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Patrick Heron


Patrick Heron was one of the most distinguished painters of his time. He was also a brilliant writer-critic, a robust polemicist and a highly effective campaigner for causes close to his heart.

He knew from a very early age that he was to be an artist, a vocation encouraged with great seriousness by parents of remarkable vision. He spoke without affectation or irony of his infant efforts, signed and dated from the age of five, and carefully preserved in large buff envelopes, as "early drawings". His long career came to a spectacular climax only last year with a highly successful retrospective at the Tate Gallery.

Some thought this a tribute overdue, but in fact it was perfectly timed. Had it come even a few years sooner, it would have lacked the complex and beautiful "Sydney Garden" paintings of the late Eighties and early Nineties, and the extraordinary "Big Paintings" whose ecstatic energy and insouciant mastery thrilled and astonished a generation of painters 50 years younger than the artist when they were shown at Camden Arts Centre in 1994.

Heron was able to survey, with the infectious pleasure he took in his own work, a lifetime's achievement whose diversity was informed at every point by an aesthetic coherence. Heron's artistic journey was constantly eventful and unpredictable, marked by sudden intuitive breakthroughs to new expressive possibilities, new ways of response to the light and colour of the world. Sometimes he systematically explored a particular idea, producing numerous variations on a theme, as with the soft-edge abstract "direction of colour" paintings of the early Sixties, and the distinctive "wobbly hard-edge" paintings of the following decade. Sometimes, under the creative pressure of a particular experience, he produced a spate of new work at great speed, as with the tachiste "garden" paintings of 1956, the "horizon" and "stripe" paintings of 1957-58, and the astonishing series of small gouaches and large oils made when he was artist-in- residence at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney in the summer of 1989-90. The great late "Big Paintings" shown in 1994 were made in bursts of intensive activity in the first eight months of that year.

Underlying every phase were his constant preoccupations: with colour as space; with line as an indicator of dynamic relations as well as of description of form; insistence on the primacy of decorative order in the composition of images that begin and end with the four edges of the paper or the canvas. Behind them lay the deeper thought: that these pictorial dynamics are signs and epiphanies of a greater natural ordering, and that painting is a revelation of that beautiful harmony. "The ancient valid response of the painter to the world around him," he once wrote, "is one of delight and amazement, and we must recapture it." In making good that reclamation Heron used that most rare and uncanny of gifts: the ability to invent an imagery that was unmistakably his own, and yet which connects immediately with the natural world as we perceive it, and transforms our vision of it. Like those of his acknowledged masters, Braque, Matisse and Bonnard, his paintings are at once evocations and celebrations of the visible, discoveries of what he called "the reality of the eye".

Patrick Heron was born at Headingley, Leeds, in 1920, the eldest of a family whose history on both sides was of an uncompromising nonconformism. His father, Tom Heron, a textile manufacturer and entrepreneur of genius, was a Christian pacifist who had been a conscientious objector in the First World War, and an unorthodox socialist. He was also an art lover. If Patrick inherited his political idealism and his fearless activism from Tom, he owed to his mother, Eulalie, whose background was of combative pacifism and of a high-minded culture of the mind and spirit, his intensity of visual response, his preternaturally passionate eye for the natural world.

His parents remained deeply important to him throughout his life, the original source of his confidence in his own creative powers, and the continuing inspiration of his ethical and political engagement in the affairs of the world. He was himself to register as a conscientious objector in the Second World War, and three years of heavy agricultural labouring in appalling conditions exacerbated the asthma that had dogged him since childhood, but which he refused to declare for exemption.

Possessed of intense political emotions, Heron was a lifelong socialist and pacifist, a founding member of CND, and a bravely active conservationist. He hated with a passion the successive Tory governments of the Eighties and Nineties, refusing a knighthood when it was offered by his bete noire Margaret Thatcher. The return of a Labour government in 1997 was an occasion of great joy to him. He was an inveterate controversialist, and a master of trenchant polemical prose. As an artist of distinction outside the education system, his disinterested writings against the merger of the English art schools with the polytechnics in the early Seventies and on subsequent developments in art education earned him enduring respect and affection amongst artist-teachers.

In the Sixties and the Seventies he conducted several successful campaigns in defence of the unique landscape of West Penwith, including a celebrated fight in 1961 against the might of the Admiralty when it sought to requisition the Zennor headlands and moors as a troop exercise area. From his eyrie at its highest point above the sea he maintained until his dying day an eagle eye on the twisting road that leads from St Ives to St Just, watching for any sign of straightening to its ancient track-line or of "improvement" to its green walls and banks. The energising convictions behind these time-consuming political and public actions were those of a profoundly decent man, inalienably patriotic without any disfiguring prejudice, who justly saw himself as upholding a native radical tradition that went back to Ruskin, Morris and Shaw and was exemplified in his own time by Herbert Read and Bertrand Russell. At its heart was a vital sense of the centrality of art and imagination to the truly experienced life: "You are free when you are doing a good drawing," his father wrote in a letter to Patrick at school. ". . . freedom in creative work - this idea of freedom is what we have to carry into our social organisation". It was an idea that animated Heron's creative and political life.

In 1925 the Heron family removed from Leeds to Newlyn, where Tom was to run Crysede Silks, a modest textile business. Tom arranged it move to expanded premises on the Island at St Ives, and rapidly built up the firm with extraordinary flair. Patrick's early years in Cornwall were idyllic: he was never to forget the impressions of light, colour and landscape that streamed in upon him in what be called the "sacred land" of his childhood. What remained with him, almost as an obsession, was his memory of the winter of 1927-28 spent at Eagles Nest, the house on the promontory above Zennor to which he was to return to live, and never after leave, in 1956. The house was borrowed from Hugh Arnold- Forster, the Labour luminary, in the hope that the altitude and atmosphere would be good for the child's asthma. Arnold-Forster's planting of the extraordinary garden was well under way, but the many shrubs and flowering trees collected from southern- hemisphere highlands that are among its glories now were then no taller than small bushes, and its rocky outcrops and huge boulders were visible and bare.

