Patrick Heron (30 January 1920 – 20 March 1999) was a British abstract and figurative artist, who lived in Zennor, Cornwall.
Born at Headingley, Leeds in Yorkshire in 1920, he was the son of Thomas Milner Heron and Eulalie 'Jack' Heron (née Davies), the first of four children (Michael, Joanna and Giles). His father was a clothes manufacturer, pacifist, socialist and leading member of the Leeds Arts Club. In 1925 the Heron family moved to West Cornwall where T M Heron took over the running of Crysede and four years later the family moved to Welwyn Garden City where Tom founded the firm Cresta Silks and was to become the original mind behind Utility Clothing during the war. It was here at his new school that Patrick Heron met his future wife Delia Reiss, daughter of Celia and Dick Reiss (R.L.Reiss (1883-1959)Richard Leopold Reiss, co-founder of Welwyn Garden City).
A development towards abstraction had been evident in his paintings, for example, Square Leaves (1952) and Winter Harbour (1955) The effect on Heron of the New York City painters, together with his move to live at Eagles Nest, overlooking the cliffs at Zennor, that year was a pivotal point in the transformation into his now characteristic language of interlinking forms; his balancing of colour and space. Heron's deepest influences were Braque, Matisse and Bonnard and he was connected first of all to the pure abstraction of European lineage, represented by Naum Gabo and Pierre Soulages.
"Heron used that most rare and uncanny of gifts: the ability to invent an imagery that was unmistakenly his own, and yet which connects immediately with the natural world as we perceive it, and transforms our vision of it. Like those of his acknowledged masters, Braque, Matisse and Bonnard, his paintings are at once evocations and celebrations of the visible, discoveries of what he called 'the reality of the eye' ".
In 1966, 1968 and 1970 he published a series of articles in Studio International questioning the perceived ascendancy of American artists. His final essay on the subject was in a closely worded article of some 14,000 words published over a period of three days in The Guardian in October 1974.
He defended the independence and autonomy of the English Art Schools, resisting their integration into the polytechnic system. The publication of his article 'Murder of the art schools' in The Guardian in 1971 precipitated an enormous correspondence over a period of six weeks. The article was reprinted in Patrick Heron on Art and Education, published by Bretton Hall Wakefield to coincide with presentation of Honorary Fellowship of Bretton Hall, University of Leeds and a one-man show of gouaches.
In April 1956 the family moved from London to Eagles Nest in west Cornwall, and in June he exhibited 'Tachiste Garden Paintings' at Redfern Gallery. The following year his first Stripe paintings were exhibited in a group exhibition at the Redfern Gallery, Metavisual Tachiste Abstract (exhibition title invented by Delia Heron). Towards the end of the next decade Alan Bowness wrote: "I can think of few more disconcerting pictures shown in England in the last twenty years than Patrick Heron's striped paintings of 1957."
"Heron's Garden Paintings of 1956 mark a singular achievement within British Art of the period. With these canvases Heron found a route towards abstraction, not of a given motif, but instead formed from the formal balance achieved between the visual reality of what he saw in the garden at Eagles Nest and the pictorial reality of what he painted. The resulting paintings were executed at a remove from an idea of a representational subject and so freed Heron to deal directly with a pictorial reality.
In 1958, he moved to Ben Nicholson’s former studio at Porthmeor, St Ives, and two years later he held his first exhibitions in New York at the Bertha Schaefer Gallery and at the newly arrived Waddington Galleries in London."The American critical response was enthusiastic and perceptive. Dennison, in Arts (April 1960) was struck by the subtlety and richness of his colour and ....He was able to discern a crucial distinction " Where Rothko arrives at an impersonal and yet lyrical grandeur, Heron develops a personal image...." ....For Stuart Preston of The New York Times, Heron was ' balancing [his specific, squarish shapes] in compositions of momentary equilibrium. Their state of suspended animation gives his pictures their extraordinary lightness despite the positive existence of his forms.'
He visited Australia in 1967 and 1973, exhibiting at the Bonython Gallery, Sydney. He delivered the Power lecture in Contemporary Art entitled The Shape of Colour. He wrote, "There is no shape that is not conveyed to you by colour, and there is no colour that can present itself to you without involving shape. If there is no shape then the colour would be right across your retina ".
In 1978 he delivered the William Doty Lectures in Fine Arts at University of Texas at Austin entitled 'The Colour of Colour' coinciding with a presentation of over thirty large canvases from the previous twelve years. This was the culmination of the 'wobbly hard-edge' period, works filled with intense fields of unadulterated colour and spatial brushwork "with an immediacy of sensational impact ... only possible in the actual relation of spectator to painting". On the same visit Patrick and Delia Heron were made honorary citizens of Texas by order of the Secretary of State.
Delia died quite suddenly and unexpectedly at Eagles Nest in 1979. For some years Patrick was unable to paint. He returned to drawing and slowly a foundation for the later Garden paintings emerged (see 'Red Garden Painting : 3–5 June 1985' illustrated above, completed in time for the retrospective at the Barbican the same year).
From 5 November 1989 to 28 February 1990, Heron was artist in residence at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. During this period he produced six large paintings and forty-six gouaches creating "...the final great breakout into the freely executed paintings inspired by his new acquaintance with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydneyand, once more, his abiding love, the garden at Eagles Nest."
In 1994 his Exhibition "Big Paintings" was held at Camden Arts Centre. Heron's largest and most ambitious paintings were 15–22 ft long.
"One major change that came about in Heron's painting as a result of his time in Sydney, was a greater awareness of the white primed canvas as a colour space in its own right. ...the Sydney Garden Paintings gave Heron the licence to create works that were seemingly quickly wrought and sparsely painted – which even appear at first to be incomplete or negligent. One's expectations of what should be are affronted. Nevertheless, this reaction belies a complexity that the artist worked through in his last paintings ... and reached a highpoint ... in 1998".
"His last paintings were full-on, risky, filled with bright squiggles, painterly flurries and cartoon doodles. They should have been chaotic and absurd, but they were instead open and vital, eye-rocking and beautiful. Heron's retrospective was ravishing, and had the vitality of a much younger artist."
He continued painting until the day before he died. He died peacefully at his home in Zennor, Cornwall, on 20 March 1999 at the age of 79. He was survived by both his daughters, Katharine Heron, now an architect, and Susanna Heron, a sculptor.
On 24 May 2004, the Momart warehouse fire destroyed a number of Heron's most important works.
Patrick Heron's paintings are in public collections worldwide.