(1920 - 1992)

Oliver Heywood was painting quite well by the age of six. His picture of birds at that age shows an ability to observe and design that was to develop exceptionally.

Throughout his life, his drawings and sketches showed an intricate attention to detail. They were the starting point for all his work, be it the representational watercolours of the 1940s and ‘50s, the abstract oils of the early ‘60s, or the gradual fusion through the following decades towards his final style, still mainly in oil, which combined the representational with a defined abstraction.

What was also present behind all his work was his lifelong search for his own kind of spiritual truth. For him this occurred far more through reading and talking, than through active religious practise. Moving from a conventional Christian upbringing, he studied many thinkers and writers, among them Tielhard de Chardin, Jung, and Fritjof Capra. Throughout, what was always important to him was the significance of the combined roles of the head and the heart, the logical and the intuitive. As a spiritual seeker, it was as important for him to have one’s feet firmly on the ground as it was to have one’s head in the realms of the imagination. Life for him should be full of inspiration, colour and fun, but it should also be firmly based in the practical and logical. In his large mural on the west wall of Nailsworth Church, in Gloucestershire, painted in 1985, Oliver shows Christ’s halo circling not only his head but also his upper body, combining the head and the heart.

Looking at Oliver’s later work, we can see how abstraction in a landscape was for him a way of looking through the representational to a context where colour and structure begin to have their own, beyond the logical meaning – a meaning where words become inappropriate. Indeed, Oliver was reluctant to talk a great deal about his work because he felt that what he hoped was the deeper meaning behind a painting would be diminished by too much rational definition, and that it was better for people to discover meanings for themselves in a painting, than to be told what they should find. From the 1960s onwards, he would sketch “in situ”, but only begin to paint back in his studio, so that during the making of a painting, what a place simply looked like became infused with other meanings.

Oliver’s father Cecil was a soldier, so the family moved about a lot when Oliver and his sister Joan were children. Cecil died when Oliver was sixteen, but had by that age already triggered in his son a lifelong interest in wildlife, particularly birds. When out drawing, Oliver was never without his huge binoculars and he became an accomplished amateur ornithologist. Inevitably, birds badgers and foxes crept into many of his landscapes.

His schooling at Eton was difficult – he felt uncomfortable about the affluence and the sense of privilege. Then, under a lot of family pressure, he began to study estate management at Cambridge, leaving before completing his degree, at the outbreak of war in 1939. As an Adjutant with The Coldstream Guards, he travelled with a tank regiment through Normandy after the D-Day landings. His letters home to his mother were typically about rabbits and rare birds, with little mention of the fighting.

Here is an extract. “Yesterday, for the first time, warblers began to break their summer silence. I heard a whitethroat and a chiff-chaff starting up in rather a half-hearted way…. This morning, finding ourselves in a field near a small stream, Johnnie Gull and I went off to see if it was clean enough to wash in. After much searching through bushes we found two small clear places with a shingle bottom. It was only about 9 ft wide and overhung with branches. After a preliminary soaping all over, I submerged, supporting myself on my forearms with my legs dangling downstream.   When I had remained still for a few minutes like a basking hippo, a wren began to explore a bush a foot or two away and a small fish rose at things by my left ear. I expected to see “Ratty” and “Mole” appear out of the bank at any moment. The sun was dancing through the leaves and dappling the water and somewhere above my head was the noise of a horse collecting and tugging up mouthfuls of grass. All very peaceful. Under a mile away is the village where we sat yesterday, torn and twisted and scorched and strewn with remnants of things.”

The very day he was demobilised, he met his future wife Denise, and soon became a student at The Architectural Association. Less than a year later he gave it up – he needed to be honest to himself, and he became a full-time painter. The twins, Peter and Michael were born in London, and the family moved to Stroud in Gloucestershire in 1948. The third son, Pip, was born in 1951. Oliver was to live and work here for the rest of his life, in the Painswick valley, and then for the last ten years in the neighbouring valley, opposite the village of Slad.

