In the hills above the tiny Cornish farming village of Zennor in the southwest of England stands Eagles Nest, the former home of Modern British artist and art critic Patrick Heron and his wife, Delia. Five miles west of the artists’ colony of St Ives, it provided an escape for some of the key figures of British post-war abstract painting, including Bryan Wynter, Roger Hilton, Terry Frost, Peter Lanyon, and, of course, Heron himself.
The area had already established itself as a refuge for artists and writers. During the First World War, D.H. Lawrence and his wife lived nearby in a small cottage, and persuaded Katherine Mansfield and her husband to join them there to lay the foundations for Lawrence’s utopia, ‘Rananim’.
On buying Eagles Nest in 1921, Will Arnold-Forster, the politician, campaigner and a keen gardener, began planting a spectacular garden — despite the strong salty wind that blows in straight off the Atlantic all winter. He created, as his son Mark told Heron, ‘a painter’s garden’.
Patrick and Delia Heron took the house in 1955 and moved their family there in April the following year, when Katharine Heron was eight. Now a professor of architecture at Westminster University, as well as founder of the university’s Ambika P3 exhibition space, she talked to Christie’s about the history of the house and her memories of it.
Where does the Eagles Nest story begin?
Katharine Heron: ‘It was originally a much smaller house owned by somebody called Batten. Then in 1872 it was bought by Professor Westlake, the Cornish son of a wool stapler, who became the third ever Whewell Professor of International Law at Cambridge. The big extensions to Eagles Nest — the gable ends — were built by him. After him, Will Arnold-Forster did other things, like planting the garden and putting in a bath.’
Is there a history of painters in the house?
‘Westlake’s wife, Alice, was a painter, and they had a lot to do with the early Suffragettes. House guests included the Austrian painter Marianne Stokes and the campaigner Millicent Fawcett, so there was a mix of art and liberal politics.’
And Will Arnold-Forster continued this mix of art and liberal politics?
‘Yes, he was very strong on human rights and involved in the setting up of the League of Nations. He was married to Ka Cox [Katherine Laird Cox], who had famously been the lover of the poet Rupert Brook and was very involved with the Bloomsbury set. Virginia Woolf was a great friend and came to stay — there are references in her diaries to the match, which was considered quite surprising.’
How did your father come to be at Eagles Nest?
‘He first went to Eagles Nest in the 1920s when he was a young boy, because my grandfather and Will Arnold-Foster were friends. Then their sons, Patrick and Mark, went to nursery school together, along with Peter Lanyon. It was a very special place for Dad.’
What were St Ives and Zennor like back then? It had been an artists’ colony for a while...
‘St Ives was and still is a fishing village; I think prosperity and poverty have always co-existed there. The artists weren’t always very popular, so there were occasional scenes. Zennor had a strong farming tradition and has managed to retain it somewhat. It hasn’t changed as much as other places, although it is changing now.’
‘It was a very sociable house. Habits change but people would just drop in, sometimes for quite a long time’
The artist Bryan Wynter lived in the cottage behind you. Did you see a lot of him?
‘His postal delivery came to our house, so he used to come by every day. He was a very close friend of all the family. He knew a great deal about nature, and spent a lot of time watching birds, plants and wildlife. He was very knowledgeable, as was his wife Monica. Right into her old age we would ask her questions about nightjars and things like that.’
Did your father often entertain at Eagles Nest?
‘Yes, it was a very sociable house. Habits change but people would just drop in, sometimes for quite a long time. I remember William Scott [the Irish-Scots artist based mostly in Somerset after the war] came for Christmas once, and it is quite a schlep.’
And you saw a lot of Terry Frost and Peter Lanyon?
‘Yes, there were a lot of friendships on multiple levels — which endure even if people start living in different places or working in completely different ways. People came and went quite a lot but stayed in touch. Also Patrick wrote about their work, which was another bond.’
Did the writing take over for your father for a while?
‘It threatened to. People liked the fact that he was a writer but I think it was moving back to Cornwall that inspired him to just be a painter and not part of a regular London scene.’
That seems to have been important — that sense of escaping London.
‘Yes I think that is important. Putting yourself in that remote position does mean that you are not part of the central dialogue: like it or not all the exhibitions and debates tend to be monopolised by London and what people painted and the group they moved in. Was St Ives a distraction? I don’t know if there is an answer to that.’