Fan of Matisse

Fan of Matisse

 No one likes to be called a fanatic with its pejorative undertone. However, most of us wear its apocope like a badge of honour. It is thus, neither a lack of respect or some form of cockiness to give this article the title: Fan of Matisse when referring to the late British painter Patrick Heron (and to a lesser extent to his friend, the artist Francis Davison) in regards to a 1949 anecdote he recalls years later in an article for the Modern Painters magazine about the last paintings of Matisse, to coincide with the great exhibition at the Centre Georges Pompidou: “Henri Matisse, 1904-1917, 25th February-21st June 1993” supported by the foundation of the French oil company, Elf.


LATE MATISSE by Patrick Heron, Modern Painters, A Quarterly Journal of the Fine Arts, Volume 6 Number 1, Spring 1993,

“On January 2, 1949, on a very dark wet afternoon, I walked up to Vence from the tip of the Cap d’Antibes where Delia and Katharine[1] and I were staying with Francis Davison and Margaret Mellis[2] at his deserted family home, the Château des Enfants. Hearing from the owner of a bookshop we were sheltering in that Matisse was living in the upper edge of the town, in one of the last houses under the great crag, Francis and I immediately rushed up to find him. Choosing one of the villas at random, we enquired of the well-to-do owner the whereabouts of Monsieur Matisse. He had never heard of his neighbour, the world famous painter. Back in the road we met an old lady wheeling a pram of dry sticks down from the woods: “Ah! Le grand peintre français! Sa maison est là…” We tried again, Still unlucky. A neatly uniformed maid had likewise not heard of Monsieur Matisse. So back in the road once more, we ran into an old man in a ragged coat and a beret, rolling a cigarette: “Oui! Oui! Il demeure à la maison “Le Rêve”, and he pointed us back again to where “Le Rêve” was roughly painted on a piece of wood nailed to an olive tree by the gate. We immediately noticed that the garden leading up to the house was quite unlike the neater gardens to either side. Ringing the bell at the top of a high flight of steps at the left of the house, we were greeted by a youngish woman with a clear gaze. I immediately recognized Les Yeux Bleus[3]. On that dark afternoon the windows across the upper storey of the house blazed with electric light, I may say. So when we were told that Monsieur Matisse was working in his bedroom, and was not very well, we knew it was the case. Even our expressed desire to give him delayed greetings for his seventy-ninth birthday, three days before, wasn’t any use. So Davison suddenly said (in good French) “But my friend here is Monsieur Clive Bell’s successor” – a long shot: I was art critic of The New Statesman and Nation[4] at the time. Suddenly, in English, Lydia Delectorskaya (one only learnt her name many years later) said, turning to me, “In what sense “successor”? Mr Bell is not dead, I trust?”

On the long walk back we went along the coast road down the east side of the Cap d’Antibes (from which Monet painted Antibes across the bay) when I suddenly felt certain we were at the bend in the road which Matisse had painted in Route du Cap d’Antibes – Le Grand Pin, 1926. So I maneuvered myself about until the two pines reaching up across the road from the seashore below were exactly where I thought they were in Matisse’s landscape and took a photograph. By now my right shoulder was up against a corner in a loose stone wall beside the road, on the right. Somehow I must have seen a gleam of red amongst the mosses and lichens on the wall. I pealed them away and, sure enough, there were a lot of oxidizing palette scrapings – ultramarine, violet, emerald green and scarlet, all knifed into a crack between two jagged pieces of that whitish rock of the coast of the Cap. Developed, the photograph exactly corroborates the angle from which Matisse painted that famous landscape…. When I got home to England, I pasted it opposite the reproduction of this painting in the book of 24 colour plates, all chosen by Matisse himself, which I’d bought at Zwemmer’s in 1940 (published by Braun et Cie, 1939)[5]. All of which I offer as evidence of obsession…. but also, perhaps, to set the scene, because those final canvases, which I am about to consider, were all painted up there at Vence, at Le Rêve. And whatever anyone says, the intimacy of the physical connection between a very specific, an actual place and paintings that materialised under the hand of the artist in or at that precise spot is absolute – a totally vital factor in the circumstances giving rise to important paintings, however abstract.”[6]


In telling this episode, this moment of fandom of a young man about to turn 30, Patrick Heron is not only gifting us with the story of a quasi mystical experience in this improvised and inevitably concluded with an epiphany pilgrimage of two young British Wise Men whose path is crossed by some characters straight out of a Provencal nativity scene: the tramp, the dead wood little old lady picker and the maid in full uniform, but also, thanks to a goldmine of historiographical information, with the opportunity to evoke, even in passing, several works of Matisse, some of the most famous art collectors of the time, a few friends of Matisse and numerous artists, writers and art critics.

