INTERVIEW / On a coast of many colours: A clifftop retreat in remotest Cornwall is artist Patrick Heron's natural habitat. There he perches, witty, waspish and illuminating

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AS THE TRAIN left Camborne, last station but one on the five-and-a-half hour train journey from Paddington to St Ives, the leaden sky cleared and the sun came out, throwing light over the long fields on either side of the track. Blue sky expanded into larger and larger shapes and the landscape lit up as though a glaucous veil had been lifted. The train chugged along the final stretch, panoramic waves rolled towards rocky bays and pale sandy beaches, and I saw why this fishing village at England's extreme western tip has inspired artists for a hundred years.

Now St Ives has its own Tate Gallery, a curving building of glass, pale grey stone and brick. As I approached the entrance two elderly ladies were just leaving. 'Not quite my cup of tea,' said one, and her companion nodded agreement.

The English are conservative about art. They like to see at a glance what it means. Horses plunging through white-tipped breakers, elephants trumpeting across the veldt, or a russet autumnal wood: these are their cup of tea.

The first work of art inside the Tate St Ives is a stained-glass window 14ft square, designed and donated by Patrick Heron. It consists of colliding abstract shapes in pink, cobalt blue, apple and lime greens and scarlet. Holidaymakers drift past in brightly coloured beach clothes, glancing at it sideways. They have paid pounds 2.50 each to get in and they don't know whether to feel impressed or cheated.

This is not necessarily a philistine reaction. The British art establishment has never quite decided whether to feel impressed or cheated by Patrick Heron, at 73 one of our greatest living artists. Yet he stated his 'philosophy' of painting as long ago as 1958, and has never deviated from it. 'My interest is always in space in colour' he wrote then; and again in 1963: 'Colour is both the subject and the means . . . it is obvious that colour is now the only direction in which painting can travel.' He has little time for the Carl Andre bricks in the London Tate, Marc Quinn's gruesome head carved from the artist's frozen blood in the Saatchi Gallery, or the Lucien Freud nudes like skinned rabbits that hang in the best private collections.

Patrick Heron greets me warmly in the doorway of his house at Zennor. Dressed in a sky-blue linen suit, a deep pink shirt, turquoise socks and an orange belt, he looks exactly like one of his own polychromatic canvases. When he puts his spectacles on, they have lilac frames.

Inside, the house looks like a Heron painting too. Every room is painted pure white, with white curtains and upholstered furniture, only the cushions providing fat squodges of colour. In the white-walled kitchen, clothes are hung up to dry on an old-fashioned wooden airing rack. The socks ranged along it are orange, lilac, blue, green, mauve, blue, orange and lilac.

Patrick's family moved down to Cornwall from Leeds (where he was born) in 1925, and in the winter of 1927 his father rented this very house, Eagle's Nest, for five months. Heron shows me some drawings he did here as a precociously talented child of seven. The place dominated his imagination for years - as well it might, for its setting is extraordinarily dramatic, perched 600ft above the sea in a patchwork of Bronze Age fields, surrounded by huge looming stones, seamed and lichened with age. They are 'igneous upthrusts' - a granite outcrop twice as old as the Alps.

'In 1928, when Peter Lanyon (another St Ives artist) was 10 and I was eight, we founded a society called the Golden Harp Club, subtitled the Society for the Preservation of Culture in England; President: P Lanyon, Chairman: P Heron. We met in a hedge near our Dame's school, Bakie's, in a field high above St Ives.'

In 1929 the Heron family moved to Welwyn Garden City, where his father started a business called Cresta Silks. Young Patrick went to a progressive coeducational school, where he was allowed to give up games and exams to pursue his talent for painting. At the age of 14 he was designing scarves for Cresta. He shows me one: a confident pastiche of Matisse.

Then came the war. A conscientious objector lke his father and grandfather before him, he was sent to dig ditches in East Anglia until half- dead from pneumonia, when the authorities relented and allowed him to work in the Bernard Leach pottery in St Ives for the final 15 months of conflict.

