Modern British & Irish Art

Patrick Heron and the Triumph of Colour

By Alba Montano Spiers
'For a very long time now I have realised that my over-riding interest is colour. Colour is both the subject and the means; the form and the content; the image and the meaning, in my painting today’.

Patrick Heron, 1962

Venetian reds and purples, violets and oranges, blues and viridian greens… colour pervades the work of Patrick Heron: it is the heart of his oeuvre, the means and content of his painting. Breaking new ground in the post-war British art scene of abstract painting, Heron’s work would move towards abstraction while still finding its place in figurative tradition, for colour would not only constitute a pictorial characteristic of the canvas, but also the subject of his painting: every dab and stroke of paint representing colour itself.

Patrick Heron in his studio, 1963. Photograph by Jorge Lewinski ©The Lewinski Archive at Chatsworth.
Patrick Heron in his studio, 1963. Photograph by Jorge Lewinski ©The Lewinski Archive at Chatsworth.

A prominent figure in modern British art, during the last 70 years, Patrick Heron has been celebrated nationally and internationally in major exhibitions of his work. This year, Tate St Ives, in association with Turner Contemporary, is displaying a major retrospective of Heron’s work, showing the evolution of his abstract paintings from the very early stages of his career in the 1940s to the last works produced before his death in the 1990s. Coinciding with the retrospective of Patrick Heron’s work, Sotheby’s is delighted to announce the inclusion of three major Patrick Heron works in the upcoming 20 & 21 November sale of Modern & Post-War British Art.

It is no coincidence that Tate chose St Ives to show the retrospective of Heron’s work, for Cornwall was not only the artist’s home for most of his life, but also a source of inspiration for many of his paintings. After his marriage to Delia Reiss in 1945, Heron spent every summer in Cornwall, staying at Carbis Bay and Mousehole in the first two years of their marriage and 3, St Andrews Street, St. Ives, from 1947 until 1956, when he eventually moved to the house where he had spent part of his childhood: Eagles Nest. During those years, the interiors of St. Ives became a prominent subject in Heron’s work. The bright light of the Cornish town, coming through the windows of his studio, bathed the objects and figures found in the rooms of his summer house, presented in Heron’s painting by means of independent patches of bright, non-representational colour and delicate lines which permeate the canvas with a sense of abstraction, as observed in his Christmas Eve: 1951, in display at this year’s retrospective of Heron’s work, or in his 1951 Interior at St Andrews Street, St Ives, one of the highlights of our forthcoming November sale.

Patrick Heron, Interior at St Andrews Street , St Ives, 1951. Estimate £40,000–60,000.

By the end of the 1950s, the sense of abstraction one felt in Patrick Heron’s early works intensifies. Shifting away from all traditional notions of ‘subject’, Heron would now explore, in depth, the pictorial aspects of his painting, reducing the canvas to luminous fields of colour in which shapes of contrasting hues coexist, hovering in the canvas, their colours interacting one upon the other. Heron’s interest in exploring colour interaction would lead him to sharpen the boundaries between contrasting colours; for, in the artist’s words, the sharper the division between colour is, ‘the more intense the colour will be’. Colour now becomes the sole means and subject of the artist’s work.

Patrick Heron, Four in Deep Cadmium , 1964. Estimate £100,000-150,000.
If I stand only eighteen inches away from a fifteen-foot canvas that is uniformly covered in a single shade of red, … I shall cease with a matter of seconds to be fully conscious of that red: the redness of that red will not be restored until a fragment of another colour is allowed to intrude, setting up a reaction. … The meeting-lines between areas of colour … cannot avoid changing our sensation of the colour in those areas.
Patrick Heron, 1969

Patrick Heron, Rumbold Vertical Two: Reds with Purple and Orange : March 1970. Estimate £120,000–180,000.

Different phases characterise Patrick Heron’s career: the semi-abstraction of his early works, the garden and stripe paintings of the late 1950s, the full abstraction of the 1960s onwards…; however, there is one aspect that prevails throughout his career, and that is colour. Standing in front of his paintings, viewers experience how colour dominates Heron’s work, how it floods their minds with different tonalities of grey, Persian reds, or light cerulean blues: every brushstroke, every dab of paint pronouncing, in Heron’s oeuvre, the triumph of colour.

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