Who are the two walkers of this story on a pilgrimage to Matisse’s house?

Francis Davison (1919-1984) was the adopted son of a rich industrial who made his fortune as general manager of Kodak in the UK. In 1947, he came to Cap d’Antibes to live in his father’s estate with his second wife Margaret Mellis to whom he had been introduced the year before by Patrick Heron. He was, at the time, a bit of a painter, art critic and translator, without much success[7] despite the efforts of his friend Patrick Heron, his acting de facto agent[8]. He settled permanently in Suffolk and after two years of experimenting with painting, he would devote himself completely and in isolation from 1952 up until his death to the making of his large collages of coloured papers, which are in our view amongst the best, if barely recognised, works of British abstraction and beyond.[9]

 Patrick Heron (1920-1999) was barely younger than Davison in 1949, but his career as an artist and art critic was on the up. He had his first solo exhibition at the influential Redfern Gallery[10] in London in 1947 and he was a regularly published art critic. His success would keep incremental thanks to the landmark exhibitions he would organise[11], the solo or group ones in which he would participate, and the theoretical and critical essays he would kept writing throughout his career. A sure sign of his notoriety: the Tate Britain set up (and rightly so) an important retrospective of his works in 1998 while he was still alive.


Reaching Vence a mere 25 kilometres from the Cap d’Antibes by foot and on a rainy winter afternoon is no mean feast and it is a testament to Davison and Heron’s determination. If they were unable to meet the master, despite all their effort to persuade Lydia Delectorskaya to let them in, they could mark on a map one of the most significant places in Matisse’s life and work.

 The significance of the Villa “Le Rêve” in Matisse’s life and work

 On the 30th of June 1943, Matisse leaves Nice, faced with the threat of German bombings, and the Hotel Regina, where he has been residing since 1938, to move to Vence in a house, the Villa “Le Rêve”, that his friend André Rouveyre, who lives in the town at the hotel “la Joy de Vivre”[12] avenue des Poilus, found him as a temporary accomodation. However, Matisse, surrounded with his cats and well looked after by his maid Josette, two nurses and Lydia Delectorskaya, quickly succumbs to both Vence and the villa’s charm. He writes in a letter dated 22th August 1943: ” I have been in Vence for a month and a half – [it is] ideal from all points of view…Nice seems so far away, after such a big journey of less than a hour, that I place here all my memories of Tahiti. When I wandered, this morning, in front of the house, seeing all these young girls, men and women cycling fast towards the market, I thought I was in Tahiti when it was market time (…) It is a beautiful villa, nothing flashy or fake, I mean. Sturdy walls, floor to ceiling windows[13] and French windows – plenty of light indeed – (…) A superb terrace with a large railing covered with variegated Italian ivy and beautiful geraniums whose warm colour I never came across before – my windows are full of the beautiful spreading of palm trees.”[14] All the more so that almost six years later, he still lives here and it is still Lydia Delectorskaya who comes at the door to greet guests like she did when Pablo Picasso and Françoise Gillot visited on the 3rd of March 1946[15].

Lydia Delectorskaya

In 1949, this Russian orphan of classic Nordic beauty is still rather young at 39 and she so strikingly resembles the numerous portraits Matisse did of her that Heron recognises immediately the woman but without being able to put a name on her. She first started working for Matisse in 1932 on the Barnes mural as a replacement of one of his assistants for what should have been only a few days; she would stay 6 months before she was recalled in 1933 by Mrs Matisse to be her nurse as well as her lady-in-waiting. From then on, she would never leave the Matisse household. She became his muse and model in 1935 and by 1949; her influence on the master’s life was so great that she combined not only the roles of secretary, studio assistant, and house manager, but also unstinting emotional – Matisse’s wife left him in 1939 – and artistic support[16]. The art critic Raymond Escholier wrote about her: “the great muse of the master, with her splendid figure, her beauty and the expressivity of her face, and also her intelligence and her wit remains Lydia Delectorskaya.” And it is her wit that the unfortunate Davison would find himself at the wrong end of.


