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.

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