The art of Peter Lanyon – who died 53 years ago today – is, like all great art, uncompromising. For those seeking “Cornish Art”, it has none of the serenity of the calm seascapes on offer in every gallery in every tiny cove. But if you’re prepared to look beyond the initially daunting surface of Lanyon’s vast canvasses, there is much on show that should strike a chord with many who come to experience (and I use the word advisedly) the liminal zone – where sea meets land meets sky – of Cornwall. There’s nothing wrong with the calming blue landscapes on show elsewhere: there are worse things than a memento of a Cornish summer in the grip of a bleak, grey Scottish winter. But Lanyon’s work is a distillation of Cornwall: its long past, and the ever-present moment of vivid experience.
You need only stand on any headland – Lizard, Cape Cornwall, Trevose Head – to recognise in the 270° sea, and 180° sky, what works such as Silent Coast, High Ground, High Wind, and my favourite, Thermal, exemplify: the experience of being in a place where edges meet and clash.
Lanyon, in his travels across Cornwall, wanted to come “on a place unawares”, and capture the first sight of it before it settled into familiarity. In the days before he took up gliding, he would do this by running up to a sudden view, or turning over to see it upside-down; by hanging onto a cliff-face, or by diving. “A formal conception of landscape”, he said, “is a horizon set low, dividing the canvas in top and bottom” which “presupposes a fixed viewpoint”.
His greatest works are his gliding paintings of 1959-1962*, and though they may depict a view of Cornwall few of us are lucky enough to share, they are more conventionally beautiful and accessible to the casual viewer than much of his earlier work. At least, the names (Thermal, again) quite clearly match what the canvas shows: airy blues and whites rising and spilling and colliding. His own intrusion to this barren kingdom is symbolised by the streak of red seen in Solo Flight and Soaring Flight.
For walkers on the South-West Coastal Path, for surfers at Fistral or Praa Sands and for sea-kayakers off the Lizard, though their pursuits differ there is a shared goal of the sheer in-the-moment experience. Lanyon’s work re-presents this. In simple terms, from the mid-1950s, he didn’t seek to paint a place, but the sense(s) of being in that place. Compare two paintings of Portreath. The first, Portreath (below), from 1949 is an abstracted but still-recognisable portrayal of the fishing village near Camborne. The latter, Offshore (1959) only shows symbolic elements of green and blue, but the energy imbued in the work suggests the winds off the coast, and an approaching storm. If the sky is vertical in a Lanyon, it’s probably because he was lying down at the time, catching the view unawares. Offshore shows what it felt like to be there, not what it looked like.
On his return to St Ives after the Second World War, he had sought a reconnection with the countryside of his youth, and this process informed his work throughout his life, even when working abroad (in Czechoslovakia, for instance; the USA; or Devon). This led first to an appreciation of the history of a place (and the role of human labour in that history), then to portraying the sensation of being in a place at a particular moment, and then, as he sought ever-new ways of experiencing the world around him, into the air (and, ultimately, to his death after a gliding accident).
From the late 40s to the late 50s his work is dark, earthy and rooted in particular places. His palette is redolent of the greens and browns and blacks of the Penwith peninsula’s farms, fields and walls. He wanted to bring out the smell of dung in a farmyard in the work Bojewyan Farms. This is one of a series of agricultural paintings done in the early 50s after a walk from Pendeen to St. Just, through the near-barren farmlands which still cling to the cliff-edges of Penwith on the most western face of England. The map he later drew of the walk shows the route and the paintings it inspired:
As if working out an atavistic guilt over his family’s wealth from the local mining industry, his work at this time is filled with references to human labour: thick black mineshafts, and what Cambridge art historian James Fox described as one of the most significant pieces of British art in the 20th Century, St. Just (1953). This not only commemorates the men killed in a mining accident at the Levant mine near St. Just in 1919, but stands now as an elegy for an entire lost industry.
By ironic coincidence, this walk (which we would now think of as an exercise in psychogeography) traces the route of the B3306, today widely considered as one of the most “picturesque” roads in the UK. But for Lanyon, the act of walking, of touching the Cornish hedges, of feeling the road and fields underfoot, was the crucial thing linking him to the landscape.
In late 2000, Tate St. Ives mounted an exhibition (Peter Lanyon: Coastal Journey) commemorating that walk. For the first time, it grouped together in one space the paintings Lanyon refers to in his map, each of which portrayed a stage of the journey and the associations of that particular spot. In the accompanying catalogue, Andrew Dalton writes that Lanyon
“thought of these works as representing more than a mere tour of the region. He wished to express a complex, multi-layered experience of these places which addressed his sense of the industrial, agricultural, spiritual and mystical aspect of Penwith…to evoke the deeper meanings locked within the landscape.”
Lanyon is buried in the churchyard of St. Uny in Lelant, in a corner sheltered by a small sycamore, beneath a gravestone of granite and slate, those two emblematic Cornish bedrocks. It may seem an incongruous resting place for a man whose greatest works depict the experience of taking wing and soaring above the clashing territories of wave and shoreline, but he was – fanatically – a Cornishman, and this was his territory. Engraved on the slate of his tomb are lines from one of his own poems.
I will ride now
The barren kingdoms
In my history
And in my eye
*This is not to discredit the work that follows from them in the final two years of his life. Though his purpose – to capture the sense of being in a place – changed little in his final years, the style and method did. Alert to changing tastes, and the rise of Pop Art in particular, his response to the new forms of art sees a lightening of touch, an introduction into his “serious” art of the humour he was well-known for. If he lacks the irony of Pop Art, he shares a kindred playfulness, and the bold – but lightly applied – colours of works like Saltillo or Mexico, which almost look like they’ve been done in acrylic rather than oil, reflect this.
Dalton, Andrew: Peter Lanyon: Coastal Journey (Tate, 2000)
Fox, James: The Art of Cornwall (BBC, 2010)
Stephens, Chris: Peter Lanyon: At the Edge of Landscape (21 Publishing, 2000)
Garlake, Margaret: Peter Lanyon (St. Ives Artists) (Tate, 2002)