The woods and combes of The Cotswolds were a constant source of inspiration for him. He would return time and time again to favourite places. Through The Cotswolds he could express many of his main preoccupations – the seasons, and the excitement of new growth in early Spring. But at times those gentle hills were too cosy for him, and searching for places that were more dramatic, more rugged, he and Denise would go to Cornwall, Wales, and Scotland.

Throughout the 1950s he worked in water-colour. Although entirely self-taught, the attention to detail, and his ability to wreathe a landscape in cloud or mist was remarkable. His watercolours were meticulously observed paintings, representational but by no means hyper-real. For many, they are the works they still cherish the most. They show skill and integrity.

Then in 1960 his work changed dramatically. He painted large abstracts, in oil, still responding to landscape, but somehow punching through it, bursting it open, seeing where it took him. The paintings were to do with colour, contrast, energy. In 1962, he moved into a large new studio, and like so many people, was caught up in the flair of the time.

In 1963 he bought an old “Parkers of Gloucester” laundry van and had a turret welded into the roof for headroom. He fitted it out with a table, bed and lockers, a basin and a wardrobe. He and Denise took a boat to Gibraltar, and travelling in the van through Spain for three months found rugged landscapes, and rugged life indeed, when for example they joined in with a big gypsy festival. It was the start of almost annual trips abroad that he and Denise were to take for the rest of his life, to Malta, Portugal, many of the remoter Greek islands, and in the early 1970s, two trips to Africa, to Kenya, Tanzania and Malawi. There, in similar but hired vans, they would camp out in the national parks, and had some fairly close shaves with big game.

From about 1965 onwards, his work began to rediscover a kind of representational form. Without losing the abstract, the paintings became significantly smaller, and more focussed. Through the following decades he developed a dialogue between form and abstraction, between seeing the look of a thing, and seeing beyond its appearance to something deeper. In a Cotswold landscape, the wide shape of the hills is there in the distance, then as your eye comes into the foreground, you may travel into a deep, verdant field, where the detail of flora and fauna is closely observed.   You may find orchids here, scabious, or cow parsley. Then, as the eye moves in, you discover abstract space between the detail. Space for you the viewer to ask questions…. Or space to go beyond questions, beyond words…. 

During the working trips Oliver would spend many hours sketching the landscape, the flora and fauna. As I have said, the sketch books were his essential starting point. He was a natural draftsman, describing the structure and depth of a landscape with a few lines, then within that, noting the minutiae of how lichen maps itself on a rock, how a kind of thistle spreads to its sharp points, how water pours between rocks and floods into a pool. The sketches are often annotated, with a number in a tree or a field, and a corresponding note at the side of the page about colour: “salmony red / gold brown varnished wood / bright mustard / vermillion”. Then there are other notes, describing things seen but not drawn (these in Greece): “flock of white doves / wheatear / donkeys going across from left / lady coming up steps carrying white plate”. Sometimes you’ll have a large sketched page, which will have taken an hour to do, covered in huge splashes – the rain having descended without warning.

Meanwhile Denise wrote a copious diary and took photographs, which made her over the years into an accomplished and observant photographer. On any one trip she would take many hundreds of pictures, mainly slides, mainly recording in wide shots and close details what Oliver was recording on paper – tiny wild flowers in the cleft of a rock; vast mountainscapes in the light and shade of racing clouds. The two of them developed a system and became a real working team. Returning home, Denise would file the slides, colour coding them for interest value, and numbering ones that related directly to specific pages in Oliver’s sketchbooks. When working in the studio on a particular subject, therefore, Oliver could refer to his sketches, project slides onto the wall behind his easel, and have at times to hold and touch, pieces of real things he had brought home with him – bladderwrack, lichen, rocks, and so on. (Many is the time when he would stagger back from a walk along the shore, with a haversack loaded up with heavy stone.) Back in his studio these things would give him a tactile dimension otherwise difficult to replicate. Surrounded then by evidence of how a place really looked, Oliver would select and extract what he wanted, working away from the representational towards his own kind of abstraction. Denise’s photographs, besides being source material for Oliver, were in later years printed, framed and exhibited in their own right.


