Peter Lanyon was forty-six years old when he died from injuries sustained while crash-landing his glider in a field in Devon in August 1964. The paintings he had completed that summer were some of his boldest works – bright strata of colours and flight paths traced across abstracted backgrounds. His work was selling in America to private collectors and public collections. There were invitations to teach abroad, public mural commissions and lectures for the British Council. And then, suddenly, it was all over. ‘Lanyon, why is it you’re earlier away?’ the poet W S Graham demanded of his friend in the elegy ‘The Thermal Stair’.
Gliding had become a passion for Lanyon, providing new inspiration for his art. Always fascinated by flying, he joined the RAF in the Second World War, though he was deemed unfit to train as a pilot and had to settle for five years’ service as a flight mechanic, which at least gave him ready access to piston rings that he could incorporate into sculptural ‘constructions’. It was not until late 1959 that he started taking lessons in a glider, painting Solo Flight in June the following year. Turning the pages of Toby Treves’s hefty catalogue raisonné, it becomes apparent that a shift in palette was already stealing in by then: Lanyon’s paintings were moving away from earthbound greens and greys towards blues and streaks of white, often with bright flashes of red.
Before Lanyon made a name for himself as a painter of sky and air, his art focused on the land. Porthleven (1951) marked an important moment in his career. It was one of the ‘Sixty Paintings for ’51’ – new, large-scale works commissioned by the Arts Council for the Festival of Britain. Treves devotes twelve pages of the catalogue to documenting the painting’s gestation. After months spent researching his subject – the Cornish fishing village of the title – Lanyon laboured over the picture itself, only to scrap the original canvas at the last minute and paint a rapid replacement on board, supposedly in just four hours. In the finished work a version of the village in grey-greens with dark outlined shapes, topped by the simplified tower of a church, stretches up the painting. The critic for the Lancashire Evening Post found Lanyon’s depiction a travesty of its assumed subject, writing that the ‘Porthleven which I know as a pleasant spot comes up rather like a sombre hued explosion in a scrap yard’. Other verdicts were more positive and the work soon made its way into the collection of the Tate.
Lanyon reflected that Porthleven made him realise that he ‘functioned best when concerned’ with his ‘immediate environment’: that he was ‘a place man’. An essay here by Sam Smiles elaborates on the connections Lanyon made between his own work and the landscape tradition of Constable and Turner. Many of his paintings were underwritten by exhaustive research and exploration, and he wrote about the need to convey a sense of being within a landscape, rejecting the idea of taking one stationary viewpoint in favour of ‘moving around in this space and trying to describe it’. The arrival of Ben Nicholson and Naum Gabo in Cornwall in the late summer of 1939 introduced Lanyon (who was St Ives born and bred) to new and enduring influences, steering him away from the more representational style of his early landscapes and portraits. But he reacted against characterisations of his mature work as concerned primarily with abstract notions of space and colour. ‘For me the green field is the essential reality,’ he insisted.
That ‘essential reality’ did not have to be in Cornwall. Lanyon had travelled through Europe and Africa with his family before the war and spent parts of the war and its aftermath in Italy and the Middle East, including extended periods in Rome and the surrounding hill towns. He responded to the local terrain and ways of living in a number of major works: three paintings produced between 1953 and 1962 take the name of Saracinesco, a place he associated with elemental themes of birth and death.
Treves’s study draws out Lanyon’s profound engagement with the particular landscape of his Cornish homeland, yet also works to rescue him from any associations with parochialism, emphasising his connections with avant-garde artists in the United States and the influence of his travels abroad. The catalogue’s illustrations are plentiful and of good quality, and this wide-ranging overview of Lanyon’s career also takes in his work in three-dimensions, such as the earthy glazed pots he made at various points in the 1950s and the ‘constructions’ of coloured glass, metal, tile and plaster he created alongside his paintings from the late 1930s onwards. The book draws extensively on Lanyon’s writings and recordings, reproducing some of this primary material at length; a few redolent passages turn up more than once in expositions on different items in the catalogue. There is a detailed chronology of Lanyon’s career and information about his art materials and working practices, including his switch from painting on Masonite board to canvas in the late 1950s, perhaps to make his pictures more resilient in the centrally heated, air-conditioned homes of his new American buyers.
Beyond allusions to and evocations of place, the subject matter of Lanyon’s paintings is often hard to pin down. Treves quotes interpretations of the pictures by other scholars, sometimes discrediting their readings, sometimes resisting coming down on one side or another, and often emphasises the erotic imagery in Lanyon’s compositions. There are definite suggestions of intentional symbolism, notably in the various series that Lanyon produced, beginning with his postwar Generation series. In The Yellow Runner (1946), the first of the Generation paintings, a horse stands patiently in a subterranean, womb-like cavern and a yellow animal dashes across a hillside in the distance, running parallel to the coast. The iconography is generally linked to the artist’s return to Cornwall after being stationed abroad and to the conception of his first child.
Although some of the shapes, and indeed the yellow runner himself, defy precise identification, we are looking here at a recognisable image of a landscape. With the later works, even that confidence disappears. Art historians peer at lines and blocks of colour to spot suggestions of hidden forms inhabiting the space. Lanyon often provided his own commentaries on figures he had ‘discovered’ in his compositions after finishing them. Sometimes a clue is in the title, as with Europa (1955), where the
outline of a woman seems to sit upright on one side, with a blood-red block on the other. Classical mythology appealed to Lanyon, and also appears to lie behind the bright-coloured arrangement of Clevedon Bandstand (1964), linked by several critics to the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, and love and loss.
More satisfying, perhaps, than attempts to assign equivalence to specific lines or gestures in a picture is the identification of an underlying history. Several of Lanyon’s Cornish landscapes delved beneath the surface, exploring the legacy of mining and the tragedies that haunted particular place names. One of the many dark crucifix motifs to appear in his work overshadows a wounded landscape in Wheal Owles (1958), the name of the mine in which twenty workers drowned in an accident in 1893. A group of linocuts and the large painting St Just (1951–3) responded to another major accident in 1919, in which a number of men fell to their deaths down a mineshaft.
Lanyon’s reputation has come to be dominated by associations with skyscapes and flight, and by the tragic accident that killed him. This catalogue is a reminder that parts of his career were much more concerned with the land itself, and indeed with the stories that lay below ground.