Patrick Heron
Biography of Abstract Expressionist Painter of St Ives School.

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Pale Pink and Lemon Painting (1982)
Serpentine Gallery, London.

Patrick Heron (1920-99)


Art Training and Early Influences
Early Paintings
Abstract Expressionism
Art Critic and Writings

Untitled (1973) Surely one of the
greatest 20th-century paintings of
the colourist genre.

For top creative practitioners, see:
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For the greatest view painters, see:
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Probably England's greatest expert on the use of colour in painting, Heron is best known for his signature style of vividly coloured abstract paintings and prints. Initially inspired by the French painters Henri Matisse (1869-1954) and Georges Braque (1882-1963), he turned to abstraction in his mid-30s, under the influence of Abstract Expressionism, in particular the Colour Field Painting style popularized by Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. See, for instance, Mark Rothko's paintings (1938-70). Unlike the American expressionist painters, Heron did not settle on one single design, but produced a range of different compositions - including ones with horizontal stripes, with vertical stripes, and with soft-edged shapes. However, all his abstract expressionist painting is noted for its saturated colour and - despite being unmistakeably abstract - the essential naturalism of its forms. Indeed, a good deal of Heron's work is devoted to an analysis of natural forms and colours. He is also sometimes associated with the style of Lyrical Abstraction. In addition to oils, he also worked in gouache, while his interest in design extended to tapestry art and stained glass. In addition to being one of the best English painters, Heron was also an accomplished art critic: he wrote a column for the New English Weekly, the New Statesman and Nation 1945–50, and was the London correspondent for Arts (New York) 1955–8.



Art Training and Early Influences

Born in Leeds, the son of Thomas Milner Heron, a clothes manufacturer, pacifist, and active member of the Leeds Arts Club, Heron moved to West Cornwall with his family (1925-30) before settling in Welwyn Garden City. It was here that his father founded the firm of Cresta Silks and developed Utility Clothing during the Second World War. Patrick Heron, meanwhile, having informed his parents (at the age of 3) that he wanted to be an artist, and having already demonstrated a natural flair for drawing the Cornish coastline, paid a school visit in 1933 to London's National Gallery, where he fell in love with the paintings of Paul Cezanne (1839-1906). The following year, he designed a best-selling fabric for the family firm, at the tender age of 14. In 1937, he left school and began part-time studies at the Slade School of Art. In 1939, he signed on as a conscientious objector and did a three-year stint as a farm labourer, before attending the Leach Pottery Centre in St Ives, Cornwall (1944-5), where he met the sculptors Ben Nicholson (1894-1982) and Barbara Hepworth (1903-75), and other artists of the St Ives School, including Ivon Hitchens and Naum Gabo. Shortly before moving to St Ives, he had visited the Redfern Gallery in London to see The Red Studio (1911, Museum of Modern Art, New York) - a painting also revered by Rothko - and as a result was inspired to create his first mature painting, entitled: The Piano (1943).



Early Paintings

When the war ended, Heron returned to London, where he continued painting and also secured the position of art critic for the New English Weekly. In 1946, he was deeply impressed by the Georges Braque exhibition at the Tate Gallery, and wrote a lengthy article on the artist and his work for the New English Weekly. The following year he had his first one-man show at the Redfern Gallery, showing both figurative studies, like The Gas Stove (1946), as well as more abstract works such as The Boats and the Iron Ladder (1947). Over the next five years, Heron spent time in Europe visiting Paris, the south of France and Italy. He saw Braque in his Paris studio and showed him the New English Weekly essay. (Heron's writings were greatly admired by the influential American art critic Clement Greenberg (1909-94), who met up with Heron in the mid-1950s.) In 1952, Heron was given a retrospective exhibition at the Wakefield Art Gallery.