La Danse, 1932-33, Henri Matisse, huile sur toile en trois panneaux, de gauche à droite :339,7 x 441,3 cm, 355,9 x 503,2 cm et 338,8 x 439,4 cm ©2014 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Image © 2016 The Barnes Foundation

Matisse the hovering invisible presence

In Heron’s anecdote, Matisse is like the Godot of Becket’s play, the raison d’être, the goal of this journey, but also the invisible presence, out of Davison and Heron’s reach thanks to the care of Delectorskaya whose words (and Heron’s’) we have to take at face value[17]. The master is at the villa, too unwell to have visitors but still busy working in that top room bursting with electric light. If Heron can only imagine Matisse feverishly at work, we are lucky enough to know exactly on what he was busy working at the time, because of the abundant letters and documents at our disposal. During the winter of 1948-1949, Matisse is a year into his 4 year massive turnkey project of a new chapel for the Dominican sisters of the Foyer Lacordaire in Vence that he has promised to deliver to Soeur Jacques-Marie who has resumed providing care to him years after she did but for a very short period of time when she was still Monique Bourgeois.[18] However, on this rainy winter evening, and almost a year before the laying of the first stone, on the 11th of December 1949, Matisse is working on the cut-outs of the second template for stained-glass windows. Interestingly, when talking about the cut-outs in his book Jazz, published in 1947, Matisse was saying: “Those are colours of stained-glass window. I cut these gouache papers like we cut through glass, the only difference is that here they are arranged to reflect light whereas with stained-glass window we would have to arrange them to let light come through.” (Extracts from Pierre Schneider’s Matisse monograph cited in Matisse by Volkmar Essers, Taschen, 1987-2006 p.88)


Who is this Clive Bell whose name was used like a trump card by Lydia Delectorskaya?

It is quite surprising that at the beginning of 1949, the name of Clive Bell could constitute an in-joke even in the small art circle frequented by all the young protagonists of this story. It would not be unfair to note indeed that this heir of a wealthy industrial fortune, Cambridge alumnus, funding member of the Bloomsbury Group[19], husband of the artist Vanessa Bell, the sister of Virginia Woolf, and art critic had peaked much earlier at the beginning of the Twenties after the release of his book in 1924 Since Cézanne[20] in which he reprises the theory of “significant form”[21] that he introduced in his 1914 book Art and which mark his most important contribution to art criticism. Chapter VII is devoted to Matisse and Picasso. There is also another reason for Lydia Delectoskaya perhaps to bring his name. As a matter of fact, Clive Bell was also responsible with the English artist and art critic Roger Fry, another member of the BG for the organisation of the Second Post Impressionists Exhibition British French Russian Artists[22][23] at the Grafton Galleries in 1912. Despite its title and the number of artists presented, it is Matisse who gets the lion share with 42 works[24] (against 15 for Picasso at the height of his Cubist period) and an entire room dedicated to him. The overwhelming presence of Matisse’s works benefited clearly from the unconditional admiration the members of the BG involved in the show (Fry[25], Clive and Vanessa Bell[26], Duncan Grant[27]) had for him, and from the direct relationship with Matisse, the BG, had developed through the artist’s friend Simon Bussy[28]. This somehow biased curatorial choice will prove a commercial success as Leonard Woolf, Virginia’s husband) remarked in notes that he took while he was sitting at his desk in the second room of the exhibition[29].


Patrick Heron’s epiphany or the magical “sense of place”

In her unflinching refusal, which seems almost unfair, to grant access even to the house to the two young foolhardy English walkers who came unannounced for an impromptu visit despite the pouring rain, Lydia Delectorskaya may have involuntarily spared them a remake of the embarrassingly silent encounter between Matisse and another young English painter, Duncan Grant himself in the spring of 1911[30], but also valuable time so much so that on their long way back there was still enough daylight for Patrick Heron to be in the right place at the right time and experience his epiphany.

