One of Patrick Heron's last works was a portrait of the writer
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
The English painters I most admire are the colourists, Patrick Heron and Howard Hodgkin, the elegant, the flamboyant, those who reject the native suspicion of brightness, and delight in Matisse's revelation of colour as form. Patrick Heron agreed to have lunch to discuss the idea of painting my portrait. "You do want an abstract portrait," he said. I said that that was exactly what I wanted.

I went to visit Patrick at his home, Eagles Nest, in March 1995 for him to make some pre- liminary drawings. On the last evening, both of us reluctant, I sat to be drawn. I recognised an anxiety before the blank paper which corresponds to the writer's anxiety before the blank page - only in the case of a portrait, this anxiety is doubled, both sitter and artist are anxious. Patrick suddenly began to scribble furiously, with charcoal, and there, from nowhere, was a presence, a shadowy solid person with a blank face, but recognisably myself.

I did not go back to Eagles Nest for over a year. Patrick said, quite suddenly and decisively, it is time to try strong primary colours. He made a sitting figure in cobalt blue, and painted in and out a series of complex blue patterns and scribbles and zigzags on the body.

When it was finished, I did not know what to think for a moment. We both stared. I had a curious experience of it settling into shape, becoming itself, as I looked at it. The energy, the brashness, the uncompromising splashes of primary colour represented what I had wanted in an abstract portrait by a great colourist. But they represented something else as well. They were a painting of the writer, of how I feel when I start work, a vanishing, watching body in a sea of light and brilliance.


A S Byatt is a novelist. Her 1997 portrait by Patrick Heron hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, London, WC2 (0171 306 0055).