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Portraits

Patrick Heron

1920 – 1999

Patrick Heron in his studio with unfinished Yellow Painting (now in Tate Collection)
Visible in the background, Square Sun, January 1959 (National Galleries of Scotland)
photograph by Adrian Flowers, May 1959.

Born on 30th January 1920 in Leeds, Patrick Heron was a multi-talented creative genius, equally at home painting, writing, lecturing, or engaging in polemical discussions. He first came to live in Cornwall as a young child, when his father Tom Heron (1890-1983), a Fabian Non-Conformist and member of the Leeds Art Club, spent several years in St. Ives, as manager and partner at the Cryséde Silk company. Founded by Alec George Walker in 1920, Cryséde produced block-printed textiles—many of them abstract patterns— for dress designers, using silk sourced from the Walker family firm in Yorkshire. After four years there was a falling-out with Walker and in 1929 Tom Heron moved to Welwyn Garden City, where he set up a new company, Cresta Silks, building a factory on Broad Water Road, and opening retail outlets, on Bond Street, Baker Street and Brompton Road. The distinctive modernist fronts and interiors of the Cresta shops were designed by the Canadian Wells Coates, while Edward McKnight Kauffer also designed for the company. While working as a designer for his father, Patrick Heron’s love of Cornwall, where he had spent idyllic days of his childhood, saw him returning frequently to St. Ives. In the late 1930’s, he enrolled at the Slade School of Art, but attended only two days a week, while continuing to design fabrics for Cresta Silks. Melon, his first design for a Cresta scarf dates from 1934, when he was fourteen years old, while his Amaryllis, dates from two years later. Paul Nash also produced designs for Cresta fabrics, including Cherry Orchard (1931), as did Graham Sutherland and Cedric Morris.


With the onset of WWII, and also being requisitioned for parachutes, Cresta turned to making utility clothing. Heron registered as a conscientious objector (as had his father in the First World War) and, although suffering from asthma, went to work as an agricultural labourer in Cambridgeshire. Ill health 1944-45 resulted in his being invalided. He returned to St. Ives, where he worked for a year at the Bernard Leach Pottery, admiring the works of Shoji Hamada, and meeting Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth. After the war, he went back to work for Cresta Silks as head designer. Heron pursued his own career as a painter, and in 1947 had his first solo show. Nine years later, an exhibition of American Abstract Expressionist painting held in London marked a turning point in his career, inspiring him to move from working within a French Cubist and School of Paris style to one that showed the influence of the abstract painters of the United States. However Heron never lost that innate and instinctive love of colour and tactile surfaces, that derived both from his intimate knowledge of textile design and his enduring admiration for Bonnard and Matisse. While he pursued his career as an artist in Cornwall, the Cresta company continued to flourish and by 1973 there were 70 shops and over 1000 employees. After Tom Heron’s retirement, the company was taken over by Debenhams.


As an writer, Heron contributed essays and articles to the New Statesman, Art New York and other journals, using the opportunity to champion the work of his fellow St. Ives artists, including Peter Lanyon, William Scott, Bryan Wynter and Roger Hilton. In his 1955 book The Changing Forms of Art, the argument for abstraction was set out with characteristic passion. The following year, Heron and his wife Delia bought Eagle’s Nest, a large house overlooking Zennor, five miles west of St. Ives. For many years, the area around Zennor had attracted artists and writers, including DH Lawrence, Katherine Mansfield and poet John Heath-Stubbs. Virginia Woolf spent her childhood summers at St. Ives, memories of which fill her novel To the Lighthouse. The artist Bryan Wynter lived nearby in Carn Cottage. The Herons settled in to Eagle’s Nest, welcoming fellow artists such as Roger Hilton and William Scott, and raising two daughters; Susanna, who went on to became a sculptor, and Katharine, now professor of architecture at Westminster University. Although Eagle’s Nest is a large house, Heron needed a separate workspace and so in 1958 moved his paints and canvases to the artists’ studios at Porthmeor. Other artists in the complex included Wilhelmina Barns-Graham and Terry Frost. The space Heron was allocated was No. 5, Ben Nicholson’s former studio, next door to Tony O’Malley. Although he remained an abstract painter for the rest of his life, Heron’s work retains memories of the Cornish landscape, small fields surrounded by stone walls, lopsided houses, and villages crowded around little coves. Through the 1970’s and 80’s, he continued to paint and write, achieving a legendary status both for artistic vision and idealism. A lifelong socialist and pacifist, he was involved in many activist campaigns to preserve the Cornish landscape. Heron received many accolades during his lifetime, but he declined both a knighthood, and the opportunity to become a member of the Royal Academy. He died at Eagles Nest in 1999.

In the Ember days, following Whitsun, May 17th 1959, the Flowers family; Adrian, Angela, and their two young children Adam and Matthew, travelled to St Ives for a short break. They stayed in a rented house at 6 Draycott Terrace. At the time Angela was pregnant with Daniel, who was born in August of that year. As always, work was combined with holiday. Adrian visited Patrick Heron at his Porthmeor studio, where several of the leading St Ives artists were based. Slim, in his late 20’s, and dressed in pullover and work trousers, Heron stands beside an unfinished large canvas as he is photographed. In one image he reaches out to touch the surface of the painting. This work is Yellow Painting (1958/59), now in the Tate Collection. The photograph shows the canvas some weeks before completion and reveals how Heron was using yellow, applied over mauve underpainting, to enhance the chromatic intensity of the work (an excellent description of Yellow Painting is given by Laura McLean-Ferris on the Tate website). During this period was moving towards the pure, soft-edged abstraction that would characterise his work in the early 1960s, while not letting go of the earthy, painterly quality of his canvases from the late 1950s with their embedded memories of landscape, stonewalls and hedges. In another photograph, Heron sits in a west country chair, looking at the camera, holding a large paintbrush. Although the photographs were taken using Kodak 120 colour negative film, the contact sheets were printed in black and white, with some colour prints. Today, No 5 studio has changed little, and still retains the wood-battened white walls, large skylight and bare floorboards that appear in the series of photographs taken by Flowers in 1959.

Patrick Heron in his studio, photograph by Adrian Flowers in May 1959

Text: Peter Murray

Editor: Francesca Flowers

All images subject to copyright

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