In 1945 he married Delia Reiss, whom he had first met as a boy of nine-and-three-quarters. (Patrick Heron is obsessionally precise about dates.) He doesn't talk about Delia, or her sudden death in 1979, though he is anxious to recount his daughters' triumphs, one as an architect, the other as a sculptor.

The young married pair lived at first in Holland Park, in London, but always returned to Cornwall for holidays. 'We couldn't keep away from Cornwall: I'd get so homesick for it.' In 1955 the then owner of Eagle's Nest decided to sell it and, knowing of Heron's long obsession with the place, offered it first to him. 'I had a terrible time making up my mind. I couldn't decide whether, objectively, this was a totally remarkable house and spot, or whether I was dashing back into extreme nostalgia. Was it safe to go back into the womb of childhood?'

It was also a professional risk, giving up their London base; and taking the house would involve a huge amount of work - it was painted matt black throughout and lit by oil lamps, while the two-acre garden was head-high with neglect.

They took it. Delia set the place in order. Now it shimmers with airy white light and the garden is full of rare tropical plants and mysterious secret paths winding round the strange prehistoric stones. The house and landscape have been, says Heron, the subject of all his pictures for the past 40 years. Its shapes, especially those of the rocks and fields, are unconsciously absorbed, to reappear later in his abstracts; the light inspires their searing colours.

Heron lives alone now, without so much as a cat or a dog for company. Is he lonely? 'There are about three people in St Ives who visit me . . .' And a secretary, who comes in most days to deal with his worldwide correspondence. He has a passion for the fax machine: he loves its instantaneousness. There is also a studio in St Ives, handed on to him in 1958 by Ben Nicholson, where he paints canvases 12 or 15ft long and tiny gouaches, 15 or 21ins square.

Patrick Heron is an anomalous figure, arousing strong loyalties and deep aversions. He is equally forthright about his contemporaries. A marvellous mimic, he drops easily into this one's nasal whine or that one's finicky camp voice. He relates how Francis Bacon, asked if he were the collateral descendant of his namesake, would say, 'Perfectly true, my dear, but of course it had to be collateral because he was queer like me]' It's twice as funny as it should be because the voice is so accurate.

He describes introducing Henry Moore to Mrs Thatcher in 1972 when she was Education Secretary and they were both members of a delegation trying to persuade her to change her mind about proposals for the art schools. Heron is just as good at Henry Moore's slow Yorkshire accent. He mimics him saying imperturbably, 'I think she'll know who I am. I've just sent the cheque for my tax for the last year to the Chancellor . . . pounds 1 1/2 million, you know]'

He says Moore placed his huge sculptor's hand controllingly on the ministerial desk and left it there throughout the meeting. Fifteen years later, encountering Heron at a Royal Academy do, the then prime minister said of Moore, 'I remember his hands. Most remarkable hands.'

Patrick Heron is a brilliant raconteur. His murmuring, rasping voice is witty, illuminating and waspish by turns. It is one of his great strengths that he can talk so well. The fact that he is also able to describe other people's work in writing and explain how it feels to paint, has further enhanced his reputation. He is admired as a critic, and had a weekly column in the New Statesman for several years, as well as contributing to leading American art magazines.

He is committed to British art, not least its art education. 'In the Fifties the art schools were full of the most incredible invention. If you look at the people who proclaimed Britain to the world in the Sixties - the Beatles, Mary Quant, all that generation - our whole ascendancy in art and design and pop came out of the art schools.

'The rot started in the late Sixties when they were forced to merge with the polytechnics. Then the local education authorities, at the government's behest, scrapped the foundation course and insisted on four O- levels and two A-levels. I never took an exam in my life. You restrict the entrance to art schools if you insist on exam-passers. What's wrong with students nowadays is that they are so Thatcherian. All they can talk about is their prices and sales.'