Heron knows his Monet and Matisse very well. It is indeed from the eastern side of the Cap d’Antibes that Monet immortalized the city[31], the Mediterranean sea and the Alps in the background during his long stay in 1888, and that Matisse painted four pictures: Cap d’Antibes, 1922, Tate, Antibes, view from the interior of a car, 1925, private collection, Vue d’Antibes, 1925, Toulouse, Route du Cap d’Antibes, le grand pin, (Cap d’Antibes, Road) 1926, private collection. Moreover, we would like to think that if Bonnard, Matisse, Monet and the Australian painter John Russell have chosen this very same place to paint, it is not only due to chance or the nature of their relationships itself, but also to a genuine “genius loci”, a sense of place with its own magnetic force. Therefore it is no surprise that long before the creation of augmented reality and its superimposition of imported images and information, Heron is experiencing something quite similar at a particular bend in the road, and what he sees is not only a road, a bend and a great pine, but also at the same time, the picture of this road, this bend and the great pine painted by Matisse at this very same spot. This realisation, this epiphany is felt so intensely by Heron that he grabbed his camera in order to create “another picture”. By doing so he wanted to fix immediately this exact moment to provide a concrete proof of its reality. Once he returned home and had the film developed, he was able to compare both picture and remark how closely the picture he took of the place resembled the picture of that same place Matisse painted almost 25 years before. To do such a fascinating comparison, Heron only had to wait for a few weeks, and for us, after almost 25 years, the wait is finally over thanks to the invaluable help of Heron’s daughters Susana and Katharine who dug into Heron’s archive: we are now able to see it for ourselves.


[1] Patrick Heron’s wife and their daughter Katharine born in 1947

[2] Margaret Nairne Mellis (22 January 1914 – 17 March 2009) was a British artist, one of the early members and last survivors of the group of modernist artists that gathered in St Ives, Cornwall in the 1940s. She and her first husband, Adrian Stokes, played an important role in the rise of St Ives as a magnet for artists. She later married artist Francis Davison, and became a mentor to the young Damien Hirst. (Tate website)

[3] Heron refers here to one of the first paintings of Lydia Delectorskaya made by Matisse. Presentation of this painting can be found in the blog of the Baltimore Museum of Art

Les yeux bleus were purchased in 1935 by the famous American collector Etta Cone. “Etta’s summer abroad in 1935 was unusually quiet. She bought only one painting, Matisse’s Les yeux bleus (The Blue Eyes), which she purchased from Margot in Paris. The painting was of a young Russian woman named Lydia Delectorskaya,[…]” in The Art of Acquiring: A Portrait of Etta and Claribel Cone by Mary Gabriel, Bancroft Press, p.201

[4] In 1931 the New Statesman merged with the Liberal weekly The Nation and Athenaeum and changed its name to the New Statesman and Nation, which it kept until 1964. The chairman of The Nation and Athenaeum‘s board was the economist John Maynard Keynes. From Wikipedia

[5] Couleurs des maîtres : Matisse, Henri Matisse et Jean Cassou, les editions Braun et Cie, Paris 1939

[6] Heron continues: “When Barnett Newman told me that his studio was in Wall Street, he immediately established an ineradicable connection, in my mind at least, between that rigid white vertical bar which is the sky at the far end of any and every canyon in Manhattan and the rigid vertical bar which occurs so often in his canvases. And can anyone see anemones, anywhere – this past 40 years – without immediately entering Matisse’s houses and studios?”

[7] His translation of Sartre was refused by an Amercian editor because it sounded too English.

[8] Page 34 in Francis Davison by Andrew Lambirth, Sansom & Company

[9] We arrived at South Green to collect work from Francis Davison. His house was overflowing with large colourful collages. I was knocked out by these energetic torn-paper calligraphies. They were bound for an exhibition at the Hayward Gallery. He asked that no biographical information be displayed, and no dates or titles for the works. He felt they should speak for themselves” It is about time that Davison gets a bit more recognition and exposure like the one received finally two years ago by William Gear in 2015 with a retrospective at the Towner Gallery whose title was quite revealing: William Gear 1915-1997, the painter that Britain forgot.

[10] It is at the Redfern Gallery, where it was stored until 1944 that Heron came across Matisse’s painting L’Atelier Rouge, 1911, MoMA, and “soon after this completed what he later considered to be his first mature work, The Piano in 1943.[1][10] Patrick Heron Wikipedia entry.

[11] Space in Colour at the Hayward Gallery in 1953 and Metavisual Tachiste Abstract at the Redfern Gallery in 1957, in particular.

