90 year old Joan Dannatt hosts her first solo art show in Highgate

90 year old artist Joan Dannatt in her Islington studio.

90 year old artist Joan Dannatt in her Islington studio. - Credit: Archant

Danniel Wittenberg talks to Highgate artist Joan Dannatt about holding her first ever exhibition to coincide with her 90th birthday.

Patience may be a prerequisite for any artist, but it’s fair to say Joan Dannatt has waited longer than most. Preparing for her first solo exhibition after more than 80 years behind a canvas, the Highgate-born painter makes perseverance seem like an art form in itself.

With work on display dating back to 1933 – linocut prints she produced aged eight as a gift for her father – showing alongside recent etchings inspired by the Suffolk landscape, the retrospective focalises a lifetime of Dannatt’s experiences to mark her 90th birthday.

“I have always enjoyed mixed exhibitions and I very much enjoy working with other artists, but I thought a solo exhibition would be a good opportunity for a party,” she explains.

Born in the once familiar bright pink cottage on Pond Square, at the heart of Highgate Village, Dannatt enjoyed a stimulating upbringing as the daughter of Welsh sci-fi author Howell Davies, meeting literary luminaries such as PG Wodehouse and Dylan Thomas.

Whilst she has fond memories of the former – “a rather quiet but very kind family man” – whom she met while on a skiing course in the Swiss Alps, she describes her chance encounter with Thomas at The Flask pub in Highgate as a shocking formative experience.

“I found him a very slobbering man who was putting his hands around my waist. It was dreadful to find out that the poetry which I thought was wonderful was written by someone whom I really disliked. People thought of him as just a jolly, half-drunk man, but I suppose now a 14-year-old girl being touched would be cause for alarm.”

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Wavering between careers in writing and painting, Dannatt studied design and typography at Reading University, where she helped organise a hidden printing press for resistance in the event of a Nazi invasion.

She spent 15 years in advertising – commissioning art for publicity campaigns by the J Walter Thompson (JWT) agency – before giving up her job in the early 1970s to concentrate full-time on her own creations.

Dannatt went on to enrol at the former art college in Holmes Road, Kentish Town, and it was there that she alighted upon etching, which became her signature medium. Such was her ambition to improve that she destroyed much of her previous oeuvre, casting years of work onto a Guy Fawkes bonfire.

“I don’t regard my work as something very precious.” she says. “I felt that those paintings hadn’t done justice to their subjects and didn’t merit framing, so I got rid of them. I felt at that point that I hadn’t produced work which I wanted to keep.”

A member of the Camden Printmakers group, as well as the Islington Art Society, she has since appeared in collections across Holland, France and America, in addition to featuring 14 times at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition and regularly at the Royal Free Hospital.

Dannatt’s surviving portfolio, which she flippantly sums up as “old ladies’ art”, incorporates a range of traditional techniques that previously defined and now illustrate her life, revealing all but the secret to her longevity.

‘Joan Dannatt: 90th Birthday Exhibition’ runs at the Rebecca Hossack Gallery, 2A Conway Street, Fitzrovia, W1T 6BA, until January 30.

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