Obituary: Dallas Pratt

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Dallas Pratt, collector and philanthropist: born Islip, New York 21 August 1914; died Garrison, New York 20 May 1994.

THE AMERICAN Museum in Britain will stand as a fine memorial to Dallas Pratt. He founded it in 1961 jointly with John Judkyn, his companion for 24 years. Judkyn's death, aged 50, in a car crash in France soon after the museum's opening was the first of a series of bereavements that changed the course of Pratt's life.

Together over many years they had acquired furniture and domestic objects, panelling from demolished houses, and more than 100 quilts and coverlets, representing the cream of the craftsmanship and folk art of America through the centuries. With great good fortune they happened upon an empty Wyatville mansion, set high on one side of the Avon valley near Bath, that took all this Americana as if built for the purpose. The late 1950s were probably the last moment before scarcity and the rise in prices made it impossible to put together a collection of this size and quality. It has few rivals within and certainly none outside the United States.

One of the aims of the museum was to present a different America from the that of cinema and television. Its message has reached generations of schoolchildren, up to 15,000 each year, who are given morning tours of the museum. In the afternoons many thousands of families have enjoyed tea and American cookies, and the sight of Appalachian folk-dancing or a Civil War skirmish performed in the museum's grounds, and have wandered through the re-creation of Martha Washington's rose garden at Mount Vernon.

The John Judkyn Memorial, which Dallas Pratt set up in the mid Sixties, extends the museum's educational aims by circulating sets of American historical objects, with teaching aids, to schools all over Britain, from a separate collection that Pratt continued to add to for the rest of his life.

But the American Museum was only one of Pratt's many public benefactions. Starting in his schooldays he made a Keats collection most of which he presented to the Keats-Shelley House in Rome in 1971. He made a unique, complete collection of world maps printed before 1500, including a Durer woodcut that had escaped identification by previous owners. These are now housed in a new gallery at the museum outside Bath. He gave many rare books and manuscripts to Columbia University library.

Pratt was born in 1914 into the last days of the grandeur of old New York, where his Pratt ancestors had lived since the 17th century. His first name came from another forebear, after whom the town in Texas was named. On his mother's side his great-grandfather was Henry Huttleston Rogers (1840-1909), one of the people of that time who rose from simple origins to almost limitless riches. Dallas Pratt came into a share of this oil and rail fortune. He also inherited the family tradition of public benefaction on the grand scale. He felt that this justified great inequalities of wealth.

His family would have asked no more of him than to make an annual round of his palatial houses in America and Europe but he had too much of the energy and determination of his industrialist great- grandfather to settle for that. Perhaps more important, he had an almost puritan sense of purpose learned from his English governess Maud Duke who largely brought him up, while his mother was occupied with her headlong social and marital activities.

Pratt qualified as a doctor in his early twenties and then, in 1936, embarked on a year-long journey round the world, vividly recorded in the journals that he wrote all his life. On his return he trained as a psychiatrist and served in this capacity in the American army during the Second World War. After the war he practised professionally on the staff of Columbia University as a psychiatrist for students, especially overseas students disoriented by the cultural adaptations needed to live in America, until he reached retirement age.

Two further bereavements were the early deaths of his close friend David Quarrel in 1970 and of his half-brother Aubrey Cartwright in 1972. After this there was a notable transformation in his interests and his personality. He found a new and younger circle of close friends, and a lifelong affection for animals developed into a passionate concern for their welfare. He devoted himself whole-heartedly to the foundation he had set up in 1969, originally Argus Archives (after Ulysses's faithful dog), later renamed The Two Mauds, after his governess and his first Scottie. Its purpose was to do research and to disseminate information on the plight of animals, whether as pets in cramped New York apartments, or as potential meat in American slaughterhouses, or in laboratories. His medical qualifications helped him gain access to research establishments and he wrote two books on animal experiments. The first was a survey of the treatment of laboratory animals in the United States and elsewhere, Painful Experiments on Animals (1976). The second was a scholarly and scientific attempt to suggest alternative ways to achieve the same experimental results without inflicting pain, Alternatives to Pain in Experiments on Animals (1980). His commitment to animal welfare won him an Albert Schweitzer award, presented to him in Washington in 1981.

Immensely hospitable, whether entertaining a group of friends on a yacht in the Aegean or at his many houses, Pratt was at the same time self-effacing, always quietly dressed and soft-spoken. He was simple in style and manner. His rather noble appearance so struck his New York neighbour Katharine Hepburn that she exclaimed, 'You have a wonderful head. Where have all the patrician faces gone?' He would spend one or two days each week with only his dogs for company, walking in the forest at Garrison or working on his animal interests or on the stream of scholarly articles, usually about some social or literary byway, for the museum's magazine American in Britain or for Columbia Library Columns, which he edited from 1951 to 1980.

His final art collection was of 20th-century American prints and drawings showing a sympathetic portrayal of birds and animals. He called it 'The Compassionate Eye'. Although appalled by the extremists of the animal rights movement, and never a strict vegetarian, he refused to use Boodle's club in London, affiliated to one of his New York clubs, because of an enormous painting which covers one wall of the dining-room, of stags being disembowelled by a pack of ravening hounds.

For a man whose wealth would have enabled him to be completely idle, his was a most varied and productive life.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments