Patrick Heron: the colourful Cornish life of our greatest abstract painter

Big Complex Diagonal with Emerald and Reds: March 1972 - September 1974 
Big Complex Diagonal with Emerald and Reds: March 1972 - September 1974  Credit: Patrick Heron/Tate St Ives

 

In the spring of 1956, the artist Patrick Heron left London and moved with his wife and two young daughters to the far west of Cornwall. As a career move, it didn’t make obvious sense. In the art world, for the first time ever, people were saying that London rather than Paris was the place to watch.

If you’d asked anyone about up-and-coming artists on the London scene, they’d have mentioned names like Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and Elisabeth Frink. They would also have mentioned Patrick Heron. 

Heron was a precociously talented painter. Today he is regarded as one of the greatest abstract artists Britain has ever produced, and probably its finest colourist. Then in his mid-30s, he’d already had a string of solo shows. He organised exhibitions, wrote for magazines; as the house was packed up around him, he was finishing his first book. 

Yet the clues to why he quit town are there in the paintings he produced after his move. It’s the colour that strikes you first of all, with a clarity and intensity utterly different from the khaki greens and sandbag browns that so many British painters went on using throughout the austerity years.

In Cornwall, Heron was convinced, colours are mysteriously heightened because the air “contains more light than in England”, reflected upwards from all sides by the sea. 

Patrick Heron at Eagles Nest in 1958 Credit: Brian Seed/Estate of Patrick Heron

This summer will see the first full-scale exhibition of Heron’s paintings since his death in 1999, in the new gallery at Tate St Ives. The location, a few miles along the coast from where Heron lived, makes the connection between art and place absolutely clear.

In Heron’s case, it wasn’t only the “white brilliance” of the light (on a good day) that attracted him to Cornwall. There was a history, too. The house he moved into, known as Eagles Nest, had featured in many lives, including his own. 

In May 1950, for instance, Barbara Hepworth had written to a friend that she’d knocked off early in her St Ives studio for “the chance of a proffered lift up to the Eagles Nest”. The drive would have taken her – as it does today – along a switchback road that skirts the seaward slope of the Penwith Moors. Just before you drop down to the village of Zennor sits the steep-gabled Victorian bulk of Eagles Nest, on a granite outcrop. It “looks so bleak on its crag”, mused Hepworth, ringed by “massive stones weighing 50–70 tons”. But tucked among the boulders, was “the loveliest garden I have ever seen”.

The Eagles Nest Garden in 1985 Credit:  David Ward

The garden was the creation of Will Arnold-Forster, artist and author of Shrubs for the Milder Counties, who had lived at Eagles Nest since 1920, welcoming a steady stream of A-list guests, including Virginia Woolf, Ivor Novello and the deposed Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie. Tom Heron, an idealistic entrepreneur from Leeds, then running a factory in St Ives printing artist-designed silk fabrics, stayed there with his seven-year-old son, Patrick. 

After Arnold-Forster died, in 1951, Patrick heard that the house was standing empty. Eventually, on an impulse that even he couldn’t quite fathom, he bought it. Was Eagles Nest “objectively extraordinary” he asked his wife, Delia, or was he “just going back to the womb, to a childhood magic garden”? Metropolitan and international in his outlook, Heron found that Cornwall had never lost its gravitational pull.

And was it such a mad decision? At that time, Hepworth and Ben Nicholson were both working in St Ives, along with a motley but ambitious crowd of younger artists. Heron’s art-school friend, Bryan Wynter, was leading an alternative creative life in a hovel on the high moors, a few hundred yards above Eagles Nest. At some deep level, it all made sense.

Red Garden Painting: 3–5 June 1985 Credit: Patrick Heron/Tate St Ives

When Patrick, Delia and their two young daughters, Katharine and Susanna, moved in during the Easter holidays of 1956, the camellias were in bloom. “It was absolutely thrilling for him,” recalls Katharine. “The exuberance comes out very clearly in his camellia garden paintings. And some are clearly paintings with reference to good old Cornish mist, with a bit of grey and wateriness.” 

Heron had recently taken the plunge into abstract painting. As azaleas followed the camellias in the garden, the rain of green, pink, blue, white strokes and dabs of paint turned brighter, lighter. Though never representational, these paintings are full of the “warmth and radiance of flowers” – the “miracle” that had delighted Hepworth. Katharine and Susanna, meanwhile, roller-skated through the excitingly vast spaces of their new home, freshly painted white in readiness for the installation of contemporary art. 

Patrick and Delia Heron circa 1966 Credit: Giles Heron, courtesy Susanna Heron

Heron talked about “soaking up the landscape through the soles of his feet,” says Katharine. “He’d absolutely absorb it. And then he’d go and paint.” In a big downstairs room, Heron pinned his large canvases straight to the wall. After the Garden series came the stripe paintings, often compared with Mark Rothko, although for anyone who’d watched the sunset over the sea from Eagles Nest, their roots were much closer to home. 

Paintings hung in every room, ranging from Heron’s precocious schoolboy landscapes in the style of Cézanne to his large, abstract realisations of “colour-in-space”. Visitors were invariably treated to a tour. “My mother was very hospitable,” says Katharine. “People would come for lunch, stay for dinner, and stay the weekend.” 

Five Discs (1963) Credit: Patrick Heron/Tate St Ives

The house was often full to bursting, but there was only one lavatory. You’d be woken at night, recalls the architect Leon van Schaik, by fellow guests furtively battling with the obstinate chain-pull cistern, and, once, at 3am, an exultant cry: Hooray! “On a clear evening he would summon us out to the croquet lawn in quest of the green flash” – an elusive, momentary incandescence in the sunset sky. “He always saw it, and under his persuasion we did too.” 

Painting, said Heron, was all about creating “a vibrant picture surface. And this vibration is colour”. He wasn’t thinking of the toned-down London palette of his contemporaries but of the vivid, shifting colour world that surrounded him at Eagles Nest – “endless oceanic blues, harsh Prussian, soft cobalt, indigo or sunny warm ultramarine” or “heavy, hot, dark greens”, all irradiated by “vibrant, whitish sea-light”.  

Patrick Heron opens at Tate St Ives on May 19, just in time for the azaleas.

Tate St Ives until 30 September 2018, Turner Contemporary, Margate 19 October 2018 – 6 January 2019