I called today, Peter, and you were away.
I look out over Botallack and over Ding
Dong and Levant and over the jasper sea.
Find me a thermal to speak and soar to you from
Over Lanyon Quoit and the circling stones standing
High on the moor over Gurnard’s Head where some
Time three foxglove summers ago, you came.
The days are shortening over Little Parc Owles.
The poet or painter steers his life to maim
Himself somehow for the job….
– WS Graham, opening lines of The Thermal Stair (in memory of Peter Lanyon)
Lanyon’s Last Flight this week on BBC Radio 4 was about the Cornish artist Peter Lanyon. The programme gave a survey of Lanyon’s creative journey, focussing on his passion for gliding which, in the early 1960s, strengthened his love for the landscape of his native Cornwall and pushed his art towards new frontiers. Then, in August 1964, aged 46 and on the cusp of international recognition, Peter Lanyon died as the result of a gliding accident. He had enjoyed successful shows in New York, rubbed shoulders with the likes of Mark Rothko, and his work was being eagerly sought. Today he is recognised as one of the most innovative painters in 20th century British art.
Lanyon was born in St Ives in 1918. In 1939 he met established artists Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and Naum Gabo, who had moved from London to St Ives on the outbreak of war. Lanyon received private art tuition from Nicholson, and became part of the astonishing coterie of artists who gave St Ives its noteworthy place in the history of 20th-century art – Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Patrick Heron, Terry Frost. Of them all, only Lanyon was actually Cornish.
‘He considered himself the host to all the other artists who came to Cornwall’, Lanyon’s son Andrew, himself an artist said in the radio programme. ‘Many of them were his close friends, but he felt they were only painting a veneer of the place. For him there was so much more going on behind and beneath all that, sometimes literally, like the tin miners who he identified with very strongly’.
Perhaps that is why he soon fell out with Nicholson and Hepworth. South of St Ives, on the Cornish coast path, is the wall of a house that once belonged to Ben Nicholson. Against this, according to legend, Peter Lanyon would relieve himself every time he passed – in the hope that the building would eventually fall down. In 1950 he had resigned from the Penwith Society of Arts, mainly over Ben Nicholson’s attempt to divide artists into two groups, ‘abstract’ and ‘representational’, a division which would have undermined Lanyon’s own artistic project, which fell within both camps.
Michael Bird, the programme’s presenter, traced Lanyon’s inspiration in places that were crucial to his art, like the ruined tin mine at Levant and the cliff-top airfield near Perranporth from which he flew. He talked to Lanyon’s sons, who each shed a different light on their father’s complex personality.
Of all St Ives artists, no-one transferred the rough textures and airy exhilaration of Cornwall onto canvas in quite the way Lanyon did. He talked about exploring vertiginous edges: in his own words, ‘the junction of sea and cliff, wind and cliff, the human body and places’. Lanyon descended below ground to explore old tin mines, testing out the limits of his claustrophobia, just as in gliding he pushed the limits of his vertigo.
St Just from 1953 (above) , which was discussed in the programme, was Lanyon’s response to the Levant mining disaster of 1919 in which 31 men from the mining village of St Just near Land’s End lost their lives. Conceived as a crucifixion in honour of the miners, the tall painting is dominated by a black forked form that represents the mine shaft down which the workers crashed to their deaths.
This Tate Shots video was made as an introduction to the Peter Lanyon exhibition at Tate St Ives. In it, the exhibition’s curator Chris Stephens explores two of Lanyon’s most famous works: The Yellow Runner and St Just.
After 1959, when he began gliding, Lanyon’s work began to expand into a new flowing style, reflecting the influence of Abstract Expressionism. With the experience of gliding, Lanyon’s paintings became looser and more ethereal as he attempted to capture the rush of air and movement, the sense of floating between states of atmospheric pressure that are invisible to the naked eye. He had created his own path to abstraction through his pursuit of the Cornish elements.
Interviews in the programme drew a portrait of Lanyon as intoxicated by speed and danger. ‘He would have liked to have been a racing driver’, his son says in the programme. ‘He loved speed. He wanted to get into the elements, to fly into the storm’. We learn that gliding is far from being a serene experience – there is constant noise as the craft is buffeted and torn as it rides the thermals. It also highly dangerous, with few means to control passage through the air.
His painting Thermal (top) is one of many that grew out of Lanyon’s passion for gliding, and its vivid abstract forms and resonant colour express his lifelong attempt to create a visual language for his intense experience of the environment – his quest for an art of what he called ‘placeness’.
Lanyon said that ‘the whole purpose of gliding was to get to a more complete knowledge of the landscape … to explore the region of vertigo and of all possible edges where equilibrium is upset and I am made responsible by my own efforts for my own survival.’
He spoke of landscape painting as ‘a true ambition – like the mountaineer who cannot see a mountain without wishing to climb it or a glider pilot who cannot see the clouds without feeling the lift inside them. These things take us into places where our trial is with forces greater than ourselves, where skill and training and courage combine to make us transcend our ordinary lives.’
Solo Flight was one of the first paintings completed after Lanyon had learned to fly over the Cornish coast in his glider. Talking about this picture, he explained: ‘The red is the track of something moving over the surface of the painting, and, at the same time, the track of the aircraft moving over the ground below. Blue air merges with the land. I wanted to get the sense of something far away and down below inside the red track’.
Peter Lanyon died on August 31st, 1964, after a gliding accident at Dunkeswell airfield in Devon. It appears, from the evidence of a witness to the crash interviewed in the programme, that one wing of Lanyon’s glider clipped trees as he approached the runway. Lanyon was not seriously injured and was only kept in hospital because of a comparatively minor back injury. He died suddenly three days later when a blood clot, formed at a bruise on his leg, reached his brain.
Tony O’Malley’s painting, Hawk and Quarry in Winter In Memory of Peter Lanyon (below), was his own response to the loss of his close friend and supporter, and was painted shortly after Lanyon’s death in the gliding accident in 1964.
In the radio programme we also heard the poet W.S. Graham reading ‘The Thermal Stair‘, his powerful and moving elegy to his artist friend, which concludes:
Uneasy, lovable man, give me your painting
Hand to steady me taking the word-road home.
Lanyon, why is it you’re earlier away?
Remember me wherever you listen from.
Lanyon, dingdong dingdong from carn to carn.
It seems tonight all Closing bells are tolling
Across the Duchy shire wherever I turn.
- The Thermal Stair: full text of the poem by WS Graham, plus archive recording of the reading used in Lanyon’s Last Flight