Modern British & Irish Art

Patrick Heron and a St Ives Snapshot of Abstract British Art

By Simon Hucker
Ahead of the Modern & Post-War British Art sale, which includes three works by Patrick Heron, Simon Hucker takes a closer look at a candid photograph that encapsulates 1950s abstract British painting.

A t first glance, this photograph, taken on the harbour wall in the Cornish fishing village of Mousehole, is no different from the many thousands of photographs taken on the ‘English Riviera’ in its heyday in the first half of the 20th Century, before the advent of jet travel and affordable foreign holidays. This was the era when the seaside towns of Devon and Cornwall would have been full of men in their summer suits - handkerchief ready to be tied over the head to ward off the occasional sun - enjoying the bracing salt air and taking in the view.

Patrick Heron, Clement Greenberg and John Wells at Mousehole, September 1959. Photography by Jenny Greenberg. Courtesy of the Estate of Patrick Heron

The figure on the right seems every inch the English country doctor on holiday, which, of course, is exactly what John Wells was when he began to visit the artist’s colony of St Ives in the 30s, before abandoning his career in medicine and moving there to paint full-time. A hint of this transition, though, is visible in his sunglasses and loose, work-wear jacket, an artisan look with more than a hint of James Dean.

To the left appears to be a local, in a tight-fitting seafarer’s top - a little more Breton, perhaps, than one would expect in Cornwall, but authentically nautical all the same. Again, though, small details allude to something else - there’s a hint of Mod culture in the black drainpipe trousers and the suede boots, revealing this is someone with their feet planted firmly on land. In Patrick Heron’s case, it was his studio on the cliffs above Zennor, on the North coast, where he was in the middle of a ferocious burst of creativity that was to make him one of the most important artists working in Britain and place him at the heart of the international avant-garde.

In the centre - casually dressed in a cardigan and a soft shirt buttoned up, but no tie - seems to be our quintessential British holiday-maker. And there’s no real deception here - for the man in question is definitely on holiday. But then this is Clement Greenberg, apologist and king-maker of American Abstract Expressionism, a man synonymous with lower Manhattan's studios and dive bars, as well as the pristine, elevated halls of the Museum of Modern Art uptown. His presence in this photograph then, in Mousehole of all places, tells you everything you need to know about how seriously he took the work of Heron and his peers and how he viewed the work being made in St Ives as part of a global movement of abstract painting. And Greenberg was not the only one: Mark Rothko also visited St Ives in 1959. He found the attitude of the painters there and their lack of commercialism so inspiring (more so than sthe ober, rugged landscape littered with empty chapels) that it almost certainly had a significant part to play in his later gifting of his masterwork, the Seagram Murals, to the Tate.

So what seems like a rather innocuous looking photograph (incidentally, taken by Jenny Greenberg and given to Heron) is, in fact, full of important messages about the status of British abstract painting in the late 1950s; about the real and dynamic dialogue between critics, artists and gallerists across the Atlantic, something that is now much overlooked; and about Patrick Heron’s centrality to that dialogue. He was a man who, as an art critic, interpreted the New American painting for British audiences and who through his own work, as well as through writing about his contemporaries, defined the ‘St Ives School’ the high priest of American Abstract Expressionism.

One can easily imagine that May 1956 is exactly the sort of painting Clement Greenberg would have hoped to have seen on his holiday in Cornwall - a powerful, pure-painterly work, whose movement, rhythm and gesture has its own internal logic, with no need for reference to the outside world.

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