In 1953, back in London, he participated in a group show of works by ten contemporary artists, at Hanover Gallery, before showing twelve paintings at the Sao Paulo Biennale. In the same year, he began a 3-year stint as a teacher at the Central School of Arts and Crafts. Since his first one-man show at the Redfern in 1947, Heron's painting style had continued to evolve in a more abstract way, under the continuing influence of modern artists like Cezanne, Matisse and Braque, as well as Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), Andre Derain (1880-1954) and Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). In particular, works like Harbour Window with Two Figures, St Ives (1950, Tate Collection, London), show him struggling intellectually with abstraction, trying to put his love of Cubism to use. (His Cubist-style Portrait of T.S.Eliot (1949) was purchased in 1966 by London's National Portrait Gallery.) In fact, it wouldn't be long before he delved fully into abstract art, and began to create the visually stunning pictures for which he became famous.

Abstract Expressionism

The turning point for Heron came in 1956, when he and his family finally settled in west Cornwall, and when he saw the large-scale flat colour canvases of the so-called New York School of Abstract Expressionism at the Tate. It was the first time that American abstract painters like Mark Rothko (1903-70) and Barnett Newman (1905-70) had exhibited their work in England. Greatly impressed, Heron was inspired to paint a series of acclaimed works, in which he began to reveal his now characteristic balance between what he saw in his garden and the pictorial reality of what he painted. Over the next two decades, he produced a range of stunning colour-drenched canvases that secured his reputation as the greatest English master of colour theory in painting. In June 1956, he exhibited his new works (known as "Garden Paintings") at the Redfern Gallery, where he returned the following year to show his first "Horizontal Stripe Paintings".

In 1958, he inherited Ben Nicholson’s former studio at Porthmeor, St Ives - where he painted for the rest of his life; in 1959 he was awarded the Grand Prize at the second John Moores Liverpool Exhibition at the Walker Art Gallery; and in 1960 held his first one-man show in America, at the Bertha Schaefer Gallery in New York, followed by a solo exhibition at the new Waddington Galleries in London.

Art Critic and Writings

Heron's writing on art and art education began in 1945, when he was asked by Philip Mairet, Editor of The New English Weekly, to write for the journal. He wrote his first piece on Ben Nicholson, followed by longer articles on the modern art of Cezanne, Picasso, Klee and Braque. In 1947, he became art critic of the New Statesman, a position he occupied until 1950. In 1955, he became the London correspondent of the Arts Digest, New York - later renamed Arts (NY). A selection of his reviews was published in 1955, under the name The Changing Forms of Art. A further selection of his writings was published in 1998 to coincide with his retrospective at the Tate Gallery, London. During the late 1960s, he wrote a series of articles for Studio International, casting doubt on the perceived superiority of American painters. His final contribution to the issue was a 14,000-word article which was published over three editions of The Guardian newspaper in October 1974. He had already contributed an important article on the independence and autonomy of art schools in England and Wales, in 1971, which had triggered a huge response from readers.

During the 1960s and 1970s, Heron gave lectures in several different countries around the world. These talks included the Power lecture in Contemporary Art, in Sydney, and the William Doty Lectures in Fine Arts at the University of Texas, all of which culminated in a book, The Shape of Colour (1978).

Heron died at his home in Cornwall, on 20 March 1999 at the age of 79.


Heron's divine sense of colour and an intuitive feeling for the relationship between differing colour pigments made him one of Britain's most recognizable twentieth century painters. Along with other great abstract painters, like Rothko, he has the ability to produce stunning visual art which appeals to everyone - irrespective of their views on abstract art.


During his career, Heron was given retrospective exhibitions of his work in a number of public museums and galleries in England, including: Wakefield City Art Gallery (1952); the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford (1968); Whitechapel Art Gallery (1972); Barbican Art Gallery (1985); and Tate Britain (1998).


Paintings by Patrick Heron can be seen in many of the best art museums around the world, including: British Museum, London; Tate Gallery, London; Victoria & Albert Museum, London; Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh; University of Galway, Ireland; Boymans-van Beuningen Museum, Rotterdam; Peter Stuyvesant Foundation, Amsterdam; Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney; Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane; Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide; Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto; Montreal Museum of Fine Arts; Setagaya Art Museum, Tokyo; Ohnishi Museum, Kogawa Prefecture; Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo; Brooklyn Museum, New York; Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Museum of Art, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut; and many others.

• For biographies of other English abstract artists, see: Famous Painters.
• For more details of abstract painting, see: Homepage.

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