The trips to Africa culminated in an exhibition at the Watutu Gallery in Nairobi, in 1974. This was in fact his only one-man show out of Britain. Through the 1950s and 60s Oliver exhibited at a number of London galleries (notably John Whibley in Cork Street, and the Brotherton Gallery) but he became increasingly disillusioned with this way of selling his work. There were transport and framing problems, and because of the commissions the galleries understandably added to the price of paintings, his work was too costly for most people to buy. This was an important issue for Oliver – he felt that art should be relevant and accessible to everyone. Finally, in the early 1970s, he decided to cut out the middleman and exhibit at home.

He constructed canvas screens, bought strips of spot-lights, and converted his and Denise’s house at Viner’s Wood, near Painswick, into a gallery. The resulting exhibition was a huge success, almost selling out, and he never looked back.   From then until the end of his life he sold most of his work through bi-annual exhibitions at home, first at Viner’s Wood, and then at Rose Cottage, Elcombe, after he and Denise moved into the Slad Valley.   Over the years he established a strong local following. Because he could now fix his own prices, many people who would never have been able to contemplate owning original paintings were able to buy his work.   This meant a great deal to him. In the “art world” a painting’s value often becomes as significant as the work itself, impersonalising the process of creating and selling. For Oliver, a large proportion of his paintings sold locally, and there was an ever growing group of friends and acquaintances who knew and loved his work.   Indeed the exhibitions at home, which lasted for ten to fourteen days, became as much social occasions as anything else. Denise and Oliver kept open house, and after many months of working rather solitarily, they enjoyed every minute of these times. Indeed, they encouraged people to bring family picnics and make a day of it – the shows were normally in early June, when the weather could be tolerable. For the children Oliver would devise trails through the garden, once with brightly painted parrots wired up in the trees, and huge piles of Smarties as treasure trove. It was at times such as these that one could really see the fruition of what Oliver was trying to do – to bring art and people together.

During the two years it would take him to prepare for an exhibition, Oliver would complete about sixty paintings. In order to do this, he and Denise would keep to a very disciplined routine, rising early and working late in order to finish certain numbers of canvasses by certain dates. At this stage Denise would spend a lot of time in the studio painting the frames in subtle complementary colours.

In 1988 Oliver gave a lecture at Hawkwood College, near his home, entitled “Art as a Channel of Spiritual Energy”. During the talk, he drew an image on a board. Within a square frame are three oval shapes, blank inside, but surrounding them and filling the rest of the frame is a pattern of tiny circles. He tells the audience that they are seeing “Three Stones on a Beach”. After a pause he says, no, they are “Three Holes in a Screen”. And finally he says that the image is both stones and holes at the same time. This says so much about his work: the representational and the abstract; the physical and the non-physical; the recognition that reality is multi-faceted and complex, and yet illustrated here through a very simple idea.

An exhibition was planned for 1993, when in June the previous year, Oliver died. Although he had suffered from angina for nine years, his passing was sudden and dramatic. While “circle dancing” one evening with Denise and friends, he had a heart attack and was gone instantly. The commemorative service, on what would have been his 72nd birthday, was held in Nailsworth Church, with his mural on the west wall. It was not a funeral so much as a vibrant celebration of a fulfilled life. Hundreds of people came. They had known and loved him, and many would continue to remember him daily, with his paintings on their walls. That crowded church was the ultimate tribute to a man who wished to bring art and people together.

This is the last photograph of Oliver at work, a few weeks before he died, near Assisi.


Oliver always signed and dated his work. This is one of the group of his final paintings, which he never had time to sign.