I am often asked, ‘what is the best part of being a curator?’ This question is difficult to answer because there are so many possible responses. Writing about art comes near the top, as does researching and acquiring new works for the collection. Working with living artists is also enormously exciting and invariably illuminating. However, at this minute I am tempted to say that displaying great works of art is still, after almost thirty years of curating, the biggest thrill.  There is something about seeing a painting or a drawing finally taking its place within a long-planned exhibition that constantly surprises. In that moment, familiar images suddenly appear in a different light and become vital.

Probably the reason I say this now is because I have just been hanging a new 20th century display:  Patrick Heron – Studies for a Portrait of T S Eliot.  This installation focuses on one of the Gallery’s most celebrated portraits, a remarkable image of Britain’s greatest modernist poet by a leading pioneer of post-war abstract painting.  When the portrait was made, in 1949, Heron was a young artist still working in a figurative, though highly abstracted style. For the first time, this extraordinary image – with its arresting double-profile – is being shown with the studies that preceded it.  Comprising drawings from life and oil paintings that experimented with invented colour and form, it now becomes possible to retrace the artist’s creative journey. 

Over a three year period, Heron gradually proceeded from observation, through memory, finally arriving at a point when a leap in imagination had to be taken. A penultimate, cubist portrait of the great man signals that critical juncture. The outcome was an astonishing transformation  when Eliot’s appearance was refracted through pure shape and collisions of colour.  When I see these works now, I am astonished. They reveal a process of discovery and invention, leading to a decisive step into the unknown. 

Image Credit (from top to bottom)

T.S. Eliot: Cubist Version
by Patrick Heron, 1947–8 © The estate of Patrick Heron. All Rights Reserved, DACS, 2013

Portrait of T.S. Eliot: Study from Memory
by Patrick Heron, 1947–8 © The estate of Patrick Heron. All Rights Reserved, DACS, 2013

First Portrait Drawing of T.S. Eliot
by Patrick Heron, 1947 © The estate of Patrick Heron. All Rights Reserved, DACS, 2013



We are currently unable to accept new comments, but any past comments are available to read below.


10 February 2013, 18:01

I am so pleased you enjoyed the display and warmly welcome the link with the T S Eliot Society. I hope that this will encourage visitors to see these fascinating portraits of a great poet by a wonderful artist.

TS Eliot Society UK

08 February 2013, 12:03

We were delighted by the show; there is a warmth and approachability to the studies, and given the tiny number of formal Eliot portraits, a rare opportunity to see him captured in other sittings. Anyone who is now encouraged to discover more about TS Eliot and his works is invited to visit our website at http://www.eliotsociety.org.uk (The TS Eliot Society UK), where there is a wealth of links and resources for enthusiasts and scholars.


06 February 2013, 10:53

This display is such a rare opportunity to trace the creative journey on an iconic work of art. I was lucky enough to spend a day with Patrick in the 1980s at Eagles Nest when he talked about those early years so passionately and do urge everyone to make this trip to the Gallery to see these portraits.