"I think this world is magical. Colour, form, space, relationships ‒ these elevate life. They energise. They elevate my whole consciousness...I think art heightens the potential of the actual'" ~ Patrick Heron
Born 30 January 1920 at Headingley, Leeds in Yorkshire, Patrick Heron was the eldest child of Thomas Milner Heron and Eulalie Mabel (née Davies). When Patrick Heron was five and his brother Michael (later known as Benedict) was four the family moved to Cornwall, where Tom joined Alec Walker at Cryséde to manage and expand the business from artist-designed woodblock prints on silk to include garment-making and retail. The whole family, now four children (Joanna born 1926 and Antony Giles born 1928), moved again in 1929 to Welwyn Garden City where Tom established Cresta Silks. Notable designers including Edward McKnight Kauffer and Wells Coates, Paul Nash and Cedric Morris worked with Cresta, and Patrick also created fabric designs for the firm from his teenage years. At school, Patrick Heron met his future wife, Delia, daughter of Celia and Richard Reiss, a director of the company which founded Welwyn Garden City.
Heron's early works were strongly influenced by artists including Matisse, Bonnard, Braque and Cézanne. Throughout his career, Heron worked in a variety of media, from the silkscarves he designed for his father's company Cresta from the age of 14, to a stained-glass window for Tate St Ives, but he was foremost a painter working in oils and gouache.
Heron first saw the paintings of Cézanne at an exhibition at the National Gallery in 1933, an influence which continued throughout his career. Having seen The Red Studio by Matisse (one of his other significant influences) at the Redfern Gallery in 1943, Heron completed The Piano, which he considered to be his first mature work. His first solo exhibition was held in 1947 at the Redfern Gallery, London. That same year, Heron began a series of portraits of T. S. Eliot, one of which was acquired by the National Portrait Gallery in 1966. In 2013 this highly abstracted portrait was the centre of an exhibition at the gallery, displayed for the first time alongside a selection of Heron's original studies from life and memory from which it was produced.
Shift toward abstraction
Heron's permanent move to Eagle's Nest above the Cornish village of Zennor in 1956 coincided with his commitment to non-figurative painting and resulted in a very productive period of his work. Its roots can be seen in the Space in Colour exhibition held at Hanover Gallery, London in 1953 where the works of Heron and nine of his British contemporaries were displayed, which he both curated and wrote the catalogue for. His Tachiste paintings made reference to the garden at Eagle's Nest, such as Azalea Garden, in the Tate collection.
His 'Stripe' paintings, described by Alan Bowness as being 'suffused with light and colour and full of a positive life-enhancing quality so free and so refreshing' emphasised this move towards the principles of colour. From 1958 onwards, Heron was represented by Waddington Galleries in London, and in the 1960s he was also represented by the Bertha Schaefer Gallery in New York.
When Ben Nicholson moved to Switzerland in 1958, Heron took over his studio at Porthmeor Studios, overlooking the beach at Porthmeor, St Ives, and began to take advantage of the larger space to paint at a bigger scale – first soft-edged and then the self-described "wobbly hard-edge painting", such as Cadmium with Violet, Scarlet, Emerald, Lemon and Venetian: 1969 in the Tate.
The shock of Delia's unexpected death in 1979 meant Heron did little painting for some time. When he did return to the canvas, he turned to the garden at Eagle's Nest. Just as it had shown a route to abstraction when Heron first moved there in the 1950s, through it he found a way to reinvigorate his creative approach: rather than rapidly drawing large shapes in pen across the canvas which would then be filled in with a fine Japanese watercolour brush as he had through most of the 1970s, Heron used a large brush, mixed different colours together, and painted from the arm rather than the wrist, allowing the works to develop through the act of painting. This burst of creativity, resulting in paintings such as 28 January: 1983 (Mimosa), formed Heron's Barbican exhibition of 1985.
In 1989 Heron was invited to be artist-in-residence at the museum of New South Wales in Sydney, and this resulted in another highly prolific period of his work. Drawing inspiration from his daily walk to his studio through the city's Botanic Gardens located by the harbour, Heron produced six large paintings and 46 gouaches in sixteen weeks. These works are reactions to real visual experiences, yet are not direct representations; instead the line and colour encapsulate "specific visual realities without ever depicting them" These intense periods of activity characterised Heron's later career, made obvious through his exhibitions at the Barbican, and another at Camden Arts Centre in 1994. Taking advantage of the space of the centre, Heron created a series of paintings of grand proportions – at 6 feet 6 inches (2.0 m) and ranging from 11 to 17 feet (3.35 to 5.18 m) long, they were conceived with Camden Arts Centre's galleries in mind. These paintings formed the exhibition entitled 'Big Paintings' that went on to tour Britain.
Nicholas Serota, former director of the Tate Gallery, who was a friend as well as patron, described Heron as "one of the most influential figures in post-war British art"