Peter Lanyon 1918-1964
‘the most important thing about Peter was that he taught me to experience landscape. … I found it interesting to see Peter draw because he was so expressionist while I was very tight-arsed. He just roared into his drawing and rushed the waves over. I was in awe of him.’ Terry Frost on Peter Lanyon.
George Peter Lanyon was born 8 February 1918 into a prosperous and artistic St Ives family. His father Herbert was a semi-professional photographer and musician with a broad interest in the arts. He was elected President of the St Ives Art Club in 1922 and from an early age took his young son to visit the St Ives artists’ studios. Aged 4, Peter entered Sunnycroft, a private St Ives school. He was soon joined there and became friends with Patrick Heron. In 1930 Lanyon began his secondary education at Clifton College in Bristol. With his parents’ consent he swapped Latin and German to study art. Back in St Ives in 1935 he received tuition from Borlase Smart and joined the St Ives Art Club. Smart had an early influence upon his student's connection with the Cornish landscape. Lanyon later recalled of him; 'He loved the open coast and cliffs and he would get out there and make me draw the rocks so that they looked, not just like the rocks, but he would say to me “Remember there are thousands of tons of weight here and the sea has been battering this for years.” And this sort of quality really excited me and connected me up with my own feelings of the country'.
In 1936 Peter entered the Penzance School of Art. His father died a few months later leaving a substantial estate equivalent to £2M in today’s terms; providing the young artist with independent means, although in later life he financially depended upon the proceeds of successive London and New York exhibitions.
In 1937 Lanyon was elected an Associate of the St Ives Society of Artists. In October he showed his first publicly exhibited work, ‘A Belgian Memory’ at the Royal Institute of Oil Painters in London, after a summer trip with his mother and sister. The following year, on a trip to South Africa he enjoyed his first solo exhibition in Johannesburg, featuring paintings from Cornwall and his Dutch trip. In 1939 he attended a one-term course at the Euston Road school, tutored by Victor Passmore.
That year Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and Naum Gabo also arrived in St Ives. Gabo became the main instrument of Lanyon’s understanding of Constructivism and a mentor to him throughout his life. In November 1939 Lanyon commenced a twice-weekly tuition with Nicholson who wrote of him “He has done some quite nice work, understands quite naturally contemporary thought and will be a rather good painter.” Lanyon started his first abstract constructions.
In 1940, after being preventing from becoming an RAF pilot by chronic migraines, Lanyon enlisted as a trainee flight mechanic. Over the war years he was posted to North Africa, the Middle East and ultimately the Mediterranean Allied Air Forces, and Rome at the end of the war. During his wartime leave, he worked on constructions and in 1943 exhibited in a touring exhibition, ‘New Movements in Art’.
Back in St Ives, after the war, Lanyon was one of the founding members of the Crypt Group; young St Ives modernists including John Wells, Bryan Wynter and Sven Berlin. They commenced annual exhibitions in the Crypt of the New Gallery and Lanyon held his first significant one-man exhibition at the Bookshop of GR Downing in St Ives in 1947. Later that year he exhibited in his first international exhibition, at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Paris. In 1949 Lanyon and most of the other modernists abandoned the St Ives Society of Artists citing bias and formed the Penwith Society of Arts; although Lanyon resigned a year later after a row over artwork classification.
Lanyon also met Paul Feiler; a relationship which was to endure. Another lifelong artist friendship evolved with the young Terry Frost whom Lanyon took under his wing after the war.
Terry Frost wrote of Lanyon; 'the most important thing about Peter was that he taught me to experience landscape. … I found it interesting to see Peter draw because he was so expressionist while I was very tight-arsed. He just roared into his drawing and rushed the waves over. I was in awe of him'.
In 1950 Lanyon held his first London one-man show at the Lefevre Gallery, later joining Gimpel Fils where he had another one-man show in 1952 with works concerned with the 4 ½ miles between Bojewyan and St Just. In 1950 Lanyon was also commissioned by the Arts Council to paint Porthleven – a major work finished in 1951, after the artist destroyed his first effort. That year he exhibited alongside Ben Nicholson and Terry Frost in New York in ‘Exhibition of American Abstract Painters: British Section’. In 1953 Lanyon completed another major work, St Just, a complex painting named after the West Penwith mining town. The vertical composition centres on a dark crucifix form; also likely to be a reference to mining shafts and adits. Of the painting Lanyon said: “At present I seem to be on a pilgrimage from inside the ground, as if I were the only one saved from the Levant disaster and as I moved, the unlucky mourner, along the gale ridden coast to St Just trying to adjust the bones of miners into coffins to represent beings”.
