News Release: Patrick Heron's unseen sketches of T. S. Eliot go on display at National Portrait Gallery for the first time

Thursday 31 January 2013

Two studies for the highly abstracted 1949 modernist painting of the poet T. S. Eliot by Patrick Heron - never previously seen in public - go on display at the National Portrait Gallery today (Thursday 31 January 2013).

One oil study, close in ‘cubist’ style to the completed portrait, had been forgotten about for over 20 years until it was recovered by Heron’s wife Delia in the attic at Eagles Nest, their home in St. Ives, Cornwall, in c. 1970. Another oil study, more figurative in approach, and made from memory at the artist’s Holland Park house, has also never previously been exhibited.

The ten displayed preparatory paintings and drawings for one of the Gallery’s most famous portraits show the complex process of depicting, from figuration to abstraction, one of the twentieth century’s greatest poets. According to the artist, the final portrait owned by the Gallery and also on display, was painted ‘from memory very slowly, after a period of nearly three years.’ 

Patrick Heron (1920-99) secured permission to paint T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) in January 1947. While Eliot’s reputation was established Heron was still relatively unknown and yet to secure recognition as one of Britain’s leading abstract painters. He had been fascinated by Eliot’s poetry since his early teens and it was his father, Tom Heron, who had become a friend of the poet through his connection with the New English Weekly, who provided the initial contact.

The first sitting was held two months later in Eliot’s central London office at Faber & Faber, the publishers where he was a director, shortly after the death of his estranged first wife Vivien. At that moment a national electricity crisis coincided with extremely cold weather and it was forbidden to use electric fires in late morning: to keep warm Eliot began the sittings wearing a dark blue overcoat which can still be glimpsed in the final abstracted painting. In a letter to Heron, Eliot’s second wife Valerie later described, ‘what I liked about the drawing was that you had captured a mood of mingled sweetness and sadness.’ 

At the outset Heron had no idea how the portrait would turn out. He started by making drawings in order to acquaint himself with the ‘plastic facts’ of Eliot’s physiognomy. Nearly three years followed when further sittings were held at the painter’s house in Holland Park and at his parents’ home in Welwyn Garden City.   Heron’s concern was to distil his sitter’s appearance to essentials. The two paintings on display show his allegiance to the analytical cubism of early Picasso, Eliot’s features being fractured into flattened planes.

Heron described looking into Eliot’s ‘grey eye’ as ‘looking into the most conscious eye in the universe [...] into the very centre of contemporary consciousness.’ Seeing the work’s progress at the house in Holland Park, Heron recalls that Eliot exclaimed, ‘It’s a cruel face, a cruel face: a very cruel face! But of course you can have a cruel face without being a cruel person!’ 

During one sitting, the artist told Eliot that he wanted ‘to somehow see his head in plastic terms which would be identical with those of the large coffee-pot in my latest still-life. [...] No head, I felt, even in a painting which called itself ‘a portrait’, should have more or less importance in plastic terms than any other part of the painting – a Cezannian principle of the essential quality of parts, which must always and forever prevail.’ Heron recalls registering Eliot’s ‘faint surprise’ at hearing his head likened to a coffee-pot! 

Paul Moorhouse, Curator of Twentieth Century Portraits, National Portrait Gallery, London, says: ‘The ensuing portrait is one of Patrick Heron’s most remarkable inventions. Completing a journey of progressive abstraction, in the end it was made from memory - and, as the surprising double-profile testifies, with the insight of a penetrating imagination.’

Patrick Heron: Studies for a Portrait of T. S. Eliot is part of the Gallery’s ongoing Interventions series of displays curated by Paul Moorhouse, which commenced in 2006 with Andy Warhol: 10 Portraits of Jews of the 20th Century. Drawing on significant works loaned to the Gallery, the series focuses on important 20th-century artists who have extended portraiture in innovative ways. To date, the Interventions series has included Bridget Riley: from Life, John Gibbons: Portraits, Frank Auerbach: Four Portraits of Catherine Lampert, Anthony Caro: Portraits, Tony Bevan – Self Portraits and Thomas Struth.  

Patrick Heron: Studies for a Portrait of T. S. Eliot, supported by the Quercus Trust, is on display at the National Portrait Gallery, until 22 September 2013. 

IMAGE CAPTIONS

Studies for a portrait of T. S. Eliot by Patrick Heron, 1947–8 © The estate of Patrick Heron. All Rights Reserved, DACS, 2013

For further Press information and image requests please contact: Neil Evans, Press Office, National Portrait Gallery Tel: 020 7312 2452 (not for publication) Email: nevans@npg.org.uk

To download Press images visit: www.npg.org.uk/press

National Portrait Gallery, St Martin’s Place WC2H 0HE, opening hours Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday: 10am – 6pm (Gallery closure commences at 5.50pm) Late Opening: Thursday, Friday: 10am – 9pm  (Gallery closure commences at 8.50pm) Nearest Underground: Leicester Square/Charing Cross General information: 0207 306 0055 Recorded information: 020 7312 2463  Website/Tickets: www.npg.org.uk 

NOTES TO EDITORS

Patrick Heron: Studies for a Portrait of T. S. Eliot - The portraits on display by Patrick Heron (1920–1999)

Text by Inga Fraser, Assistant Curator, National Portrait Gallery, London

PORTRAIT OF T. S. ELIOT STUDY FROM MEMORY: 1947–48

In a letter dated 28 January 1947, Eliot, responding to Heron’s request for sittings, wrote ‘I shall be very willing to sit for you, and of course had already been warned of your interest in the possibilities of my features...’ Not wishing to be ‘too much of an imposition’ on Eliot’s time, Heron created only one study in oil on canvas from the life. That work is now held at Eliot College, University of Kent, and relates to this study in oil, made from memory at Heron’s house in Addison Avenue, Holland Park, which has never before been exhibited.

