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Portraying an eminent man of letters

22 March 2013

Nicholas Cranfield on Patrick Heron's encounter with Eliot


The poet sits:the University of Kent's Patrick Heron portrait of T. S. Eliot, newly rediscovered, but too late for the current exhibition

The poet sits:the University of Kent's Patrick Heron portrait of T. S. Eliot, newly rediscovered, but too late for the current exhibition

T. S. ELIOT, replying in a letter of 28 January 1947 to a young artist who requested a commission, wrote: "I shall be very willing to sit for you, and of course had already been warned of your interest in the possibilities of my features. . ." What better birthday present might any aspiring artist receive? The largely unknown Patrick Heron turned 27 two days later.

Heron's painting style was predominantly non-figurative, much of it still trapped in pursuing Cézanne, whose Montagne Sainte Victoire (Courtauld Gallery) he had first seen when he was 13. Memory rather than direct observation informed his work.

But he was also an informed and perceptive critic: his authoritative reviews of Modernist artists, such as Klee, Picasso, and Braque, had already won him a readership in New English Weekly. Eliot had first published "East Coker", "The Dry Salvages", and "Little Gidding" in the same Socialist review, with which the artist's father had links. Hence, no doubt, the commission.

Heron (1920-99) later recalled that he was astounded that only one portrait existed of "the greatest poet in the world, who was already 62". The portrait to which Heron referred was a contentious one by Wyndham Lewis, for which Eliot had sat in Lady Ottoline Morrell's Garsington home in 1938.

The remark is somewhat gauche, not least as Eliot all but ceased to write poetry after the Second World War. But the honours heaped on the 60-year-old Eliot in 1948, when he received both the Order of Merit from King George VI and the Nobel Prize for Literature, turned a long-admired poet into an internationally recognised man of letters. Heron's portrait was more than timely.

Not that Eliot had ever been shy of having his image taken, as Nuzhat Bukhari showed in her article, "The Distinguished Shaman", for John Hopkins's prestigious journal Modernism/Modernity (2004). In particular, he had capitalised on photography to make his image widely known. Man Ray photographed him in the 1930s, and Ted McKnight Kauffer, from Montana, photographed him for Elliott & Fry in 1939.

Kauffer was not primarily a photographer, but was noted for his poster art. His designs included covers for some of Eliot's best-known works - Ariel and other Poems, The Journey of the Magi, A Song for Simeon, and the American edition of Four Quartets. His portrait photograph shows that the 50-year-old writer had not yet sloughed off the lounge lizard, a tad more Harvard than Merton College, Oxford.

George Platt Lynes (1947) captures the publisher in crumpled suit and fedora with an umbrella and raincoat over one arm - a man about town still, but frayed a little at the edges. It is authentic in a way that earlier pictures had not always been.

Readers of The Saturday Review would have recognised Eliot instantly in the caricature by the New Zealander David Low (1945), although it surprised the poet to see aspects of General de Gaulle in himself that he had not thought of before.

Writing in The Guardian in September 1988, soon after a Cubist version of the portrait was found in the attic of his Cornish house (on show at the National Portrait Gallery for the first time), Heron recalled that the poet was a congenial sitter, accommodating his every demand. This is by way of a stark contrast to Man Ray's observation that Eliot interested him as little as he (Ray) interested Eliot.

When Eliot adjusted his pose, "spotting" a chimney pot as a ballet dancer might to correct the angle of his head, Heron recalled, 40 years on, "I realised at that moment that Eliot's genius extended far beyond the sphere of the verbal. Obviously he was as aware of the form in space, which was his own body slanted in that tiny room, as a sculptor might have been. I always thought that his comments on pictorial matters had the sort of validity that normally one only encounters in the casual remarks of painters and sculptors themselves."

In reality, even in the offices of Faber & Faber, Eliot could not spare much time for sittings, and the final portrait was undertaken from memory after further sittings in Heron's London home, and in that of his parents in Welwyn Garden City, over two years.

Catching sight of one sketch, Eliot had remarked, "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!" On another occasion, the poet professed mild surprise when the artist explained how he wanted to see the sitter's head "in plastic terms which would be identical with those of the large coffee pot in my latest still-life". As a man who had measured out his own life with coffee spoons since at least 1917, Eliot might have been more generous to Heron's quip.

In all, Heron made 11 portraits, including sketches in conté and crayon as well as oils, ten of which appear here (only the one in Eliot College in the University of Kent is not shown), with a later (1949) monoprint in which he swivelled the sitter to "stimulate excitement and interest afresh".

The first sketches in the hard winter of 1947 show Eliot in his vast overcoat with wide lapels. He sits in satisfaction like a bomber pilot in the mess after a successful raid. The "wonderful night-blue overcoat" has gone in the portrait, although a hint of the collar and the revere remains emblazoning the sitter's head.


The final portrait (30 x 24¾ in.), which was shown in pride of place at the Redfern Gallery in 1950, was bought by the National Portrait Gallery only after Eliot had died. In it, the sitter's abstract face is shown full frontal with an overlapping, darker, left profile. It is almost identical in size to the "Cubist Version" that Paul Moorhouse has displayed next to it, which is the lost painting retrieved by Heron's wife from the attic.

Ash Wednesday (1930), Eliot's first long poem after he had surprisingly converted to become a member of the Church of England, is densely coloured, and the violet, varied green, white, and blue, the "blue of larkspur, blue of Mary's colour", become the palette that Heron referenced in the "Cubist Version", but, in the final portrait, sere green and a complimentary burgundy enfold the torso.

In 1972, 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." We see that fully played out across the face of "The Undertaker", as Lady Ottoline used to call "poor Tom".

Although the National Portrait Gallery claims that the painting is widely known, it is shameful that there is neither a catalogue nor even a postcard for the display, which is on the first landing (Room 32). One might have hoped for better from David Gelbaum's Quercus Trust, which is funding this fascinating little show.

"Patrick Heron: Studies for a Portrait of T. S. Eliot" is at the National Portrait Gallery, St Martin's Place, London WC1, until 22 September 2013. Phone 020 7306 0055.


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