Charles Saumarez Smith, Director of the National Portrait Gallery, remembers Patrick Heron, who died last week
Sunday 28 March 1999
It made me think of the week I spent with him and Antonia Byatt, while Antonia was having her portrait painted. He had invited her down to stay at Eagles Nest, his house at Zennor, four miles west of St Ives in Cornwall. I think she had a good time, because they both loved to talk: about painting, about writing. He was slightly apt to tell the same stories over and over again but, as with good story-tellers, they got better every time. He called it his anecdotage. There was one about Kenneth Clark, whom he didn't really approve of. And the time that he and Henry Moore went to see Mrs Thatcher about the closure of the art schools. He approved of Mrs Thatcher even less than he approved of Kenneth Clark. His campaign against the closure of the art schools in the early 1970s was, I felt, one of his finer hours.
All that had resulted from Antonia's first trip was a shadowy drawing of her aura, all hair and no face, which was not really what the trustees of the National Portrait Gallery wanted at all. Some time after this and getting anxious about the fact that the portrait had not appeared, I went to stay with my family in a cottage a few miles west of Eagles Nest. On the last day we were there we were invited to tea at the house whose gates we had passed going to and from St Ives. It was a difficult gate to get through; a slightly overgrown drive; a house that had the faintly deserted air of having once been lived in more intensively.
I remember the sitting room best, which had a white Fifties banquette and a view looking out over fields to the sea. Next door was a room in which he stored many of his paintings going back to his early years. In fact, upstairs he kept paintings that he had done as a child and which had been greatly admired, quite rightly, by his parents. He had kept the air of the boy who was good at painting at school. At the back of the house was a kitchen with a light fitting which had a chip out of it where Piers Gough had hit it with an icecream spoon when he was staying there in the late 1960s.
Right at the end of our visit he produced the drawing rather sheepishly and said that he assumed I would like to see it, which was true, and that it probably wasn't quite what was wanted, which unfortunately was also true.
Antonia claims that she went to stay a second time, which I was never sure she hadn't invented, and all Patrick did was fuss and cook and chat and potter about and do almost anything he could do in order not to have to paint. At that time I had the impression that his painting days were over, although in fact he produced great late paintings for his exhibition last summer at the Tate. There was not much evidence in his studio down by the beach of painting activity. It seemed from the way he unlocked the door that it was a lost kingdom which he was temporarily revisiting.
So, the third time that Antonia was going down, she said that she would only go if I accompanied her. It was late September the year before last. When we arrived in St Ives, the local car hire firm had upgraded us to the biggest barouche in the business which was completely useless for navigating the narrow streets of St Ives, but gave a sense of occasion to the visit.
Every evening we would go to dinner at Eagles Nest. Patrick had had a very minor stroke the previous week which we were supposed not to know about; he had asked his daughter Susanna to come down from London to half look after him, and she prepared the meals which were invariably delicious. We would sit in the sitting room, Patrick dispensing champagne. How much did we learn about him? We heard about his childhood, which had been happy, particularly when he was in Cornwall. His father, Tom Heron, had been a partner in Crysede Silks, which had been based in St Ives before starting his own firm, Cresta Silks, in Welwyn Garden City. Patrick had done designs for him when he was still a teenager.
He loved Cornwall and came down to work with Bernard Leach during the war. In the mid-1950s he and his wife Delia bought the house that he had stayed in as a child, recapturing his childhood. And that is perhaps something of the quality that he invested in his painting, an innocence of eye, an intensity of belief in the power of colour as a system of primitive communication, made possible by painters of the early 1950s in America whose work he knew and appreciated long before they were generally known this side of the Atlantic. In fact, in the early 1950s he worked nearly as much as an art critic, writing about painting with intelligence and conviction as a crusade against traditionalists.
He inherited his studio from Ben Nicholson. Every day after breakfast, we would drive half a mile to the hotel car park above the beach and walk along the shore to his studio. This was full of versions of portraits of Antonia done from memory - as a younger woman, a type of rather large and good-looking and slightly intimidating blue-stocking, of whom Patrick was perhaps a bit afraid, but whom he also admired. I wasn't allowed to witness the act of painting, so was turfed out to buy crab sandwiches for lunch.
We usually ate on the beach. I like to think of us as a somewhat improbable trio - Patrick, elderly and elfin and slightly out of breath wrapped in his brilliant magenta scarf and a sort of silver eiderdown; Antonia, also not especially fit and not used to squatting on the rocks, but happy in his company and perhaps with an attitude of mildly reckless irresponsibility, having a holiday from her writing; and myself, also happy to be away from work and from London, acting as a glorified chauffeur.
On the Thursday of the week we were down there I arrived at the studio at five o'clock. I was told to come back at six. He was painting the portrait which represented his response to Antonia as a person. Much of the week had been a form of limbering up, getting in the mood, getting to know her, waiting for the moment and the mood when the paint would flow freely. On the Thursday afternoon it flowed and he was proud of what he was doing, the sense of conveying someone through only a few brush strokes - not a painting which is in any sense naturalistic or even especially recognisable, but one which was intended to convey the force of her personality like a piece of Chinese calligraphy, in which the art lies in the reduction of a person into line and colour, nearly abstract, just communicating who she is, but without any of the detail.
He was so relieved when it was finished. I think he was not completely sure that he would ever do it. And it was probably one of the last major paintings of his life, completed before his major retrospective at the Tate.
The last time I saw him was on the last day of the exhibition at the Tate. There he was standing quietly in the last room of the exhibition, contemplating all the visitors to it, chatting to Katharine Heron, his other daughter. He was a person who retained a curious sense of innocence and charm right up until the end, a gentle, slightly mocking laugh as if to say what a surprise it was to see someone he knew, but with warmth in it. He was not unsophisticated. In fact, in the 1980s he had been an active trustee of the Tate. But he had an innocence and intensity of personality, which is what I'll remember.
Patrick Heron, born 30 January 1920, died 20 March 1999.
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