Edited by Andrew Wilson and Sara Matson

Pavilion Books.160 pages. £25. ISBN 978-1911624-31-8

Reviewed by Jim Burns

It’s probably true to say that for general readers, or visitors to art galleries, the name of Patrick Heron is linked to the post-war St Ives scene, where he’s placed alongside Bryan Wynter, Peter Lanyon, Terry Frost, Roger Hilton, and others. He did have close ties to St Ives and its artists, but in a long career, spanning around sixty years, he clearly established a reputation that took him beyond any kind of group or movement boundaries, real or imagined.

Heron was born in 1920 in Leeds and moved with his family to Cornwall in 1925. He lived at Eagle’s Nest, Zennor, a location that was later to play a key role in his work. The family moved again in 1929 to Welwyn Garden City, where his father started Cresta Silks. While at school he was encouraged to paint, and in 1934 he produced designs for Cresta Silk, something he continued to do until 1951. He was a part-time student at the Slade School of Fine Art, where he met Bryan Wynter. It was during this period that he saw works by Picasso and Braque which impressed him.

Growing up as he did with parents who were culturally informed, Heron was influenced in some ways by Bloomsbury aesthetics. Roger Fry’s views on formalism seemed to have captured his imagination, in particular, As Andrew Wilson says in his Introduction to Heron’s work: “His standpoint as an artist was built on formalism, in which the most important aspect of a work of art is its form – the way in which it is made and its purely visual aspects – rather than its narrative content or its direct relationship to the visible world”. And further: “The meaning of the painting did not reside in its representational motif but in the formal values that could be invested through the act of painting”.

This theoretical base, which came to the fore in Heron’s work, did not rule out his use of figuration during his early years. He didn’t arrive directly at abstraction, and a work such as “Orchard, Lower Slaughter”, painted in 1936, has immediately recognisable elements such as trees and buildings. It also points to the way in which he’d been influenced by Cezanne.

Heron was a conscientious objector during World War Two, initially working as an agricultural labourer but eventually as an assistant in Bernard Leach’s St Ives pottery. It was an opportunity to get to know Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, Sven Berlin, and John Wells. When the war ended, Heron and his wife moved to London, but made regular visits to St Ives. It was around this time that he became art critic for The New English Weekly. Writing about art, as well as creating it, was something he continued to do for many years. It does raise the question of whether or not the need to lay down a theoretical basis for what he saw influenced his general approach to his own work, and gave it an intellectual quality that some viewers might have found slightly daunting. Not everyone reacts easily to abstract paintings. They can disconcert with their lack of identifiable objects and their demands on the mind as well as the eye.

In 1947 Heron had his first solo exhibition at the Redfern Gallery (it included portraits of T.S. Eliot and Herbert Read), became art critic for the New Statesman, and visited Paris. He wrote a book about Vlaminck, and gave a series of talks on contemporary art for the BBC Third Programme. I think it’s accurate to say that Heron’s activities were instrumental in bringing his name to the attention of a fairly broad, informed audience. In 1948 he exhibited in the Third Annual Crypt Exhibition in St Ives, and spent more time in France. One of the interesting aspects of this survey of Heron’s work is that it shows how much he was influenced by French painting. Cezanne, Matisse, Bonnard, and Braque were as important to him as any ideas he may later have gained from American artists. And early influences from British sources came through a couple of artists who had themselves been shaped by French art, Ivon Hitchens and Matthew Smith. The rich colours used by Smith may have been of particular interest for Heron.

Someone once said of Heron that, although he “was a pacifist in life…he was a pugilist in polemic”. He lost his reviewing job at the New Statesman because of his tendency to bombard the editors with letters of complaint about the way they edited his copy. In addition, it was considered that he ought to moderate his views about the importance of “colour in space”. To be fair, Heron does seem to have been a critic willing to look positively on work that differed from his own. A variety of other artists thought that it was valuable to have criticism written by someone who was also a practitioner of painting. Heron would later try to promote the work of his fellow-St Ives artists, such as Roger Hilton, Peter Lanyon, and Bryan Wynter. It wasn’t just a case of helping his friends. He genuinely valued their paintings.

The 1950s saw the rise to fame of the American Abstract Expressionist painters. Pollock, de Kooning, Kline, Rothko, and a few others, were soon being touted as the great new thing as their work began to be shown in Britain. It was big, seemingly ambitious, and it drew attention away from Europe and towards America. New York, not Paris, was now the centre of the art world. To give Heron his due he doesn’t seem to have ever gone overboard for Abstract Expressionism, and though initially impressed by the Americans he eventually came to the conclusion that “the triumph of American painting was a triumph of cultural chauvinism over a ‘British humility in matters of art’ ”.

