Adrian Heath

1920–1992

Adrian Heath was born in Burma in 1920. Arriving in England at the age of five, he studied painting in Cornwall before enrolling at Slade School of Art, where he studied under William Coldstream. During World War II he was imprisoned in the Bavarian prison camp Stalag 383. After trying to escape, he was placed in solitary confinement, during which time he started experimenting with abstract forms. Indeed, the war years proved crucial in the development of Heath’s analytic, abstract approach to form, which he always privileged over realism and figuration. Asked by the Stalag newspaper, Camp, what spiritual lesson captivity had taught him, Heath answered: "To observe at first hand how people of any background, education, temperament, intelligence and ability can respond to art and benefit from doing it and talking about it". After the war had ended, Heath returned to the Slade to complete his studies (under Randolph Schwabe). He then moved to France, where he spent some time in Paris, and a year in Carcassone. Although Heath was to retain links with Cornwall throughout his life, the impact that London and Paris exercised on his artistic production shaped the future of his work, which grew out of a cross-fertilisation between the classical abstraction which was typical of London, and the romantic abstraction of St. Ives. Having visited St Ives in 1949, befriending Ben Nicholson and William Scott, among others, Heath was able to forge a link between the St Ives School and the Constructivist movement back in London, as practised by Victor Pasmore and Kenneth and Mary Martin. Indeed, Heath was to play a vital role in promoting abstract art in Britain during the 1950s. His studio at Fitzroy Street soon became a meeting place, as well as an informal exhibition space, for many intellectuals and artists of the time. In 1951, he helped organise the first exhibition of post-war British abstract art, held at the AIA Gallery, London. Interested in art theory, he wrote a manifesto-like text entitled Abstract Art: Its Origins and Meaning, which was published in 1953, the same year as his first London show, which was staged at the Redfern Gallery. He served as Chairman of the Artists’ International Association between 1954 and 1964, and later served on the board of the Arts Council of Great Britain (1964-67). 

 

His paintings of the '50s comprised painted abstract compositions of interlocking forms, underpinned by an interest in geometry, proportion and symmetry as well as colour. Heath was fascinated by the "growth" of these compositions; this, for him, was "the actual life of the work". As such, the compositions were worked over a number of layers, with the paintings often heavily textured as a result. To further this exploration of materiality, Heath often used collaged elements, incorporating card and thick paper into his canvases. An example from 1953, in which browned paper collages intersect heavily painted modulations of white, is now in the Tate. By the mid-'50s, Heath started to use curved forms; an important development that informed much of his subsequent paintings of this decade. A particularly good example was purchased from the Redfern in 1955, by the Arts Council of Great Britain. In 1957, Heath was part of Metavisual, Tachiste, Abstract, the seminal show of British abstract painting held at the Redfern. 

 

By the 1960s, Heath pursued a new brand of abstract painting, preferring looser, more dynamic compositions, with expressive brush strokes and a smooth, flat application of oil. Completed on large-scale canvases, this new work was shown for the first time in a solo exhibition at the Hanover Gallery, from which several of the exhibits were sold to important public collections. For example, a particularly gestural painting in black and brown, was bought by the Tate, and other examples were sold to the art museums of Bristol, Leicester and Glasgow. Many of the compositions were based on preparatory sketches on paper, applied with swift, diluted washes of oil, an example of which was purchased by the Tate in 1964. Between the 1960s and ‘80s, Heath’s work was selected for inclusion in important survey shows, such as those organised by the British Council - notably British Art Today, which toured the USA in 1962; the Royal Academy's survey of British painting from 1952-77; and the Tate's first large-scale survey show of St Ives 1939-64, in 1985. Recently, Heath's work was selected by his friend Terry Frost, as part of an exhibition at Tate St Ives. His paintings can be seen Tate Britain's current exhibition Walk Through British Art, a chronological survey of the best British art, drawn from the Tate's permanent collection. Heath is in room 10, as part of a display focusing on abstract art in Britain during the 1950s.

 

The Redfern Gallery represents the Adrian Heath estate. 

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Adrian Heath

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