T.S. Eliot

© Patrick Heron/ DACS 2021

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T.S. Eliot

by Patrick Heron
oil on canvas, 1949
30 in. x 24 3/4 in. (762 mm x 629 mm)
Purchased with help from the Contemporary Art Society, 1965
This portrait has been adopted thanks to a generous donation from The T.S. Eliot Foundation
Primary Collection
NPG 4467

On display in Room 28 on Floor 2 at the National Portrait Gallery

Sitterback to top

Artistback to top

  • Patrick Heron (1920-1999), Painter and art critic. Artist or producer of 5 portraits, Sitter in 14 portraits.

This portraitback to top

Painted the year after Eliot was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, this portrait is a happy collaboration between two of the leading contemporary theoreticians and practitioners of poetry and painting. Both held radical positions, both were concerned with ideas in the abstract, and both were immensely influential. In 1972, in the introduction to his retrospective at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, Heron said that colour had become his 'most persistent concern. It is the interaction of colours, the 'meeting lines' or 'frontiers' between colours which are crucial.'

Linked publicationsback to top

  • 100 Portraits, p. 118
  • 100 Writers, p. 86
  • Cooper, John, A Guide to the National Portrait Gallery, 2009, p. 54 Read entry

    Painted the year after Eliot was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, this portrait is a happy collaboration between two of the leading contemporary theoreticians and practitioners of modern poetry and painting. Abstraction and figuration blend into a complex portrait.

  • Cooper, John, Visitor's Guide, 2000, p. 97
  • Edited by Rab MacGibbon and Tanya Bentley, Icons and Identities, 2021, p. 111
  • Gibson, Robin, Treasures from the National Portrait Gallery, 1996, p. 115
  • Gibson, Robin, 20th Century Portraits, 1978 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 9 June - 17 September 1978), p. 50
  • Gibson, Robin; Clerk, Honor, 20th Century Portraits in the National Portrait Gallery Collection, 1993, p. 19 Read entry

    Although Eliot's eclecticism has laid him open to charges of obscurity, he remains arguably the greatest modern poet of the English language. The anti-romanticism and intellectual toughness of The Wasteland (1922) deposed the poetry of Eliot's Georgian contemporaries and became the dominant literary influence on young writers of the time. Eliot's later poems such as Ash Wednesday (1930) and The Four Quartets (1944) and his verse play Murder in the Cathedral (1935) reflect the Christian belief that played an increasingly important role in his life and work.

    The portrait by Epstein was commissioned by the playwright Ashley Dukes, a friend of both the sculptor and Eliot. The study by Patrick Heron is the definitive version of three portraits of Eliot by the artist and close in style to Heron's painting of Herbert Read, also in the Gallery's collection.

  • John Cooper, National Portrait Gallery Visitor's Guide, 2006, p. 97
  • Rab MacGibbon, National Portrait Gallery: The Collection, p. 91
  • Saumarez Smith, Charles, The National Portrait Gallery: An Illustrated Guide, 2000, p. 203
  • Saumarez Smith, Charles, The National Portrait Gallery, 1997, p. 203 Read entry

    Patrick Heron has himself described how he came to undertake his well-known portrait of the poet T.S. Eliot: 'I wrote to Eliot in January, 1947, saying that I had for a long time been thinking around the problem of a portrait, and asking him if he would object to this; and, if not, if he'd give me sittings. He replied very charmingly, giving his consent and saying that he "had, of course been warned of your interest in the possibilities of my features". (He must have heard of this from my father, who knew him.) The drawings, and one study in oils, were made at sittings during 1947 and 1949: but the Portrait which you now have was made about a year after I'd had the last of these sittings, that is, towards the end of 1949, I think. It was first shown in an exhibition I held at the Redfern Gallery in April-May 1950.' This provides all the information one needs about the portrait but perhaps fails to convey its significance as an attempt to keep alive the conventions of portraiture through Cubism, so that Eliot is seen simultaneously both full face and in profile.

  • Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 199
  • Various contributors, National Portrait Gallery: A Portrait of Britain, 2014, p. 219 Read entry

    The genesis of this painting of T. S. Eliot by Patrick Heron (1920–99) was a drawing made from life on 4 March 1947. Two months earlier, the young, relatively unknown painter had written to Eliot, one of the twentieth century’s greatest poets, asking whether he would be willing to sit for a portrait. Encouraged by a positive response, Heron visited Eliot in his office at the publishers Faber & Faber, where he was a director. An electricity crisis meant that there was no heating, so Eliot awaited his visitor wearing a blue overcoat, references to which can be seen in the completed painting. Observing the writer of The Waste Land (1922) and Four Quartets (1943), both landmarks in modern literature, Heron recalled ‘finding myself looking into the grey eye of this greatest of living writers, and feeling that I was looking into the most conscious eye in the universe.’ At that time, Heron’s art was influenced by Pierre Bonnard, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, and their example is evident. Subsequent drawings from life, and related experimental studies, underpinned a progressively abstracted image incorporating a double profile. This drew on observation but eventually was made, over a period of nearly three years, from memory.

Linked displays and exhibitionsback to top

Events of 1949back to top

Current affairs

Following the Republic of Ireland Act in 1948, the Irish Free State becomes the Republic of Ireland and leaves the Commonwealth. The functions previously given to the King were handed to the President of Ireland.
The Second Parliament Act diminishes the power of the House of Lords, reducing their authority to delay bills from two years to one.

Art and science

George Orwell publishes his dystopian novel, 1984. The book imagines a future where totalitarian governments rule; their power based on continual war abroad, and overwhelming propaganda and surveillance at home. With 'Big Brother' keeping a constant check on the citizens' actions and thoughts, the individual loses the faculties of free will and independent thought.


The People's Republic of China is created after the Communist Party wins the Civil War. China became a communist country under Mao Zedong.
Cold War tensions increase as Germany is split into the democratic Federal Republic of Germany in the west (a union of the post-war British, French and American sectors), and the communist German Democratic Republic, in the east.

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