Obituary: Dennis Flanders
Thursday 18 August 1994
DENNIS FLANDERS was a topographical draughtsman in the great English tradition that stretches back through his immediate predecessors, Muirhead Bone, Henry Rushbury and Hanslip Fletcher, to the 18th-century masters, and has its roots in the delicate pen-and-ink drawings of Wenceslaus Hollar.
Flanders was born in Walthamstow, east London, the son of Bernard Flanders, a pianist, and his wife Jessie, who was a talented miniature painter specialising in flowers. As a small child he suffered from a minor deformity of the neck, which was cured by surgery, and it was whilst in hospital recuperating that he first registered the horror of empty walls and started to draw. He was a naturally gifted child to whom drawing seemed to be as much a part of life as breathing or talking, and he won the Princess Louise Gold Medal at the age of seven.
He was educated at Merchant Taylors' School and later at the Regent Street Polytechnic, St Martin's School of Art and the Central School of Arts and Crafts. While still at school, he was introduced to Hanslip Fletcher and over the years they became friends, until, gradually, Fletcher assumed the role of mentor. Flanders had a variety of jobs, first of all with a firm of chartered accountants, then with an interior decorator and finally with a firm of printers, before launching out as a freelance artist and illustrator in 1937.
In the introduction to Dennis Flanders' Britannia (1984), which in some ways is a summation of his life's work, he wrote:
The conception of this book actually took place as long ago as 1936 and I can remember the exact hour and place. It was in Oxford Street, London, on the pavement outside Selfridge's, at about 1pm, during the lunch hour, near my place of work. I was looking into the window of Bumpus' bookshop . . . and what I saw there determined the course of my life ever since.
What he had seen were some plates for Muirhead Bone's great work Old Spain (1936). The quality of Bone's drawings and the excellence of the printing bowled the young Flanders over, and he knew instantly the type of work he intended to do, and decided that he would do for England what Muirhead Bone had done for Spain.
This revelation prompted him to leave Maurice Adams, the interior decorators, and find employment with a firm of printers to improve his skills and enlarge his understanding of printing techniques. The following winter Flanders told Fletcher of his intention to become a freelance artists but Fletcher, ever practical, pointed out that the weather was too cold and he should wait until the spring. This he did.
Flanders's approach to his new life was as disciplined and meticulous as his work, and the record of it is kept in a marvellous ledger. This ledger begins:
I, Dennis Flanders, propose to write down below the title of every drawing (that is not a mere sketch) with full details of them all, as I do them, so that a complete catalogue of my drawings exists as I do each one. I begin it today, Saturday 21st June, 1941, first of all copying down details of all previous drawings, copied from a previous catalogue.
The ledger is then divided into columns neatly headed: date, title, medium, size, where published, fee, date, whose copyright, owner of original and price. The first entry is for March 1937 and the most recent, a drawing of Keble College, Oxford, for January this year. In all there are over 3,260 drawings listed, and the ledger makes fascinating reading, not only for the list of purchasers ranging from the landlord of the Bull Inn, Burford, for a drawing of his own hostelry to the Lord Chancellor who bought The Ruins of the Palace of Westminster in 1941, but also for its occasional laconic comments. Against an early drawing of the Langham Hotel Flanders has written 'lost by an idiot', while, perhaps fearful that future generations might think that he took holidays, or rested from his labours, the rare interruptions to work are explained by such notes as 'All the family, save Alison, had the mumps', or 'In early December my father was taken ill and I was unable to work until early January.'
I first got to know Dennis Flanders and his wife, Dalma, in 1984 when we held an exhibition at the Fine Art Society in London to launch his Britannia, a most beautifully produced book, published by the Oriel Press, whose proprietor, Bruce Allsopp, shared Flanders's passions not only for craftsmanship but for the glories of the British landscape and ancient buildings. Flanders had travelled Britain, usually by train, in quest of sites to draw; he despised people who buried their faces in books rather than look out of carriage windows, and on one occasion took a day return ticket travelling backwards and forwards between Chester-le-Street and Durham, in an endeavour to capture one particular view.
Flanders's understanding of perspective was put to good use during the war, when he was employed at Welbeck Abbey, in Nottinghamshire, making models from aerial reconnaissance photographs. Previously he had been at the School of Military Engineering at Ripon, and it was from that time that his love of Yorkshire stemmed. He and I discovered that we both regarded Fountains Abbey as the most idyllically beautiful spot in the British Isles.
After 1984 Dennis, Dalma and I met most frequently at the Art Workers' Guild. The guild's hall in Queen Square, Bloomsbury, was only a short walk from their 18th-century home in Great Ormond Street, and he was one of the most assiduous attenders, having been Master in 1975. Visiting Great Ormond Street this week it was hard to believe that Dennis was no longer there. His workroom was so redolent of him, cluttered with unfinished drawings, old proofs from the Illustrated London News, and piles of books - volumes of Pevsner and Batsford, Hanslip Fletcher's Drawings of Bombed London, and, of course, Muirhead Bone's Old Spain.
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