It occurs to me that the “cultural chauvinism” referred to by Heron applied to European art generally in an unfair way. I remember visiting an exhibition of French abstract art, 1945-55, at the Luxembourg in Paris in 2006, and thinking that much of what I saw, given the broad title of “Lyrical Abstraction”, was as interesting as most of the American work from the same period. But, in many ways, American art in the 1940s and 1950s was being promoted for political as well as artistic purposes.

Heron had struck up an acquaintance with the noted American critic, Clement Greenberg, and though at first their relationship seemed friendly enough, it foundered in the early-1960s when Heron didn’t fall over himself in agreeing with Greenberg’s promotion of “colour field” painters like Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, and Morris Louis. Greenberg had said to Heron, “I don’t have to tell you that painting has no other place to go but colour”, but Heron, though he had himself once claimed, “it is obvious that colour is now the only direction in which painting can travel”,  was inclined to think that “The ‘empty’ , ‘open’. painting first pioneered by Rothko is absolutely futureless, finished”.

There was a noted 14,000 words polemic by Heron that The Guardian published over three days in 1974 in which he asserted that British achievements had equalled those of the Americans, and in some cases had preceded them. There also seems to have been a growing suspicion that Greenberg’s independence as a critic was being affected by his close relationships with certain major New York galleries.

Heron had alternated between figuration and abstraction for some time. A painting like the 1950 “Harbour Window with Two Figures” has clearly recognisable images in it, while the splendid 1955 “Winter Harbour” is moving more towards the abstract and yet suggests the concrete, though it might be hard to pin down exactly what is there. And there’s the delightful 1951 “Christmas Eve”, where figures and furniture are clearly visible. I’m inclined to say that it’s this period of Heron’s work that appeals to me most of all, perhaps because I find periods of transition in the arts of great interest.  But I can see a continuity in his use of colour that disarms certain of the criticisms I might be tempted to raise in relation to some of his later paintings.

It is, in fact, the colour that stands out in Heron’s work of the 1980s and 1990s. There are a couple of photographs of Heron’s studio in the period concerned, and what immediately comes across are the vibrant colours on the canvases that can be glimpsed on the walls. It’s easy to see, even from these limited examples, how Heron would never be incorporated into Clement Greenberg’s insistence on the often unbroken surfaces of “colour field” art. Heron’s paintings are alive with shapes and colours. The eye can travel around them. Sarah Martin’s essay on Heron’s later work is well worth reading for its analysis of what she describes as “a dramatic transition into a new phase of his art”.

Heron had obviously worked successfully for years, and the useful chronology shows that he exhibited regularly both in the United Kingdom and abroad. He travelled to Australia, New Zealand, the United States, and other countries, and received various awards. It perhaps wasn’t all smooth sailing. Matthew Collings, in an essay that, more than the others in the book, provides a picture of the personal side of Heron’s character, as opposed to his practices as a painter, refers to a 1978 conference at the Institute of Contemporary Arts. The theme under discussion was that art had become too formalist. David Hockney was of the opinion that “it was interesting when artists went abstract but not that interesting”. And he went on to say that “abstract art was like the test card on the TV set when the channel closed down for the night”. When Heron spoke in favour of formalism, Collings said there was “mocking laughter” from the audience, though he suggests that he had been misunderstood and had stated “an unassailable insight into artistic cause and effect”.

Collings also has a story about a visit to Heron that I think is worth quoting in full:

“That night at supper he indulged in a certain amount of anecdotage about William Scott. He made me laugh with a story the point of which – I later thought – might have been about Heron’s own sense of getting the balance right between high artistic flights and just acknowledging the ordinary. The great man had once been sitting where I now sat, he said, opposite a collector who was in the place Patrick was now seated, and the very same electric light with its triangular green lampshade was still there as it had been at the time. Scott told the collector that when he looked at her he saw a certain shape. And when she asked what it was in the full expectation that the answer from such an original visual artist would be gloriously profound, Scott replied ‘A green triangle’ “. 

Fashions in art change, as they do in everything else, and Heron wasn’t alone among the St Ives artists in almost slipping from sight for a time, though he may have fared less badly than some of his contemporaries such as Roger Hilton and John Wells. There has been something of a revival of interest in the work of the St Ives community in recent years, with exhibitions, books, and other material focusing attention on what was a particularly lively period in post-war British art. It’s significant, I think, that Clement Greenberg and Mark Rothko both thought it important to visit St Ives and keep in touch with what was being done there. It’s to Heron’s credit that he continued to speak up for British art at a time when many people were too often slavishly following American trends. It may be that his perseverance has paid off and he and his associates can now be properly re-appraised.

This book about Patrick Heron has been published to accompany the exhibition of his work at Tate St. Ives from 29th May to 30th September, 2018, and Turner Contemporary, Margate, from 19th October, 2018 to 6th January, 2019.