“I think this world is magical. Colour, form, space, relationships ‒ these elevate life. They energise. They elevate my whole consciousness…I think art heightens the potential of the actual” ‒ Patrick Heron (The Colour of Colour, 1994-5)
The painter Patrick Heron was a huge figure in British post-war art, creating pulsing, colour-spilling canvases inspired by his surroundings in west Cornwall. This year his work is the subject of a major retrospective exhibition, first at Tate St Ives, a gallery only a few miles from the place where Heron lived and worked, before moving later in 2018 to Turner Contemporary gallery in Margate. His abstract canvases are powered by the collision of form and colour, a subject which Heron also analysed himself in various writings and letters to friends and critics.
“Colour is both the subject and the means, the form and the content, the image and the meaning in my painting today”
‒ Patrick Heron (Painter as Critic, 1998).
“My interest is always in space in colour. Colour is both the subject and the means . . . it is obvious that colour is now the only direction in which painting can travel.” ‒ Patrick Heron, 1963
Heron was born in Yorkshire but moved to Cornwall as a child. A conscientious objector during the war, Heron worked at this time for potter Bernard Leach at his St Ives studio, placing Heron in the centre of the modernist movement – including Barbara Hepworth and ben Nicholson – that thrived in the town during the late 1940s and 50s. In 1955 he bought Eagles Nest, a house perched high on the cliffs at Zennor, living and working there until his death in 1999. Within the harsh landscape of granite cliff and moorland facing the Atlantic, Eagles Nest boasted a spectacular, sub-tropical garden, which, along with the Cornish landscape itself, would serve as the inspiration for many of his paintings.
Heron’s obsession with colour runs back to his early life, with influences drawn from Cézanne and Matisse. Heron’s father established Cresta Silks, a business which created scarves and even commission contemporary artists to contribute designs. At the age of 14 heron designed his first scarf for the company, and many believe that the lessons in shape and colour learnt here stayed with him, evolving and manifesting in his painting. Interviewers often observed that Heron himself would dress as colourfully as his canvases, in blue suits, vivid scarves and jazzy socks. Even the titles of his paintings – ‘Blue and deep violet with orange brown and green’ – foreground the importance, the essential role, of the colour choices he made.
Zennor was also an inspiration to D.H. Lawrence, who lived in a cottage near to Eagles Nest during WWI, where he finished Women in Love. He wrote to John Middleon Murray and Katherine Mansfield: “At Zennor one sees infinite Atlantic, all peacock-mingled colours, and the gorse is sunshine itself already… when I looked down at Zennor I knew it was the promised land, and that a new heaven and a new earth would take place.” (The Selected Letters of D.H.Lawrence, ed. James T. Boulton) This same landscape – bold, deeply-hued and constantly shifting, became Heron’s inspiration.
“This is a landscape that has altered my life, the house in its setting is the source of all my painting. I wish you could see the place in its Mediterranean brilliance of light and colour!” – letter from Patrick Heron to art critic Herbert Read
Patrick Heron is on at Tate St Ives until 30 September 2018