Following a break-up with his partner, Tom Heron left St Ives in late 1929 to set up Cresta Silks at Welwyn Garden City. In 1932, Patrick was sent to St George's School, Harpenden, a co-educational boarding school, where he was positively encouraged by a remarkable art master, Ludvig van der Straeten, who on one unforgettable occasion drove his 13-year- old pupil to the National Gallery and stood him, enthralled, in front of Cezanne's great Mont St Victoire, then on loan from the Courtauld collection. At St George's, Heron was allowed to paint through the afternoons whilst his contemporaries played compulsory games. When he left, in 1937, without formal qualifications, he was invited to attend at the Slade School of Art. From 1934 his father had commissioned from him designs for silk scarves and textile designs. (After the war Heron was for several years Cresta's principal designer.) In spite of a precocious accomplishment, his two years at the Slade were a time of boredom and uncertainty.

The war came, and there was little opportunity for creative work. In late 1943, ill and exhausted, he was ordered by doctors to stop labouring, and not long after, Bernard Leach, a family friend from Criseyde days, invited him to take up an approved work placement at the St Ives Pottery. Heron worked there as a journeyman potter for 14 months, and the example of Leach's creative integrity, and his subtlety as an artist with the "power to materialise a concept" were formative of his own artistic philosophy.

In 1945 Heron married Delia Reiss, whom he had met at his first school in Welwyn Garden City in 1929. In her he had found the perfect companion, whose feeling for art and nature perfectly matched his own. It was Delia who had given him in 1940 the small French Matisse monograph with colour reproductions that he had carried everywhere during his wartime experience. Beautiful and intelligent, she was utterly committed to his work but fiercely independent of spirit. In his own words, she was his "best and most essential critic". They lived in London, in Addison Avenue, Holland Park, but for the next seven years they spent every summer in St Ives at a house on the sea wall, whose interior with its view of the bay, and the figures of Delia and his daughters, was to feature in many paintings over that period. These were painted in his London studio.

Heron rarely drew or painted from the motif, feeling that memory was a crucial element in the invention of images: these should not merely register appearances, but record their impact upon the receiving imagination. "Seeing," he wrote in 1956, "is not a passive but an active operation . . . all art is a convention, an invention. Painting may literally claim to alter the look of the world for us. We only see nature through a system of images, a configuration which painting supplies." The exception to this rule were the handful of portraits he made at different times in his career, most notably of T.S. Eliot, Herbert Read, Jo Grimond and Antonia Byatt, which began with drawings or oil sketches, but these, too, were always finished in solitude.

In 1956, by a surprising turn of events, he was able to buy Eagles Nest, to which he moved with his young family in April, to be enchanted by the springtime azaleas and camellias, and to find his work immediately take on a new spirit and new forms. For at that moment he moved decisively, once and for all, from the Braque- influenced linear figuration of his post-war work to a fully liberated abstraction, capable of infinite development. From that time on, the house was to be the centre of his imaginative existence; it was, he wrote much later, "very nearly the greatest passion of my life". Animated by Delia's personality, Eagles Nest became a magical centre of hospitality for the brilliant and sometimes turbulent company of artists and writers that made St Ives and its environs a place of extraordinary artistic vitality during the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies. When Delia died, suddenly, in 1979, Heron was devastated, and for many months he was unable to work.

Many of his artist friends, William Scott, Roger Hilton, Bryan Wynter, Terry Frost and Peter Lanyon among them, owed much to Heron's intelligent critical championship of their work, writing on and off as the New Statesman and Nation art critic from 1947 to 1954, and then as London correspondent for Arts (New York) between 1955 and 1958. He was an exciting writer, capable of subtle analysis and great clarity of utterance. By nature a celebratory critic, he had a gift for precise description of the plastic qualities of painting, and of those specific aspects of technique and manner that distinguished one artist from another. His talents as an art critic were those of one whose knowledge was derived from creative practice.

He began by contributing a series of remarkably authoritative essays in 1945 and 1946, on Nicholson, Braque, Klee and Picasso among others, to The New English Weekly. Edited writings and lectures were published in 1955 as The Changing Forms of Art, and a further selection, Painter as Critic, appeared at the time of his Tate retrospective. In 1958 Heron gave up criticism, but he returned to write a number of articles in the mid-Sixties that were components of a brave and sustained campaign against what he described as "a kind of cultural imperialism" in the programmatic promotion, world-wide, of American art. This climaxed in 1974 with the publication over three days of a closely argued 14,000- word article in The Guardian. In later years he wrote illuminating essays on Bonnard, late Picasso and Matisse.

Heron was a handsome, elegant man, disarmingly charming and attentive to others. He was an emphatic and witty conversationalist, a marvellous story-teller and a wicked mimic. The range of his friendship was exceptionally broad and inclusive for he was capable of inspiring great love and affection on the slightest acquaintance. He is survived by his daughters, Katherine and Susanna, of whose achievements, respectively as architect and artist, he was justly proud. Patrick Heron, artist: born Headingley, Yorkshire 30 January 1920; CBE 1977; married 1945 Delia Reiss (died 1979; two daughters); died Zennor, Cornwall 19 March 1999.


Obituary by Mel Gooding, The Independent,  March 23, 1999