From Leigh to Rome (via the 17th Century Dutch Golden Age of Painting)

Now bear with me on this one. Please.

By Manchester's Finest | 22 October 2019

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When I attended the private view of Steven Heaton’s one- man show at the Saul Hay Gallery in Castlefield it was well attended. So well attended in fact that I didn’t get chance to speak to Steven.

What intrigued me – and made me venture back to spend an hour with him a couple of days later – was primarily a display cabinet, obviously intended to showcase his influences.

It’s always a bonus to be able to see an artist’s sketch book. This time – along with references to The Bauhaus, Victor Pasmore and others – was a book opened at a page with a Johannes Vermeer painting; alongside this a note book with carefully scribed notes about the Dutch Golden Age of Painting, which spanned the 17th century.

It was more like an academic notebook than an artist’s quick scribbles, but instantly demonstrated a fascination with that period of painting. In particular Vermeer.

Quietly spoken, Steven nonetheless took up the story enthusiastically. “I met Sara Riccardi here at an exhibition a couple of years ago. She’s an art historian who moved from Rome to Manchester fairly recently. We started to talk about her interests and in particular her studies of 15th to 17th century classical art.

Whilst visiting exhibitions together Sara explained to me that Vermeer left very few notes and journals, but scientific examination of his works revealed that he painted onto birch wood panels and that he mixed his oil paint with white beeswax, not the usual linseed oil.

I was intrigued and – for this exhibition – abandoned my acrylic paint and used exactly the materials that Vermeer had used.”

But that’s only part of the story and perhaps less intriguing than the subject matter and analysis of Vermeer’s paintings, which made Steven (and me) look afresh at those classics.

Steven, along with Sara’s input, identified the contemplative moments in Vermeer’s paintings. From ‘The Milkmaid’ shown here, to (what is my favourite portrait of all) Vermeer’s ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring,’  a moment of thought is captured in the subject. Yes things are going on, but there’s a moment of thought far away from daily life.

“It would be horrendous to try and represent those quiet, thoughtful, silent moments in the same way now. But I wanted to try and get into the mindset, understand how Vermeer would paint what he saw today. To get a real depth of silence within the painting. That is what I’ve tried to do with this show, why it’s called ‘Composed from Silence.’

The Heaton/Riccardi collaboration could not have more differing origins.

Born in Leigh, an attempt at a graphic design course at Wigan College (which he hated), various filler jobs and then Salford University to do Fine Art.

Born in Rome, studied at La Sapienza University, achieving BA and then MA, which provided ‘the means and aims of art-historical research and the use of critical studies.’

Their meeting in Manchester a couple of years ago was sublime serendipity.

“Walter Gropius, founder of The Bauhaus,” (another of Steven’s influences) “said that art was not a singular person, it was a collaboration. For almost two years Sara and I have continuously discussed these works as they were developing. I work on several paintings at once, returning constantly to each one.

It fascinates me that Vermeer, all the greats, are held up as godlike now. But they were real people, who got up in the morning and had a cup of coffee. Got on with the day’s work. It’s only now that they have been categorised, put into labels so that we can refer back to certain periods.

Sara’s knowledge has made me really appreciate this. She established and runs Art Across, delivering art history lectures that bring artists to life. Much more so than just reading books and visiting exhibitions.

What we’ll never know is what was going on in their minds.”

Steven talked about trying to capture those contemplative moments, that serenity in a world dominated by 24-hour newsfeeds and social media. “Those peaceful moments are all still there in our noisy world. I just wanted to make work that stepped back from that noisy world. I hope that people find absorption with the pieces. There might not seem a lot there, they might seem quite simple at first, but I hope that the longer you spend with them the more you see in them.”

So, I hope that you have borne with me in my own understanding of how interpreting moments of silence have been composed so differently, yet so similarly, almost four hundred years apart.


Sara, who has curated the exhibition, will be discussing the works at the Saul Hay Gallery on Friday 25th October. 

The Steven Heaton exhibition will be at Saul Hay Gallery until Sunday 27th October.