[12] It is worth mentioning that “joie de vivre” is also the title of a famous picture Picasso painted, also, in Antibes in 1946 as an even more direct response than his Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907 to Matisse’s seminal Bonheur de vivre, 1906, whose dancers’ figure he would revisit in the preliminary version of Danse, 1909 and in the final large decorative panel of the same name in 1910 for the Moscow palace of the Russian collector Sergei Shchukin. He would also later revisit countlessly the figure of the odalisque of this painting. About Le Boneur de vivre and its sources of inspiration we refer to the article by Drs Beth Harris and Steven Zucker

[13] For the record, Eric de Chassey in the catalogue (in French only) of the exhibition Matisse, Kelly, dessins de plantes, 2002, Gallimard, p.51 is making an interesting connection between those windows at the villa Le Rêve and Kelly’s Window, 1949, Museum of Modern Art, Paris.

[14] Ville de Vence/chapelle Matisse website

[15] For a detailed recollection of this visit by Françoise Gillot, we refer to

[16] She would also work tirelessly to promote Matisse work, writing two books about her time with the artist: L’Apparente facilité, Henri Matisse: peintures de 1935-1939, 1986, editions Adrien Maeght and Henri Matisse, contre vents et marées: peintures et livres illustrés de 1939 à 1943, 1996, éditions Hansma; and donating most of the works she acquired from (like the very first drawing she bought in 1937) or were given to her by Matisse, to Russian museums.

[17] According to the Nice musée Matisse website, Matisse leaves Vence to return to the hotel Regina in Nice on the 30th of December 1948 (Matisse biography tab) and Matisse leaves Vence in January 1949 (Lieux de vie tab)

[18] Ville de Vence website/chapelle Matisse tab


[20] Link for the book:


[22] The British contingent consisted mainly of members of the BG or at its fringes: Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, Frederick and Jessie Etchells, Wyndham Lewis, Stanley Spencer, Eric Gill (the infamous creator of the Gill Sans typography) and Spencer Gore. Boris Anrep was in charge of selecting Russian artists. The paintings by Soukhov, Roerich, Stelletzsky and Bogaevsky that he brought from Moscow did not impress much Roger Fry. It is only after the opening of the exhibition that works from the Russian vanguard; Natalia Goncharova andMikhail Larionov arrived in London. The French artists were personally picked by Roger Fry during his visits of the great Parisian art dealers of the time: Bernheim-Jeune, Druet, Kahnweiler, Sagot, Leo Stein and Vollard. In Roger Fry, Art and Life, Frances Spalding, Black Dog Books, p.156

[23] For the Manet and the Post-Impressionists exhibition organized by Roger Fry in the winter 1910-11, we refer to the following article:

[24] The last picture of the exhibition was la Danse (I), 1909 whose “finished version” La Danse, 1910 alongside La Musique Matisse supervised personally the hanging in Shchukin’s palace in Moscow the year before.

[25] Roger Fry wrote to Simon Bussy in the autumn 1911: “I am now become completely Matissiste.” In Roger Fry, Art and Life, Frances Spalding, Black Dog Books, p.147

[26] Most notably in her Studland Beach c.1912, Tate and A Room at the Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition: Matisse Room, 1912, Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhaguen.

[27] Duncan Grant’s enduring homages to Matisse can be best resume in two pictures he painted 50 years apart: Self-Portrait, 1920, National Galleries of Scotland, where features on the wall in the background Matisse’s Femme assise dans un fauteuil, 1917, which he persuaded John Maynard Keynes to buy, and Still Life with Matisse, 1972, Clarence House, private collection, where half of the picture is a reproduction of Matisse’s Nu Bleu I, 1952, Fondation Beyeler.

[28] Matisse and Simon Bussy met when they were both studying under the tutelage of Gustave Moreau in Paris at the end of the 19th century. Simon Bussy married Dorothy Strachey, a sister of Lytton Strachey and a cousin of Duncan Grant both founding members of the BG and; she was also a friend and translator of André Gide.


[30] While Matisse is working on Les Capucines et la danse. In Mémoires de Duncan Grant, Christian Soleil, 2011, Société des écrivains

[31] Not only Monet, but also John Russel (Antibes, c.1890-92) and Bonnard (Vue d’Antibes, 1912 and L’Enlèvement d’Europe, 1919). Matisse will make his own version of L’enlèvement d’Europe, (The Abduction of Europa), 1929, National Gallery of Australia, in a picture he commenced in 1926, never dated or signed that he kept all his life and for which he used the grid laying technique, something he did on extremely rare occurrences.