A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Peter Lanyon was one of many artists in the 20th century who took profound inspiration from Cornwall. It is not just the conventional beauties of its landscape, but the particular integration of land and sea, the geology, the light, the air and the weather. Alongside all the painters and sculptors who flocked to Cornwall from the rest of the world, Peter Lanyon (1918-1964) had a different inspiration. Born in St Ives, he painted the Cornish landscape in all its colours and moods, his developing visual language taking his work towards the wholly abstract. After his death at a tragically early age, his work fell out of fashion, but in the past five years or so his work has been brought back into the public eye in a series of retrospective, the latest of which, Soaring Flight at the Courtauld Institute Gallery, has just closed. I so wanted to go, to be reminded of the colours and the sensations of Cornwall through his particular lens and imagination, and I caught it in its last week.
The exhibition brought together paintings, sculpture and collages from his final years, just before and after he had discovered gliding. Looking at his painting through his working life, it is apparent that he was striving to find a way of immersing himself in the landscape in all three dimensions, including the air as well as the the land and the sea rolled out before him. In this he reminded me of Alfred Wallis, and what made his visual language so distinctive: he too is seeking to rise up in the air and look down and over the view he is attempting to capture in paint, unrolling the scene almost in a map-like way. This was instinctive in Wallis, but Lanyon actively sought to go above and below the ground he trod, exploring mine shafts and cliff view points, and synthesising all three dimensions in his work.
He had flown during his RAF service in the war; in the late fifties, he saw a number of gliders drifting over the cliffs in West Cornwall, and discovered his way of exploring from above. He learned to glide at Perranporth airfield, and embarked on a series of large scale paintings inspired by this new experience and perspective. This brought yet another element into his work – he attempted to paint the air. Gliding gave him a whole new language of sensation – wind, currents, thermals, turbulence, and his works tried to capture this in paint, and in sculpture and collage. He started to take his titles from the rather poetic terminology of gliding and meteorology: Soaring, Backing Wind, Thermal, Drift. ‘The whole purpose (of gliding)’, he said, ‘was to get a more complete knowledge of the landscape and … (to) combine elements of land, sea and sky – earth, air and water. I have always watched birds in flight exploring the landscape, moving more freely than man, but in a glider I had the same freedom.’
The exhibition was not a large one – just 21 works from this period of 50s and 60s. What was apparent to me from the earlier (pre-gliding) works was just how far up into the air his imagination was already taking him. Some of his landscapes seemed laid out like a blanket below the eye of the viewer, the birds-eye view of his own mind’s eye. It was almost as if he’d taken to gliding to confirm what he already knew somehow. But having done so, he was able to add the elements of rising air, turbulence, wind and cloud, and take his work even further towards the abstract. Also, and less welcome to me visually, though it was a fascinating way to extend his painter’s language, he was adding colours and lines as an attempt to superimpose a sense of movement and record his flight over the landscape. But the first thing to strike me, before standing in front of the paintings to discover how they were put together, was the colours of Cornwall, and how right his greens and greys and golds are for the land and shore, and how he has captures the astonishing range of blue through to green of the sea.
The exhibition is over, but the accompanying book remains. It has essays on the man and his work. The exhibition’s curator, Toby Treves, took a flight in a glider himself to share some of the experience that Lanyon brought back to his work. Other essays describe his influences and artistic progress, and locate him in the British landscape tradition (examples from Constable and Turner are illuminating in this respect – they too were definitely inspired to achieve atmospheric effects). All the essays are illustrated with examples of his work not on display, and the work of his contemporary artists and how they conveyed height and flight and brought the atmosphere and its weather into landscape painting. It therefore makes a brief and interesting introduction to Lanyon’s work and place in 20th century art. The illustrations are large scale, but the colour reproduction could be better. I noticed this in particular with one of the paintings that engaged me most – Silent Coast, a pre-gliding painting, as it happened, which seemed to me to capture the Cornish sea and shoreline to perfection. I always ask myself which painting I would steal, and this was the one. In the catalogue, the sea is blue; in the painting, the sea is sea-blue, sea-green, and all gradations in-between – it is gorgeous. Fortunately, I could go and revisit it, in Manchester Art Gallery (I hope that it is on the wall and not in the store). But with that health warning, the reproduced paintings are still spectacular and exciting. To see a selection of Peter Lanyon’s work in public collections, including Silent Coast (with blue sea, sadly), go to the BBC Your Paintings website here
Lanyon was eccentric and opinionated, not a clubbable man, not always in sympathy with the artists who had come to live in and around St Ives. He seems to have been a fast friend, and a good hater (he had a particular animus against Ben Nicolson). He was a deep thinker about his art and his work, and exchanged ideas and influences with friends and fellow-artists throughout his life. He died too young, after a gliding accident. His injuries were serious though not life-threatening, but a blood clot led to a thrombosis that killed him, aged 46. This exhibition and the accompanying book form a record of a later painting career that was renewed and in full flow when he died, and a welcome reminder on a grey winter day of the luminous beauties of Cornwall.
Toby Treves and Barnaby Wright (editors): Soaring Flight. Peter Lanyon’s Gliding Paintings. 144pp
London, Peter Holberton Publishing, 2015