both from Heron’s highly colourful tachisme of the time, as well as from the anguished improvisations of an artist like Roger Hilton5. Before long, Dannatt was invited to exhibit his new work with the Penwith Gallery in St Ives, then at Newlyn, Penzance and elsewhere on the Cornish peninsula, either solo or with members of the Wells-Mitchell- Mackenzie group. Now with an out-of-London home in Wiltshire, and with no further obligations to music reviewing in the capital, the resources for a new career as an abstract artist were complete.

If we look at Dannatt’s later works – several on display here were created after his ninetieth birthday, astonishingly – we find the same complex relationship to musical form as to the lyrical values of St Ives modernism developed in those years. Observers will see that Dannatt was no colourist in the conventional sense, rather a painter of lyrical landscapes that echo the formal concerns that obsessed European artists of the 1920s and 1930s. A work like Green Umbral Field (1988) (above) requires the intersection of a broad parabola and a dominant circle, the tangents of which articulate directions, perhaps roads, lines of sight, the horizon. Planes of blue, grey, and green vie for tenure of the surface plane in an intricate set of overlaps and transparencies, parallelisms and echoes, that far outruns the capacity of language to describe it. A Landscape by the Sea (2007) is another virtuoso performance in late-Cubist interlock and overlap. And in line with 1920s abstraction in Europe, it is typical of his work that such arrangements of form maintain exact relationships to the rectangle of vision, by which I mean the vertical of the body and the horizon of nature – but pre-eminently the four sides of the rectangle that the picture surface must invariably have. The latter, as most painters recognise, can and must stand in phenomenologically for the former at almost every moment in both the production and the perception of the work.

We probably do not require much more of an abstract painting of this type than that it establishes interesting and orderly relations with the picture frame, relations that are to every modern painter the very lifeblood of the work. Perhaps we also require of a modernist-type painting that its depth relations, the push-pull of overlapping forms and their spatialities, tease the intelligence and ultimately gratify the eye – for nothing can be art that does not engage them both. Thirdly, movement may sometimes enter in. We noticed how Dannatt loved tangents, and by extension all forms that touch or balance each other. So, for instance, in Blackmayne: Reciprocal Forms in Red and Green (also 2007) (below right), the balance of the two rectangles is at the same time a lever or a hinge, much as Adrian Heath exploited in the 1950s with his series of ‘moving format’ paintings in which one can almost see the painting constructing itself, or trying to construct itself, out of its internal elements6. We know that mathematical properties of the rectangle were at the centre of discussion within the Fitzrovia group, and that fashionable books like Matila Ghyka’s Geometry of Art and Life (1946) and his A Practical Handbook of Geometric Composition and Design (1952) were widely taken as a guide to inventive constructional method. For all that, however, it was almost certainly the work of Terry Frost, who knew the Fitzrovia group well in spite of his differences from them, that suggested to Dannatt how geometry could be approached intuitively rather than mathematically, how order and dissonance could inhabit the same work.

For in the end, comparisons with mathematics do not fully illuminate Dannatt’s methods as an artist. His frequent description of himself as a ‘lyric’ painter remains the best guide to his sensibilities; and ‘lyric’ means nothing if not a voice, a personal song, a respect for tonality and the spirit of the whole. I have written elsewhere of how the severe manners of International Constructivism underwent swift modification when they reached the British Isles, and especially Cornwall, just after the war, the implication being that ‘lyric’ and ‘Constructivist’ may even be incompatible terms7.  And strictly, they probably are. Linear continental modernism of the generation of Rodchenko, Mondrian, Moholy-Nagy – and, for Dannatt, Giacomo Balla – carried the tacit implication that straight lines, regular curves and rectangles could be aesthetically expressive, perhaps of purity, perhaps of social hygiene, perhaps of a revolutionary attitude to life. When Alfred Barr compiled his epochal Cubism and Abstract Art exhibition in New York in 1936 he divided abstraction into geometrical and Constructivist, on the one side – it was ‘intellectual, structural, architectonic, geometrical and classical’ – and Fauvist and intuitive, on the other – it was ‘emotional, spontaneous and irrational’. In Barr’s classification, that meant Mondrian and Malevich versus Miro and the early Kandinsky. But in reality it was never a neat divide, and for most of these masters we can generally find, for every appearance of logic, a spontaneous or random choice inside the same work. We find Dannatt, in his turn, adhering to a musical form-language of rhythm, interval and texture that is always a mixture of precision and informality, regularity and pure gratifying chance.8

It comes as no great surprise that Arthur Bliss, in the composition of his last great orchestral work, the Metamorphic Variations of 1972, took inspiration from Dannatt’s abstract paintings of that time and dedicated the work to him and to Ann. It was an event that confirmed Dannatt’s sense of where his real sensibilities lay and where they would remain from that point onwards. It may be true that by the end of Dannatt’s life a different set of cognitive patterns had begun to prevail, at least in that part of popular understanding that came to talk of nature in terms of networks and connections rather than circles and squares, of rhizomic and fractal shapes rather than planar continuities and the Platonic forms. Nowadays we tend to believe that the world is no longer Euclidean, that ‘clouds are not spheres, and mountains are not cones’, to echo the words of Benoit Mandelbrot9. Yet paradoxically that changed understanding has served to bring back into focus the claims of British lyrical abstraction of Dannatt’s type. His special contribution to that way of knowing and being, deeply rooted in the musical landscape he knew so well, demonstrates why.


© Brandon Taylor 2010


1. McN, ‘London Concerts’, The Musical Times, Vol 78, No 1130, April 1937, pp 361, 362.
2. See George Dannatt, Ten Songs and a Lullaby, privately published May 2005. The songs remain unperformed in public. For details see www.georgedannatt.com.
3. See J Rufer, Composition with Twelve Notes, related only to one another, Barrie and Rockliff, London 1954.
4. The idea of Fitzrovia as a ‘neglected’ avant-garde is surveyed in detail in A Grieve, Constructive Art in Britain: A Neglected Avant-Garde, Yale University Press, 2005.
5. Hilton followed Mondrian for a while in the early 1950s, but was by now finding his stride. For a recent account, see A Lambirth, Roger Hilton: The Figured Language of Thought, Thames and Hudson, London 2007.
6. Heath was the author of Abstract Art: Its Origins and Meaning, Tiranti 1953, and a follower of the theories of the Australian painter John Power, whose Elements de la Construction Picturale, Paris 1932 first elaborated the concept of the ‘moving format’.
7. See my own, ‘George Dannatt: Lyrical Constructivist’, in George Dannatt, Winchester Gallery, 2004, pp 17-30.
8. After Bliss’s death, Dannatt wrote about the composer: ‘He liked to see the progress of a painting, because [the painter’s] struggle was so similar to that of a composer, to actually get chaos into some form’. See Dannatt, ‘Introduction: Arthur Bliss 1891-1975’ in Arthur Bliss: Catalogue of the Complete works, Novello, 1980.
9. See James Gleick, Chaos: Making a New Science, 1988, from the 1998 edition published by Vintage, New York, 1998, p 94.

George Dannatt is at Lemon Street Gallery from 20/2/10 to 13/3/10