George Dannatt: Artist celebrated for his abstract works who also enjoyed careers as music critic and chartered surveyor

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The Independent Online

George Dannatt was an artist noted for his elegant abstract works. Over a long career he produced paintings, relief constructions, collages and drawings of harmony and balance, whose underlying lyricism stems from contemplation, concision and measured control.

He had three distinct yet overlapping careers: as a chartered surveyor, music critic and then artist, but was not able to concentrate on art full-time until he was in his 40s. When he was able to do so, the surveying and the music nourished his art, as did that of some contemporaries.

Dannatt readily acknowledged the influence of artists such as Ben Nicholson and Naum Gabo, as well as his friends John Wells, Alexander Mackenzie, Denis Mitchell and others working in Cornwall whose work he collected. In 1981 he wrote: "Painters who strive only to be original are mistaken; one should be influenced by other painters provided that the influences are sublimated."

Dannatt was born in Blackheath in 1915. His father was George Herbert Dannatt, an enthusiastic spare-time photographer, his mother was Jane Ellen Wood and he had one younger brother, Trevor, who became an architect. Dannatt's forebears were Huguenot sailmakers and chandlers, so he considered nearby Greenwich, with its thriving shipping industry, "part of my heritage."

The shape, texture and colour of the random collection of ships and ship- repairing remained "a constant source of interest". Trevor recalls George, relaxing from his education at Colfe's Grammar School, 1926-32, at work on meticulous model ships.

From 1930 Dannatt had an ardent interest in music. Aged 15, he was inspired by hearing Maurice Ravel's Piano Concerto for the Left Hand at the Queen's Hall, played by the man for whom it had been written, Paul Wittgenstein.

When Dannatt found that cut and sore fingers resulting from handling tools for model making hindered his piano practising, music won. He reasoned that becoming a partner in the family estate management business would supply freedom to pursue music in his spare time. Early on, he wrote a number of songs to poetry, notably that of James Joyce.

From 1935 Dannatt was an articled pupil to surveyors, land and estate agents, attending London University's College of Estate Management. Qualifying as a Fellow of The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, he joined the family business in July 1940, but was soon called up for war service.

After enrolment in the Royal Artillery, he was released to the War Office requisitioning properties in Kent for Army training. After two successful stints and return to the Royal Artillery, Dannatt suffered a breakdown and in 1944 was invalided out. The previous year he had married Ann Doncaster. Dannatt rejoined the family business but now pursued twin careers. In addition to his daytime surveying, in 1941 he wrote his first concert notice and from 1944-56 with Scott Goddard he was a music critic for the News Chronicle. He averaged three nights a week plus writing widely for other outlets.

In 1948 Dannatt was elected a member of The Critics' Circle music section, later an honorary member. He became an expert and wrote widely on the music of the composer Sir Arthur Bliss, whose friend he became.

When Bliss was 80 Dannatt created a painting based on his 1922 Colour Symphony for the composer's birthday. Bliss's last big orchestral work, The Metamorphic Variations, first performed in 1972, was stimulated by Dannatt's "Tantris" series of pictures and dedicated to him and Ann. When Lady Bliss died a year ago, Dannatt succeeded her as president of The Arthur Bliss Society. Dannatt applied his punctilious and ordered mind to modernising the family business, eventually bringing in partners. Early retirement followed in 1970 and from then on Dannatt could concentrate on music and painting.

Dannatt's renewed interest in the visual arts stemmed from 1956. He was an autodidact like many accomplished artists, paraphrasing Ben Nicholson's comment that "you can learn all you need to know about techniques in two lessons".

The landscape of Dorset and Wiltshire gradually fed into his art. He and Ann had begun to make regular visits to Dorset in 1948, walking and taking photographs. Part-time residence near the Dorset-Wiltshire border began 10 years later.

When Dannatt began to paint seriously, he restricted himself to gouache "to gain discipline and experience", after eight years turning to oils and eventually other media. At first he did not aim to show his work, but when the artist Breon O'Casey, son of the dramatist Sean, saw some of Dannatt's paintings, he urged him to exhibit.

Dannatt paid his first visit to Cornwall in 1963, where he associated with Cornish-based artists. His initial showing was at the Penwith Gallery in St Ives, Cornwall, in 1970, continuing there for 15 years. In 1974 he exhibited at the Newlyn Art Gallery in Penzance, where a year later he became a member of the Newlyn Society of Artists.

In 1975 he participated in a three-man show with John Wells and Alexander Mackenzie at the Orion Gallery, Penzance, recalled as "a personal turning point." In 1980 he would have a solo exhibition at Galerie Schreiber, in Basel, Switzerland. Like the Swiss master Paul Klee, Dannatt believed that "Art does not represent what we see. It makes us see."

The year 1981, when the Dannatts left London to live near Shaftesbury, Dorset, was an important year for the artist. The Newlyn Art Gallery gave him a 1960-81 retrospective which included his 1980 oil on board "Coastal Flight", in the collection of the Royal Air Force Museum, Hendon.

Also in 1981, Dannatt contributed to the exhibition "Kunst aus Cornwall" at Galerie Artica, Cuxhaven, Germany, from 1984 having a series of solo shows there. In 1990 that gallery and Hobnob Press, Salisbury, published One Way of Seeing. This elegant monograph, with an appreciative essay by the critic Ilse Cordes, has a foreword by Dannatt and is illustrated with his land-based photographs and artworks, demonstrating how closely they were allied.

In 1986 the Dannatts had founded a charitable trust for "the furtherance of education in the visual arts" and in 1994 offered to bequeath to Dorset County Museum their large collection of contemporary paintings and sculptures. A related exhibition was held at the Museum in 1997.

Until he died Dannatt remained a prolific exhibitor in mixed and solo shows. "George Dannatt: Four Decades" was at the Osborne Samuel Gallery in London in 2005, with another show there last year. A further exhibition, arranged before the artist's death, will take place at the Lemon Street Gallery, Truro, in February.

David Buckman

George Dannatt, artist, music critic and chartered surveyor: born Blackheath, London 16 August 1915; married 1943 Ann Doncaster; died Salisbury, Wiltshire 17 November 2009.