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
Growing up as he did with parents who were culturally informed,
Heron was influenced in some ways by
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
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,
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
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
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 “
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
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,