In 1955, in a letter in the St Ives Times, Lanyon revealed the chasm that had opened between himself and Hepworth/ Nicholson, socially and intellectually. The letter suggesting that the Arts Council should broaden its funding of art societies in West Cornwall. Lanyon argued that by funding only the Penwith Society of Arts from which he had resigned, the Council was complicit in the promotion of ‘academic abstraction’ by Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth at the expense of younger artists who did not work in that idiom. It is not surprising therefore that Lanyon was never reconciled with the two pioneers of the St Ives modernists and it serves as a simple statement of a fundamental difference the artist perceived between his and their work.
In 1957 he held his first one-man show in the USA, at the Catherine Viviano Gallery in New York. It was a huge commercial success with many works sold to leading American collectors. Lanyon told the gallery owner that of the paintings he had seen in America, those of Rothko stuck most in his mind.
In June 1959, Lanyon joined the Cornish Gliding Club at Perranporth and by the following year was flying solo. From that time he spent two or three days every month in the air and the experience became a central theme of his work effecting a huge change in his method. Colours brightened and simplified, paint gestures became broader and more confident. Above all, the mood became lighter and more sensuous as the pictures expressed the exhilaration and joy of unpowered flight. All of the glider works were given titles from the lexicon of flying. ‘Thermal’ was painted in 1960. It models the intoxication of feeling, through the glider’s movement and the sudden uplift of a thermal. Lanyon likened the moment to ‘an impact as sharp as being hit by a stone’. The Courthauld Gallery gathered together a remarkable exhibition of Lanyon’s glider works, ‘Soaring flight’, in 2016.
Lanyon held a further opening in his New York dealer's gallery in 1959, when he met and befriended Mark Rothko. In August that year, Rothko with his wife and daughter travelled to Cornwall and stayed with Lanyon at his home, Little Park Owles in St Ives. The artists met with other leading St Ives modernists including Paul Feiler at his converted chapel in Kerris.
In October 1960 Lanyon enjoyed the most successful one-man show of his lifetime, ‘Recent Paintings by Peter Lanyon’ at the Gimpel Fils gallery. Works were bought by the Tate Gallery, the Arts Council of Great Britain, The British Council and leading collectors. More shows followed with his London dealer and the Catherine Viviano Gallery in New York.
Towards the end of his sadly short life, in 1962, Lanyon provided a sharp insight into how he perceived his work and himself within the pantheon of modern British artists; “In opposition to those who believe only in the process of making known by the act of making, I maintain the primary importance of knowing before making. Thus, I am attached by some, in ignorance, to subject painting and by others in equal but more strident ignorance to abstract painting. I believe in the subject of awareness in myself of place and time and in abstraction as the process of making”.
Months before his death Lanyon’s last 10 years of work were hung alongside Willem de Kooning at the Tate gallery in ‘54-64. Painting and sculpture of a Decade.’ De Kooning was the New York painter with whom Lanyon was most frequently compared; the comparison predicated upon commonalities of brushwork and the artists’ complex layering of paint.
On 27 August 1964, in the pursuit of his new love of gliding and the inspiration it provided to his art, Peter Lanyon crash landed his glider near Honiton in Devon. His spine was fractured but he was expected to make a full recovery. Tragically, matters didn’t work out that way and he died in hospital on 31 August from a pulmonary embolism. He was only 46 years old but left a legacy of over 600 works.
Causey, Andrew (2006) Peter Lanyon: Modernism and the Land, Reaktion Books
Garlake, Margaret, (2002) Peter Lanyon (St Ives Artists series), Tate Publishing
Stephens, Chris (2000) Peter Lanyon: At the Edge of Landscape, 21 Publishing Ltd
Stephens, Chris (2010) Peter Lanyon, Tate Publishing
Treves, Toby (2018) Peter Lanyon: Catalogue Raisonne of the Oil Paintings and Three-dimensional works, Modern Art Press
Wright, Barnaby (2015) Soaring Flight: Peter Lanyon's Gliding Paintings, Paul Holberton