Obituary: Paul Dessau

David Buckman
Thursday 11 November 1999 00:02 GMT

WHEN FIRES raged through London during the Blitz they focused the talents of professional and amateur artists in Britain as never before. The fire-fighter Paul Dessau was in the front line. Although until then his life as an artist had been undistinguished, his record of the conflagrations are among the finest canvases of the Second World War.

A prime example of his ability, essential in a war artist, to capture images at speed under pressure, are his four canvases generally titled Menace, now held by the London Fire Brigade Museum in Southwark. Reflecting Dessau's lifelong love of music, they are conceived in four movements: Overture, Crescendo, Rallentando and Diminuendo. They are surprising from a man who has been described as gentle and dreamy. Dessau's fondness for the proverb "If a man gives you two cabbages, sell one and buy a lily" perhaps hints at his nature.

As a Blitz firefighter Dessau had to cope with awesome blazes that could stretch up to a dozen miles through London's docklands. Menace captures the progress of such a fire. In the first movement a demonic fire figure towers over the firemen, challenging them with its power. In the second, their hoses begin to tackle an enemy still in control. The third movement brings the observer and firemen closer to the fire figure, which has begun to diminish, its skeletal fingers clutching the air in a futile fashion. The fourth canvas brings victory for the firemen, close-up and damping the flames. A fireman, who might be Dessau himself, carries a rolled length of hose away. The fire-demon is shown defeated, lying on its face, the bony form having merged with the twisted girders and smouldering remains of buildings.

Britain is not noted for a strong visual tradition, but during the century it has shown unequalled foresight in recording its war efforts. Following fine work produced in the First World War, the War Artists' Advisory Committee held its first meeting in November 1945. With representatives of the arts, the Home Office, Air Ministry, War Office and the Admiralty, it was fortunate in its chairman, Sir Kenneth Clark, and its secretary from the Ministry of Information, that now-forgotten but fine artist and administrator, E.M. O'Rorke Dickey.

The committee had to draw up "a list of artists qualified to record the war at home and abroad". At first, it included only proven artists such as Paul and John Nash and C.R.W. Nevinson. In the end, artists contributed in three ways: some were commissioned full-timers; some were chosen for specific tasks; while others on their own initiative painted work that was occasionally purchased.

Dessau stood no chance of being an official war artist. He was born in 1909 in north London, the third of four children, his father dying when he was small. At Glendale County Grammar School he was a frequent truant and was academically undistinguished, although his artistic ability was evident. After school, he was apprenticed to a commercial studio, uninspiring work such as illustrating catalogues for Gamages, the Holborn department store. Dessau decided to set up his own commercial studio in the Strand with his brother Bernard, also known as the writer Dewsbury Dessau. Although they experienced lean times because of the Depression, Paul Dessau continued to paint and study. He had joined Hornsey School of Art part- time, and now attended anatomy classes at the Central and St Martin's Schools. He began to exhibit in London galleries.

When war broke out, the brothers joined the London Auxiliary Fire Service, in 1941 transformed into the National Fire Service. By early 1940 the Home Office became aware that artists, "including many of distinction", had joined Civil Defence. It circularised London Region suggesting that "where circumstances permitted", they should get a chance to record the war.

The London Fire Brigade agreed to grant facilities to artists wishing to work during their leisure "subject to the consent of the officer in charge", provided that "the discharge of duty" was not hindered. The War Artists' Advisory Committee promised to consider any work submitted. Dessau was a founder-member of a firemen artists' committee. It encompassed such distinguished names as Leonard Rosoman, Norman Hepple, Bernard Hailstone and the cartoonist Robert Coram, who drew dizzy blondes as Maroc. The committee ensured that firemen artists were well represented in Civil Defence and other war artist shows and set out to arrange their own exhibitions. Four at the Royal Academy, between 1941 and 1944, later travelled; two more, in 1941, toured America and Canada, each accompanied by three firemen. The works of Dessau, prominently featured, were much praised.

Dessau's versatility developed during the war. His painting And So To Bed, held by the Imperial War Museum, is a sombre, elegiac canvas, which shows the carefully laid-out uniform of an auxiliary fireman, a portrait with no sitter. Among his notable portraits is that of District Officer Blackstone who won the George Medal for bravery when a station received a direct hit in 1941. It was illustrated in the 1943 book Air Raids, one of eight small compilations of war artists' work.

The introduction was by Stephen Spender who, with the writers William Sansom and Henry Green and Paul Dessau's brother Bernard, contributed in 1942 to the National Fire Service anthology Fire and Water, with illustrations by Paul Dessau. He also contributed to Jim Braidy: the story of Britain's Firemen, by William Sansom, James Gordon and Stephen Spender (1943).

In 1935 Dessau had married Billie Stephenson, distantly related to George, inventor of the Rocket. Dessau, too, was something of an inventor, whose notions included a bedside tea-making machine too large for the bedroom. His sister recalls that as a child he had tried to fly by fitting wings to his bicycle.

After the war, the Dessaus moved to the country, where Paul could invent, concentrate on his music, as an accomplished self-taught pianist, and realise his dream of being a portrait painter. Always look at his sitters' hands. "Hands reveal the man," he said.

David Buckman

Paul Lucien Dessau, painter: born London 15 September 1909: married 1935 Billie Stephenson (one son); died Bedford 3 September 1999.

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