Two studies of a post-war portrait of TS Eliot, painted by Patrick Heron before the artist had matched the poet’s imperious reputation, have gone on show at the National Portrait Gallery, giving the public the first glimpse of a study found by Heron's wife in his attic.
One of the oil studies of the highly abstracted modernist painting, executed in a cubist style reflecting the completed portrait, remained forgotten for more than 20 years until the artist’s wife, Delia, rediscovered it at Eagles Nest, the home she had shared with him at St Ives in Cornwall.
© The estate of Patrick Heron. All Rights Reserved, DACS, 2013
The portrait, made by Heron “from memory, very slowly, over a period of nearly three years,” is one of the most famous works held by the gallery.
Its complex creation is illustrated by ten accompanying preparatory drawings and paintings, while the other central oil study, carried out at the artist’s Holland Park home, is more figurative.
Despite being relatively unknown at the time, Heron managed to sit with Eliot after meeting him through his father, Tom, who was a friend of the poet.
The painter was said to have been fascinated by Eliot’s poetry during his formative years, meeting him at the poet’s central London office at Faber and Faber, Holland Park and at Heron’s parents’ home in Welwyn Garden City.
An unkind combination of a national electricity crisis and extremely cold weather forced Eliot to wear the dark blue overcoat in the final work. His second wife, Valier, praised the painting’s “mood of mingled sweetness and sadness.”
For his part, Heron felt unsure of the final outcome during his composition. He called Eliot’s eye “the most conscious eye in the universe” and “the very centre of contemporary consciousness”, but revealed that Eliot felt the result was “a very cruel face”, despite conceding the possibility of having “a cruel face without being a cruel person.”
“The ensuing portrait is one of Patrick Heron’s most remarkable inventions,” says Paul Moorhouse, of the gallery.
“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.”