Oil on canvas B32660

FIRST PORTRAIT DRAWING OF T. S. ELIOT: TUESDAY AFTERNOON, MARCH 4TH 1947

This is Heron’s first drawing of Eliot, made shortly after the death of his first wife Vivien. The exceedingly cold winter coincided with a national electricity crisis and Eliot wore an enormous overcoat with large lapels to counter the government’s ban on electric fires during certain daytime hours. Referring to this work in a letter to Heron, Eliot’s second wife Valerie later described, ‘what I liked about the drawing was that you had captured a mood of mingled sweetness and sadness’.

Conté on paper B32663

T. S. ELIOT – STUDY: 1947

The initial sittings for the portrait took place at Eliot’s office at Faber and Faber at 24 Russell Square in Bloomsbury. It was shortly after establishing the journal the Criterion, in which Eliot’s poem The Waste Land was first published, that Eliot was recruited as literary editor and member of the board of directors at the firm Faber and Gwyn (later Faber and Faber). There Eliot was instrumental in defining a generation of poets, notably encouraging the careers of W H Auden and Ted Hughes. Eliot sat for Heron at his desk looking out at the plane trees in the square below, leaving the artist to ‘squeeze’ into the gap in front of the window with his drawing board.

Charcoal on paper B32662

T. S. ELIOT – STUDY: 1947

A drawing of the artist’s mother on the reverse of this sheet indicates that this drawing may have been executed at Heron’s parents’ house in Welwyn Garden City. At the time of these sittings Eliot was increasingly engaged with essays and literary criticism in such publications as Notes Towards a Definition of Culture (1948) and From Poe to Valéry (1948). A reflection of Eliot’s formidable reputation as both writer and editor covering a range of subjects, Heron described looking into Eliot’s ‘grey eye’ as ‘looking into the most conscious eye in the universe into the very centre of contemporary consciousness.’

Charcoal on paper B32666

T. S. ELIOT – CUBIST VERSION:

1947– 48

Never previously exhibited, this work was forgotten for over twenty years until it was rediscovered by Heron’s wife Delia in the attic at Eagles Nest, their St. Ives home. Described by Heron as ‘a frankly analytical cubist version’ it betrays Heron’s enthusiasm for Braque and Picasso at the time of painting. Heron wrote that despite being ‘the greatest of abstract artists, Braque is yet never non-figurative’. Finding inspiration in this approach, Heron’s view of Eliot in this work is an exercise in abstraction from figuration, one that the artist nevertheless judged unsuccessful at the time of painting.

Oil on canvas B32659

PORTRAIT OF T. S. ELIOT OM: 1949

Heron described this work as ‘the portrait proper, the one and only legitimate end-product of the entire process.’ The abstract, double profile gives us both a likeness and a sense of the scene’s impact in the artist’s imagination. For Heron, painting from memory rather than from the life was instrumental in achieving this. The work was exhibited in ‘the place of honour’ at Heron’s 1950 show at London’s Redfern Gallery, alongside the oil study from life. A reviewer in The Times wrote, ‘he has made a realistic study and this reveals that the artist has all that is needed to make him a successful portrait painter, an aspect of his talent which is most admirably suppressed in the finished work.’

Oil on canvas NPG 4467

T. S. ELIOT: 1947– 48

Heron wrote that this work ‘came to light in a pile of papers’. It was his attempt at ‘exploring the idea of allowing his profile to invade his full face from one side.’ The colour of the crayon recalls Heron’s description of Eliot’s ‘wonderful night-blue overcoat’, which also features in the Gallery’s own portrait.

Blue crayon on paper B33344

T. S. ELIOT – STUDY

(RECTO & VERSO): 1947

During one sitting, Heron told Eliot that he wanted ‘to somehow see his head in plastic terms which would be identical with those of the large coffee-pot in my latest still-life. No head, I felt, even in a painting which called itself a portrait, should have more or less importance in plastic terms than any other part of the painting – a Cezannian principle of the essential quality of parts, which must always and forever prevail.’ Heron recalls registering Eliot’s ‘faint surprise’ at hearing his head likened to a coffee-pot.

Charcoal on paper B32665

T. S. ELIOT: C.1947

One of five portraits of Eliot eventually produced by Heron in oil, the artist initially recalled being astonished that only one other portrait  (by Wyndham Lewis) existed of ‘the greatest poet in the world, who was already sixty-two’, at the time the writer began sitting for him.  This oil on paper study explores areas of colour and tone within the portrait, something that became a feature of Heron’s later work. Heron said that colour was his ‘most persistent concern. It is the interaction of colours, the meeting lines or frontiers between colours which are crucial’.

Oil on paper B32661

VERSION OF T. S. ELIOT: 1949

Eliot’s achievements as poet and critic were publically recognised in 1948 when he received both the Order of Merit and the Nobel prize for literature. Produced a year later, this monotype represents a further examination of the devices found in the earlier studies and oils: the double profile and experiment in colour. Heron recalls that as with his portrait of the critic Herbert Read, he felt it necessary to ‘swivel’ round Eliot from the direction he faced in the life sketches as a means to ‘stimulate excitement and interest afresh’.

Monotype, British Council Collection P3031

T. S. ELIOT – STUDY: 1947

Describing the sittings, Heron stated, the first necessity was somehow to become totally familiar with the plastic facts of Eliot’s physiognomy’ and that he had to ‘scribble like mad at the sittings he so charmingly made time for’. Seeing the work’s progress at the house in Holland Park, Heron recalls that Eliot exclaimed, ‘It’s a cruel face, a cruel face: a very cruel face! But of course you can have a cruel face without being a cruel person!’

Charcoal on paper B32664