Adrian Heath 1920-1992
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Adrian Heath Paintings and Drawings
Oval Theme I, 1956
Oil, polyfilla and hessian on hardboard
80 x 61 cm.
Redfern Gallery, London (from the above)
Private Collection, UK (purchased from the above, 2001)
Osborne Samuel Gallery
Adrian Heath, at the centre of a small group of British avant-garde artists in the 1950s, was responsible for compiling Nine Abstract Artists (1954): a book including statements by the artists concerned – himself, Robert Adams, Terry Frost, Roger Hilton, Kenneth and Mary Martin, Victor Pasmore and William Scott – while contextualising their work in the development of abstract art since the 1930s. The publication was preceded by three exhibitions mounted in Heath’s studio at Fitzroy Street, London, where paintings and sculpture were displayed in a stylish, quasi-domestic environment.
Photographs of the first exhibition, in March 1952, show two oval paintings by Kenneth Martin and Victor Pasmore, a format that Heath would adopt for a series made between 1956 and 1959. For Heath, the origin lay in D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s book, On Growth and Form (1917), which demonstrated the ubiquity of spiral structures in nature. Oval Theme (1) builds outwards from a central red wedge, unfurling through larger slabs of colour towards the edge of the composition. The materiality of the work – incorporating hessian and Polyfilla – endows it with a tough physicality.
In Nine Abstract Artists, Heath identified the importance of the size and format of the area to be painted, as well as his intention that colours and forms should bear evidence of their transitions, becoming richer through the process. As he wrote,
The thing of interest is the actual life of the work: its growth from a particular white canvas or board.
With Oval Theme (1), the relatively large scale and unusual format directed the evolution of the composition.
 Adrian Heath, ‘Statement’ in Lawrence Alloway: Nine Abstract Artists: their work and theory (London: Alec Tiranti, 1954).
 Adrian Heath, letter (1 February 1971), in The Tate Gallery Report 1970–1972 (London: Tate Gallery, 1972).
Oval Motif, 1958
Oil on canvas
91.5 x 71 cm.
Signed, titled and dated verso
The Estate of the Artist
Osborne Samuel, London
Private Collection, UK (purchased from the above 2012)
Heath conjures an abstract composition dominated by an internal splintered oval – the classic format of the society portrait head – and an earthy, warm brown and ochre colour scheme. Heath’s origins as a landscape painter versed in a Slade ethos, in which analytic and even constructional drawing ruled, developed during his subsequent teaching career to a point where he adopted the motif of the life-room reclining or moving figure. The figure was, however, less naturalistic than a mere cipher for an independent and plastic structural vision.
Heath’s membership of the Fitzroy Street Constructionist group was pivotal and, where the Nine Abstract Artists group was concerned, he acted as a moderating link between the purist or concretist wing and the St. Ives-associated artists who, as Alloway remarked, employed “irrational expression by malerisch means”. The well-informed Heath was a sophisticated artist who, in his book ‘Abstract Painting: Its Origin and Meaning’, divided modern painting into the branches of formal and geometric (cubism) on the one hand and expressively romantic or subjective on the other.
Heath appears to have taken an ambivalent line within this dichotomy for, though his sensual surfaces are painterly and textured there is always a sense the fractured asymmetry of his forms are the logical outcome of implicit divisional order and planned planar cadence. A man of largely independent means, Heath conducted his art career with a gentile grace, relatively carefree that the full depth and subtlety of his painting would only come to full light through the long-term perspective of historical hindsight and reassessment.