Red Garden is among the earliest known prints by Patrick Heron and reflects a critical moment of change in his work. It is thought to have been made at Bath Academy of Art at Corsham Court, Somerset, under the supervision of Henry Cliffe the principal lecturer in lithography (Archer p.308). Heron had previously made monotypes and designed scarves for Cresta Silks, but this may have been his first editioned print. It was produced in at least one other colour, yellow having been substituted for the red.
In 1956 Heron began to make what appeared to be non-representational paintings, in defiance of his earlier advocacy of representation. In the same year, he settled in his new home, Eagles Nest, Zennor, above the coast of west Cornwall. The two events converged as the paintings of that year were, despite their abstract appearance, associated with the garden there. In January 1956 the artist made the first of a series of works associated with Eagles Nest's garden - Vertical: January 1956 (Tate T06744). These are made up of layers of dabs or short strokes of paint, often thin enough for the medium to dribble down the canvas. The deployment of the marks ranges from a relatively rigid structure of vertical strokes to a looser, less evenly dispersed series of short stabs of paint, as in Azalea Garden: May 1956 (Tate T03107). In some, calligraphic lines of oil paint are drawn across the surface. The present lithograph is closely comparable to this series of paintings in the use of successive layers of short strokes of different colours.
Like the garden paintings, Red Garden reflects the impact on Heron of recent avant-garde painting. In January 1956 a group of works by the American Abstract Expressionists was shown in London for the first time. Though Heron had only previously seen one major work by Jackson Pollock (1912-56), he knew of the Americans' work by repute. In a review for Arts (New York) magazine he gave their London showing a qualified welcome. The garden works reflect his adoption of their all-over approach to painting - the creation of a shallow depth through an even distribution of marks across the surface. He remained, however, a Francophile and these works also reflect his knowledge of contemporary Parisian art. The strokes of black paint in some are comparable to the bold, black gestures that he admired in the work of Pierre Soulages (born 1919). The closest comparison, however, is the work of Sam Francis (1923-94), of whom Heron thought highly. Francis also produced paintings in which small dabs of colour and areas of bare ground interact in such a way as to suggest sources in nature, such as the sky or the fall of light. Like Heron, he also allowed his strong colours to dribble down the surface, though such a technique was not possible in a print like Red Garden.
Through his critical writing, Heron had articulated a formalist view of art in which shallow space was a crucial element. The technique of lithography seems especially suited to this kind of work, in which overlaid marks create the illusion of a shallow pictorial space. Until the late 1950s, however, he resisted complete abstraction and insisted on the retention of a degree of representation, albeit 'a poetically allusive' one (Wilson p.10). This is reflected in the way that this apparently abstract work is related, through its title, to the garden. Like the bare canvas in the garden paintings, the areas of white paper give the composition an airiness suggestive of the fall of light through foliage. Heron stated that the garden works 'were not abstracted direct by visual observation; they were derived from the "sensation" of looking into the spatial depth of the bush (Azaleas)' (quoted in Wilson p.10). In November 1956, he explained how such sources fitted his formal concerns and related directly to the painted marks:
I am fascinated by the space that one senses only when looking down into the surfaces of objects at right angles - the lichened pattern on a wall; the spreading archipelagoes of the stones and gravel at my feet; the indescribable, unfocusable recessions of a close-leaved bush, as one stares into the blobs (leaves), far and near, and the dashes (twigs), sharp or furry.
(Patrick Heron, 'London', Arts, vol.31, no.2, Nov. 1956, p.73)
David Archer, 'Printmaking at St Ives and Corsham' in Robin Garton, ed., British Printmakers 1855-1955, Devizes 1992, pp.305-13 (reproduced p.313)
Mel Gooding, Patrick Heron, London 1994
Andrew Wilson, Patrick Heron: Early and Late Garden Paintings, London 2001