Today's Discover & explore service at St Stephen Walbrook, explored the theme of art through the life and work of Patrick Heron. The service featured the Choral Scholars of St Martin-in-the-Fields singing Come, ye sons of art by Henry Purcell, Super flumina Babylonis by Giovanni da Palestrina, Aspire to God My Soul by David Bednall and Cantate Domino by Pitoni.
The next Discover & explore service is on Monday 3 April at 1.10pm when, together with the Choral Scholars, I will explore the theme of internet (and the London Internet Church) through the life and work of Peter Delaney.
There will then be a short break and the next series of Discover & explore services, which will explore Reformation500 themes, will begin on 24th April.
In today's service I said:
The Guardian’s obituary for Patrick Heron was entitled ‘The Colour of Genius’. In it, Heron was lauded as having been “one of the half dozen important British painters of the twentieth century.” “Many things contributed to this country's late awakening to the power and importance of modern art after the second world war, but among them Heron's work as painter, critic, and polemicist was a key factor.”
Heron was one of Britain’s foremost abstract painters. He was also a writer and designer, based in St. Ives, Cornwall. He lived in Cornwall as a child from the age of five and returned there for the final 14 months of the war in order to work for the potter, Bernard Leach. “One of his friends was the Guardian journalist Mark Arnold-Forster, who, a few years later, sold him Eagle's Nest, a house with a famous garden high above the Atlantic at Zennor, near St Ives, where Heron had spent childhood holidays. Heron's move to Eagle's Nest coincided with his move into non-figurative painting, and among his first works of the period were the garden paintings, opalescent meshes of colour streaked and dribbled vertically on to the canvases.”
His work became recognised for its bold use of colour and light which redefined British abstract art in the 1960’s. Initially inspired by the French painters Henri Matisse and Georges Braque, he turned to abstraction in his mid-30s, under the influence of Abstract Expressionism, in particular the Colour Field Painting style popularized by Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. His work is noted for its saturated colour and – despite being unmistakeably abstract – the essential naturalism of its forms. These qualities are apparent in the dazzling kneelers he designed in 1993 to surround Henry Moore’s circular altar at St Stephen Walbrook.
Heron insisted that he ‘was not a member of any church’ and his images were made from a ‘purely pictorial experience’. Our kneelers were the only work he made for a church and the only other Ecclesiastical connection to his work is that the Methodist Collection of Art purchased a painting of a Crucifix and Candles at Night, which is derived from a part of a painting by Titian in the National Gallery. Frances Hoyland speaking about this image said “Heron has used his senses - his body - his flesh -and made something attractive; and maybe he, too, was a channel of Grace.”
I think that another way in which Heron was a channel of grace was through his forging of images from natural forms. His garden paintings were a response to the petals and leaves of the camellias and azaleas that were in flower all over the garden at Eagle’s Nest, their home in St Ives, when he and his wife arrived there to live. Similarly, the paintings that he was making when he died were typical of his style in their use of vibrant colour, and in their imagery, which alluded to the flowers and rocks found around the Cornish coast.
His use of natural forms to create abstract art is a point of connection with Henry Moore who said: “I’ve found the principles of form and rhythm from the study of natural objects.” The architect Antoni Gaudi described nature as “the Great Book, always open, that we should force ourselves to read” and thought that “everything structural or ornamental that an architect might imagine was already prefigured in natural form.”
The argument that Gaudi made begins with God as the creator of all and continues with the recognition that all God made was good. So, when artists or architects base their work on natural forms they are working with God’s good creation and thereby, as his creation reveals his goodness, reflecting and revealing the glory of God. Although Moore and Heron would not necessarily have acknowledged it, in basing their work on natural forms they were reflecting and revealing the glory of God.
Heron’s kneelers do so in a particularly profound manner. They bring the wild fecundity of natural forms into a geometrically ordered building, they bring vibrant colour into the light and dark contrasts of the stone and panelling, and they use these colourful natural forms to designate sacred space. The geometrical perfection of Wren’s architectural design focuses our attention on God’s perfect nature. The wild vibrancy of Heron’s natural forms focuses our attention on the love of God which exceeds all bounds, particularly in Christ’s sacrifice of himself on the cross which shapes and is central to our worship and this space.
In these ways he was, I think, a channel of grace. That thought leads me to another; that he may also have been a recipient of grace. The Guardian's art critic, Adrian Searle, wrote of Heron’s last paintings: "There's an enormous freedom and vitality in them. They are about pleasure and the spirit gets free rein. I certainly don't think he was staring into the dark void of looming death. Quite the opposite."
Creator of all things, seen and unseen, we praise you for the works of your hand. We declare that you are sovereign over our lives, and that you are the originator of all good things. We humbly ask that you would grant us new ideas, even now. Bless our labours. Fulfill your creative purposes in us today. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer
Creator of the Universe, how infinite and astonishing are your worlds. Thank you for your Sacred Art and sustaining Presence. Divine Imagination, forgive our blindness, open our eyes. Reveal the Light of Truth. Let original Beauty guide our every stroke. Universal Creativity, flow through us, from our hearts through our minds to my hands, infuse our work with spirit to feed hungry souls. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer
Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Three in One, we praise you for the extravagant love that you demonstrate in the creation of this world. We ask that you form in us a community of artists that reflect the Divine Community, marked by self-giving love, infectious joy and the desire to honour and glorify the name of God. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer
Holy Spirit, Lord and Giver of life, Power and Fire, we praise you for sustaining all things in being, energizing them with vitality, and ushering them to their future and final state of glory. Purify our souls; scour our hearts; re-order our minds; strengthen our bodies. Free us to be playful today. And the blessing of God almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, be among you and remain with you always. Amen.
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina - Super flumina Babylonis.