T S Eliot – portrait by Patrick Heron (1949)

by Patrick Heron, oil on canvas, 1949
T S Eliot, by Patrick Heron (oil on canvas) 1949

Confirmation – as if it were needed – that painters will render not only what they see but also what they know and feel about a subject. Patrick Heron’s study of T S Eliot – on display at the National Portrait Gallery on Charing Cross Road – is absolutely informed by a reading of the poet’s work and, certainly to some extent, his life.

Painted in 1949, a year after Eliot, the author of The Wasteland (1922) and The Four Quartets (1943) had been awarded the Nobel prize for Literature, Heron’s canvas seeks to convey the complexity of Eliot’s character, including as it does, two primary facets: a formal portrait with the poet sitting face forward, with a simultaneous profile, in the manner of Braque.

Eliot typically dressed in suits, yet Heron subtly deconstructs his appearance by using colour to undermine the formality, and by including elements such as the zip completely out of place, not to mention the discreet crucifix on his chest. The composition of the portrait is absolutely traditional, but the traditional silhouette is broken up into a fluid mixture of geometrical and non-geometrical segments in such a way as to challenge and subvert the rather stuffy personna that Eliot tended to project. And Eliot, in his poetry and in his life too, essentially was the embodiment of a conundrum: a paradox, a highly conservative revolutionary, whose key modernist works radically altered the course of twentieth century poetry.

Below I have quoted the  very revealing opening lines of Eliot’s poem, “Ash Wednesday” which was first published in 1930.This poem was written to mark Eliot’s conversion to the Anglican faith. But notice how, into this brilliantly executed portrait, Patrick Heron has incorporated grey ashen tones in the defining lines, in the background and in splashes on the poet’s jacket: greys that contrast with the different shades of green which appear like bold fresh pastures. In the top right-hand corner of the canvas there is the suggested form of a book or pages of text on display, and this would seem to hint at the typical eagle lectern of the Anglican church, which in turn could equally well suggest a phoenix rising from the ashes.

Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the aged eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?

T. S. Eliot

Born in 1920, Patrick Heron trained at the Slade School from 1937 to 1939. His career was interrupted by the war. One of the most profound influences on his painting was the work of George Braque, which he first came to know during an exhibition of Braque’s art at the Tate Gallery in 1946. In the mid-fifties he became interested in abstract painting. He died in 1999.




Barbara Hepworth by Barbara Hepworth

by Dame Barbara Hepworth, oil and pencil on board, 1950
Barbara Hepworth, Self-portrait, 1950 (oil and pencil on board)

For those who enjoyed the recent Dame Barbara Hepworth retrospective at Tate Britain, here is a self-portrait which she produced in 1950, done in oil and pencil on board.

The beauty of this portrait lies in its simplicity. In what is little more than an elaborate sketch, Hepworth has rendered a representation of herself as sculptor, her eye focused on her hand which is resting on a block of material, possibly of marble, and she has such an intense gaze that we can imagine that she is trying to discover the shape which is hidden within the material, or perhaps trying to decide whether the idea or shape she has in her mind will find its form within the medium she is touching. Touch to her was paramount, as she stated:

“I think every sculpture must be touched, it’s part of the way you make it and it’s really our first sensibility, it is the sense of feeling, it is first one we have when we’re born. I think every person looking at a sculpture should use his own body. You can’t look at a sculpture if you are going to stand stiff as a ram rod and stare at it, with a sculpture you must walk around it, bend toward it, touch it and walk away from it.”

The sketch itself can be seen as a preliminary study for a sculpture, the theme of which, is not so much the individual person but the art itself, the vocation of sculptor. The form is stripped down to the essentials as it would or could be if rendered in stone or bronze.

It is not an abstract but it does demonstrate how the great abstracts were produced through a process of reduction, of paring away of unnecessary detail to maximize the impact of the essential shape, which is to say, the essential space that the sculpture displaces. The portrait captures the texture and smoothness of stone and at the same time proposes an eventual transfer of energy, of breath from one medium to another, a process which lies at the heart of all artistic activity.

Barbara Hepworth was born in Wakefield, Yorkshire in 1903. She was a leading modernist figure in the international art scene throughout a career spanning five decades until her death in 1975. The self-portrait can be seen at the National Portrait Galley off Charing Cross Road.

Ceri Richards – Self-portrait (1934)

by Ceri Richards, oil on composition board, 1934
Ceri Richards, Self-portrait (oil on composition board) 1934

Ceri Richards (1903-1971) was born in a small village near Swansea. He and his younger brother and sister were brought up in a highly cultured, working-class environment. His mother came from a family of craftsmen; and his father, who worked in a tinplate foundry, was active in the local church, wrote poetry in Welsh and English, and for many years conducted the Dunvant Excelsior Male Voice Choir. The children were all taught to play the piano, and became familiar with the works of Bach and Handel. In later years music would be an important stimulus to Richards’s painting – as would his youthful sensitivity to the landscapes of Gower and the cycles of nature. Richards trained initially at the Swansea School of Art before completing his studies at the Royal College of Art, (where in later years he became a teacher).

In this beautiful self-portrait from 1934, the influence of the surrealists is quite apparent, particularly that of Picasso. Nevertheless, the portrait remains very much rooted in Richards’s Welsh background, with the dark earthiness of the colours capturing the tone of the valleys where the artist grew up. It is very much the ‘portrait of the artist as a young artist,’ but an artist emerging from a very specific landscape, which the rugged shapes and the simplicity of the composition evoke so well. It is an action painting in the sense that the subject is proudly presenting the tools of his trade, the palette and brushes which he carries as emblems. The thick black lines enhance the notion that the artist is an accumulation of elements, yet the eye is drawn to the bright complexion and the affirmative expression which underline the pride Richards took in his work and his vocation. This self-portrait is quite simply his coat of arms.

Richards wrote: “One can generally say that all artists — poets, musicians, painters, are creating in their own idioms, metaphors for the nature of existence, for the secrets of our time. We are all moved by the beauty and revelation in their utterances — we notice the direction and beauty of the paths they indicate for us, and move towards them”.

The beauty to which Richards refers is intrinsic in every detail of this self-portrait which so clearly and affectionately references his roots in the Welsh valleys —which he appears to be wearing about his shoulders— and his belief in the rugged powers of art. Former pupils have described Richards as a cheerful, boisterous teacher, and these traits come through in this marvellous celebratory painting which is there to be admired any day of the week in the National Portrait Gallery on Charing Cross Road.