Heinrich (Hein) Heckroth was born into a family of modest means. He showed an early interest in painting. After training as a book printer and typesetter, Heckroth worked as an assistant in that profession until 1919. Despite the dire economic situation after the First World War, he moved to Frankfurt am Main in 1920 in order to become a painter. He studied with Ludwig Gies at the Städel Art Institute, and from 1921 onwards with Reinhold Ewald at the State Drawing Academy in Hanau. By the 1920s, Heckroth began painting the portraits of well-known personalities such as the dancer Mary Wigman and Bertolt Brecht. Heckroth’s works were exhibited by the Frankfurt galleries run by Ludwig Schames and Alfred Flechtheim. In 1924, Heckroth married the painter Diana Maier. They moved to to Essen in 1927, where Heckroth worked for the local theatres. In the summer of 1928, Heckroth travelled to Paris, Ibiza, Munich and St-Tropez, where he met the painters Dunoyer de Segonzac and Rudolf Levy. In 1929 he was appointed head of décor at the Municipal Theatre in Essen. In 1932, Heckroth was awarded the Art Prize of the Rhine Secession, and that same year he was appointed to a professorship at the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts.
After the Nazis assumed power in 1933, Heckroth was banned from teaching and painting, and many of his paintings were destroyed. His wife fled to Paris. Heckroth, too, left Germany, accompanying his friend Kurt Jooss on a tour of his ballet “Der grüne Tisch” (“The Green Table”). Afterwards, in 1934, Heckroth joined his wife Ada in Paris. That same year, Heckroth accepted an offer from Kurt Weill to design the sets for his opera “Der Kuhhandel”, which was to be performed in London. In spring 1940, Heckroth was interned as an “enemy alien” and shipped out to Australia, where he was placed in the Hay Internment Camp. But friends petitioned against his detention, and he was allowed to return to England. Heckroth’s first London exhibition of paintings took place in the Modern Art Gallery in 1943. At the same time, he entered the film business as a designer. In 1947, Heckroth became a British citizen. He enjoyed much success in film, earning an Oscar for his art direction of “The Red Shoes” (1948) and receiving two Oscar nominations for “The Tales of Hoffmann” (1951). The Heckroths returned to Frankfurt am Main in 1956.