We move to the kitchen, where a kettle boils slowly on the white enamelled Aga. Each kitchen window sill frames a still life - a pot of geraniums, a bowl of fruit, a bundle of wooden spoons - overlooking the panorama that stretches across irregular-shaped green fields down to the glittering sea less than a mile away.

Back in the sitting room, over tea, he continues: 'My role as a critic made endless trouble for me. It was a fatal mistake ever to write a word, but I couldn't stand the whole of England thinking Picasso and Matisse were a load of rubbish.'

He was one of the first to recognise the importance of the new generation of American abstract artists who superseded the careful realism of Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth, and were first seen in London in the mid-Fifties. Hilton Kramer edited the Arts Digest in 1954 and Heron was its London correspondent.

'For 10 years I was ridiculed in London for taking the Americans seriously. I first praised the Americans in January 1956 when they had a show at the Tate called 'Modern American Painting'. At the time, MOMA (the Museum of Modern Art in New York) was very half-hearted: they didn't believe in these new so-called Abstract Impressionists themselves, and out of seven rooms in the show, only one had their paintings. Later one of them, Frank O'Hara, said, 'It wasn't until the British responded so favourably to our painting that we snapped and thought, wow]'

'Now the Americans are cheating, changing the chronology so as to make themselves look more innovative. For example, I was doing stripe paintings in the mid-Fifties and Morris Louis did them in the early Sixties, but they're trying to fiddle the dates. In December 1957 my stripe paintings were hanging all round the house when Hilton Kramer came to stay. He took my idea back to the States with him. Now he's calling mine 'just tasteful derivations from Rothko'. The Americans take some aspect of art and turn it into a product: and stripes became an early Sixties product, with critics like Clement Greenberg urging his stable of young painters to turn them out because they would sell.'

He instances endless examples of stripe paintings, with proof that he painted them first. Heron says, 'It's now developed into almost a firestorm of lies and controversy and I'm not obsessed about it, on the other hand if it comes to the history of the Fifties I'm buggered if I'm going to falsify the record. But I'm not even going to reply to Hilton Kramer.' What is at stake here is American versus British cultural imperialism: who used multi-coloured stripes first? In artistic circles, it matters.

He talks about the colossal success of this year's Matisse exhibition, seen in New York and Paris but not, despite his best efforts, in Britain. The show, he says, was originally his idea. In early 1988 he and the architect Richard Rogers visited the Soviet authorities on behalf of the Tate, asking to borrow their 55 pristine Matisses, unseen in the West since 1914. To their delight, they secured a provisional agreement. This goodwill, Heron believes, was frittered away by procrastination and half-heartedness and so the Tate missed the Matisses: to Heron's fury.

'People are fed up at this very dark moment in human history and here's a painter who celebrates the miraculous beauty of all visual data. The arc, the rocket of his success is still curving upwards.' He also bitterly regrets that The Red Studio, one of Matisse's greatest works, was not purchased by the Tate during the war, when it was for sale at a mere pounds 400: 'an incomparable loss'. Matisse has been the strongest influence on Heron's own painting, which celebrates colour with the same singing, dancing energy.

Perhaps, despite Matisse, colour isn't really to the English taste. At any rate, Heron's popularity seems to have reached its zenith during the Sixties, and has never been quite the same since. Is he bitter? Yes, a little bit. But he goes on painting, and has a major show later this year. He has designed three vast banners to hang in the new Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, where their celestial colours should cheer up the patients.

'To me, everything of value in painting is the domain of the abstract. The prime reality of human life is visual consciousness. It's there all the time and it's absolutely amazingly beautiful - you can only use that very old-fashioned word.

'I think if I were in a prison cell I would entertain myself just by looking at what was available. To become conscious of what your eyes can bring in to your brain is endlessly satisfying.' Few people could get away with saying that. Patrick Heron means it.

(Photograph omitted)

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