The present work was painted during 1956, an important year for Heron. Early that year Heron moved with his family to Eagles Nest, Zennor, which is perched more than 600 feet above sea level on the moors to the west of St Ives in Cornwall. The house with its beautiful surrounding gardens was already known to Heron when he bought it from a friend in 1955. He had previously visited it as a young boy when his family house-sat for their friends, the Arnold Forsters, and during visits to Cornwall, after the war, Heron had made a number of sketches of Zennor and the house above.
1956 was also the year that Heron saw and reviewed the Tate exhibition, Modern Art in the United States: A Selection from the Collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, which included works by Pollock, de Kooning and Rothko amongst others. He wrote in his review of the exhibition, which appeared in Arts, 'My own feelings about these painters have shifted one way, then the other, since my first sight of them, as they hung in consort in the big Tate room, at the private view a month ago. I was instantly elated by the size, energy, originality, economy and inventive daring of many of the paintings. Their creative emptiness represented a radical discovery, I felt as did their flatness, or rather their spatial shallowness. I was fascinated by their constant denial of illusionistic depth which goes against all my own instincts as a painter ... To me and those English painters with whom I associate, your new school comes as the most vigorous movement we have seen since the war. If we feel that far more is suggested than is achieved, that in itself is a remarkable achievement. We shall now watch New York as eagerly as Paris for new developments (not forgetting our own, let me add) - and may it come as a consolidation rather than a further exploration' (see M. Gooding (ed.), Painter as Critic Patrick Heron: Selected Writings, London, 1998, pp. 102, 104).
In the early 1950s Heron had painted some non-figurative works but it was not until 1956 when he produced his 'Garden' paintings that he fully embraced abstraction. Peter Fuller comments, 'He [Heron] was searching for a more 'gestural' way of painting. Under the influence of the American artist Sam Francis (see lot 82), and the light of the Cornish landscape, Heron moved sharply away from explicit figuration towards abstract organisations of patches of colour across the whole canvas surface ... works like Camellia Garden: March 1956 marked by that restrained taste and developed 'intelligence of feeling' which characterises all Heron's successful painting; their reference to the world of nature, beyond the canvas surface, appears self-evident. Though the colour may be based on memory, mood and reminiscences of flowers and light, rather than on the immediate perception of them, it is most decidedly not concoted 'studio colour' of London (or Paris). It was obviously more than a coincidence that Heron's decisive break with figuration coincided with the leaving of the metropolis to live in Cornwall' (see D. Sylvester (ed.), exhibition catalogue, op. cit, p. 155).
The present work is the earliest work that Heron produced of the 'Garden' paintings of this period about which Mel Gooding writes, ''Camellia Garden' is a complex and crowded canvas, its dazzling effects achieved by a virtuosic variety of Tachiste marks and motives, and by a radiance of colour that is unprecedented in this first phase of abstract painting. The downward strokes which predominate are of differing strength, width and length; touched over by dabs and splotches, trickles, drips, calligraphic squiggles, they appear to recede or push forward as the eye moves between them and behind them. This spatial effect is complicated further by the presence of broad-brushed horizontal bars that appear to overlap and underlap the verticals, and by thin lateral paint-lines, squeezed directly from the tube, whose spatial role is ambiguous. The painting's all-over distribution of graphic stress, its surface flicker, gives it a Bonnardian richness and density. As in Bonnard this busy surface resolves into a complex spatiality which is a function of the eye, a matter of perception, rather than of a conceptually ordered visual convention. The eye is presented not with a window on to the garden but with a spatial sensation such as it registers in the world. The true subject of the picture is not the simulated sensation of seeing camellias, but the actual sensation offered by the painting, analogous to that of being among camellias' (op. cit., pp. 105, 110).