Adrian Heath: political conservative, artistic radical

Adrian Heath, by Jane Rye. Published by Lund Humphries Reviewed by Max Neufeld

Oil on canvas.

Ascending Forms, Oil on canvas painted in 1951 by Adrian Heath

The publication of this copiously illustrated monograph on Adrian Heath (1920-1992) is an important event. It recognises and describes Adrian’s major, but still neglected, role in post war British Art. After finding his feet following three years as a prisoner of war, Adrian conciously became an abstract painter through the study of art theory and intellectual conviction. As he put it: “I no longer work from a visual experience but towards one.” In the early 1950s a group of like minded artists coalesced around Victor Pasmore including Anthony Hill, Kenneth and Mary Martin, and Adrian Heath. As so often in his life Adrian became the active promotor of the group and it was at his flat in 28 Charlotte Street that the first of three exhibitions was held in 1952. They called their work “Constructed abstract art”. 

Adrian subsequently separated from the group as he was the only one to go on painting while the others created constructions. Adrian developed as an artist over the years and painted many beautiful paintings but there is no doubt that the early- to mid-1950s were his most innovative and important period. During this time his painting had a particular intellectual rigueur and tension.

In his subsequent development particularly the 1970s and 1980s his work became more sensuous with the appearance of abstracted human form in his pictures.

Adrian was in many ways a contradiction: politically conservative and establishment and a member of the Beefsteak Club, but artistically a radical. He believed passionately in the social value of art and in his abstract painting pursued an unpopular aesthetic. He never sought to be fashionable. With his wide knowledge of art theory and related philosophy he was an intellectual but in a country where intellectuals are suspect he carried his knowledge lightly. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of 19th Century French painting.

In recent years Adrian’s work, particularly that of the 1950s, has become more sought after and it is to be hoped that this in depth study of his work will further encourage recognition of his importance in a key period of British art and that he will at last be given the long overdue major retrospective at the Tate.

Available from Ashgate Publishing.

This article was first published in Fitzrovia News no. 127, December 2012.

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