The Lyrical Early Works of Patrick Heron

The Lyrical Early Works of Patrick Heron

Sotheby's November auction of Modern and Post-War British art will feature a selection of works by painter and art critic Patrick Heron.
Sotheby's November auction of Modern and Post-War British art will feature a selection of works by painter and art critic Patrick Heron.

C ritic, author and artist, Patrick Heron is perhaps best remembered as one of the most important and innovative painters working in Britain during the Post-War period.

He was a major voice of the European avant-garde, particularly in America, where notables such as Mark Rothko, Clement Greenberg and Jackson Pollock were aware of the powerful images being created both in London and St Ives – a remote fishing village that was at the epicentre of this creative movement. Heron was an artist whose influences were from the outset wide reaching. His lyrical paintings from the 1940s and early 1950s, interiors and portraits produced prior to moving to an entirely nonfigurative style, draw heavily on influences from the continent.

Although in this period Heron is referred to as a figurative painter, before the development of his wholly non-figurative works from 1956, Heron nevertheless recalls how these paintings felt 'terribly abstract.' To the British public at the time, Heron's works were revolutionary and looked in particular at the work of Matisse, Bonnard and Braque, of which the home audience was largely unaware. Yet Heron, at the forefront within his artistic peers, had long been absorbing and championing their innovative methods, in particular Matisse's radical deployment of colour, line and form.

Patrick Heron, 1954. Photograph by Ida Kar © National Portrait Gallery, London

He wrote that Matisse's The Red Studio, which he had seen at the Redfern Gallery in 1943, was 'by far and away the most influential single painting in my entire career.' Such works went beyond a simple recording of the visual appearance of things, what Heron called 'the camera eye', and expressed a sensuality and rhythm to which he was deeply predisposed. Only through the abstract harmony of colour and form did Heron believe the 'profoundest human thought and feeling [could] find direct expression.' To this end, Braque's magisterial Atelier interiors which Heron encountered first-hand on a visit to the artist's studio in 1949 also provided rich inspiration, in particular the idea of the 'transparency' of objects through continuous and overlapping lines.

"...the dominant obsession was, of course, the open window, usually with a table top seen in front of it, or indeed half a room or even the bend of a staircase providing the space on the inside of the window. The feeling of a sort of marriage of indoor and outdoor space, through the aperture of the window frame, itself roughly rectilinear and parallel to the picture surface, was really the main theme of all my paintings"
Patrick Heron

Drawing upon such influences, by the 1950s Heron had created a personal abstract-figurative idiom evident in seminal interiors such as The Blue Table with Window (sold Sotheby’s, 15th June 2011, for £1,049,250). Harbour Room with Red Carpet: 1952 relates to this piece, as both are part of a series of upturned table-top interiors Heron painted about this time. Form, space and volume are evoked through independent patches of bright, flat, nonrepresentational colour and delicate, winding lines. Particularly elegant is the delineation of the balcony in the background of the composition.

Describing Matisse's The Red Studio, Heron spoke of its own 'wonderful wandering lines,' which is equally apt here. They irresistibly lead the eye across the surface and possess a delightful spontaneity in harmony with the planes of pure colour. Reds, blues and yellows create the space of the room, as well as rolling waves seen through the window beyond. Pictorial space was a fundamental concern for Heron, and one he continually explored. In Harbour Room with Red Carpet: 1952, the distortion of perspective and flatness of the planes forcefully engages the viewer, bringing the objects into immediate proximity - a method Braque championed, believing art should bring the viewer and object together to offer 'the full experience of space.'

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

A central creed of Heron's was that art is to be joyful and in Harbour Room with Red Carpet: 1952, colour and line combine to infuse the work with an unabashed gaiety. In a letter from 1983 Heron wrote about the importance of this seminal series:

‘...the dominant obsession was, of course, the open window, usually with a table top seen in front of it, or indeed half a room or even the bend of a staircase providing the space on the inside of the window. The feeling of a sort of marriage of indoor and outdoor space, through the aperture of the window frame, itself roughly rectilinear and parallel to the picture surface, was really the main theme of all my paintings - or nearly all - between 1945 and 1955. And the window in the vast majority of them was this harbour window, looking out across a balcony over the harbour and bay from the studio cottage, perched right on the sea-wall itself, which Delia and I rented from Mrs Pauline Hewitt (an academic St Ives painter who was at least 30 years older than ourselves) every year from 1947 (our eldest daughter, Katharine, had her first birthday party in front of that window) until 1954. We rented it for two or three months in each of those years, but hardly ever at the same time of the year. I shall never forget the immense sensation of space the first moment we entered that room, at the end of our journey from London: it was an October night and a full moon was rising over Godrevy’ (Patrick Heron, letter dated 27 April 1983).

While many of Heron’s paintings at this time focus on interior scenes, particularly of St Ives, he also produced a series of intimate portraits, drawing on those around him as his sitters, including his wife and daughter, the writer T. S. Eliot (1948, National Portrait Gallery, London) and the art historian and critic Herbert Read (1950, National Portrait Gallery, London). Heron’s portraits are experiments with vision and its natural points of focus. It was through this innovative method of seeing that Heron hoped to discover in his art the ‘forms which life alone conceals’ (Patrick Heron, quoted in Michael McNay, Patrick Heron, Tate Publishing 2002, p.30).

Modern British & Irish Art

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