During the 1950s, the small harbour town of St Ives in Cornwall played host to an astonishing group of painters that included some of the leading modern artists of the time. Among them were Alan Davie, Terry Frost, Patrick Heron – and Peter Lanyon. Of them all, only Lanyon was actually Cornish.
He died too young – a fact underlined by Soaring Flight, the superb exhibition currently showing at the Courtauld Gallery which gathers together a considerable number of his paintings inspired by gliding, the pastime which ended up taking his life.
Peter Lanyon was born in St Ives in 1918, the only son of a semi-professional musician and photographer. Privately educated, he began studying at Penzance School of Art in 1936 before enrolling at the Euston Road School in London in May 1939, where he was taught by William Coldstream and Victor Pasmore. Returning to Cornwall, Lanyon began taking lessons with Ben Nicholson whose influence on his work, as well as that of Barbara Hepworth, was significant.
Peter Lanyon appears on the cover of the first book about the St Ives coterie of artists – Denys Val Baker’s Britain’s Art Colony by the Sea, published in 1959. In the photograph Lanyon is shown looking across the harbour with a palette and brushes in his hand as if about to paint the scene. But, by then he was a successful abstract painter.
Like all the artists in the St Ives group, Lanyon was obsessed with the landscape of Cornwall. In an essay in the catalogue for a 1985 survey of the art produced in the town, St Ives: Twenty Five Years of Painting, Sculpture and Pottery, David Lewis, a member of the St Ives artistic community, wrote:
The landscape was the common factor for all of us, a presence of perpetual power which in its transitoriness reminds us of our own. … Any pathway we followed, over moors, or down the shafts of mines, or along the corridors of gales, led only to oneself.
Lewis’s comment draws attention to the way in which Lanyon’s paintings strive to give a feeling of being simultaneously inside and outside the landscape of the Land’s End peninsula, in the tunnels of tin and copper miners, on granite cliffs at the sea’s edge, and in the air above West Penwith. Seeking new perspectives on the landscape, Lanyon took to painting on cliff tops and high on the moors. Then, one day in 1956, as the Courtauld guide tells us, he saw three gliders soaring over the coastline and realised that if he could join them he would achieve the all-seeing vantage point he was seeking in order to express his vision of landscape.
The first room in the Courtauld exhibition contains paintings that anticipate Lanyon’s gliding works – paintings concerned with landscape, weather, and aerial perspectives.
One of the earliest paintings on show is Bird Wind, painted in 1955. It’s a work that reveals how Lanyon, returning constantly to the subject of the Cornish landscape he loved all his life, refused to draw a distinction between abstract and figurative art. Returning to St Ives after wartime service in 1945, he bristled at the insistence by other members of the town’s artistic coterie that painters should declare themselves either ‘abstract’ or ‘representational’. His son, Andrew, once told an interviewer:
The way he saw it, he’d been fighting fascism in the Western Desert, and here he found what he saw as a kind of mind control being practised on his doorstep. He refused to be classified as either abstract or representational.
Lanyon’s approach generated paintings that can look completely abstract, but are always rooted in real places. Already, in Bird Wind, Lanyon imagines being hundreds of feet above the earth as a bird, wings spread, with wisps of cloud, and fields and hedges far below represented in a style that straddles the figurative and the abstract.
Silent Coast painted in 1955 (and usually on show at Manchester Art Gallery) is a gorgeous rhapsody in blue in which the sea in its varied moods is represented in variations of blue. Lanyon said of this work that he saw the sea’s various moods as ‘an echo of our human instability, waywardness, and fickleness of mood and temper.’
High Ground is the painting that Lanyon was working on when he saw those gliders: ‘About this time I saw three gliders over a cliff and decided to go up there myself.’ In the painting, he’s already there.
Lanyon began gliding in 1959 and the sensation of flight added new dimensions to his landscape painting. He gained a much stronger feeling for the elements, and his paintings became looser and more ethereal as he attempted to capture the rush of air and movement he experienced in flight. Andrew Lanyon once said that his father ‘loved speed. He wanted to get into the elements, to fly into the storm.’
Before we leave the first room at the Courtauld we see two examples of the way in which gliding began to affect Lanyon’s paintings. Speaking of Solo Flight, one of the first paintings completed after he had learned to fly over the Cornish coast in his glider, Lanyon said that he wanted to convey a ‘sense of solitary quietness and sharp awareness of the substance of the ground below’.
Lanyon explained that ‘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’.
The display caption for Backing Wind explains that a backing wind is caused by a rotating block of cold air. Lanyon now attempted to capture in his paintings the sensation of glider flight: climbing on thermal air currents high above the Cornish coast and land, and seeing and experiencing land, sea and cloud from differing perspectives. He said that he felt it was actually possible to get into the ‘air itself to get a further sense of depth and space into yourself, as it were, into your own body, and then carry it through into a painting.’
With a final flourish this room’s display ends with High Wind, painted in 1958 before the gliding began. The Courtauld caption speaks of ‘a wall of tremendous energy … Lanyon’s brush has the force of a gale’.
The second room brings together a large selection of Lanyon’s gliding paintings made between 1960 and 1964. Rosewall was the first gliding painting made after he started his training. In it, Lanyon describes circling above Rosewall – a large hill west of St Ives. He commented:
The sky which in traditional landscape occupies the top half of the picture is in this painting all around and is the element from which the land is experienced.
One thing of which Lanyon was convinced was that flying a glider was a very different experience to flying in a powered aeroplane:
I have discovered since I began gliding that the activity is more sensual than I had guessed. The air is a very definite world of activity as complex and demanding as the sea.
Several of the paintings displayed here reveal Lanyon giving full expression to the sensations he experienced when gliding – as for example in Drift.
If Drift evokes a moment of clam, Airscape represents of the glider pilot’s experience of moving through a turbulent sky. This is how Lanyon explained the work:
There’s a spiral current on the left, quiet air in the middle and stormy weather conditions – an approaching rainstorm on the right. Far below, out of range of one’s feet is the landscape from St Agnes, looking eastward into Cornwall. It’s an ancient country, scored and marked by centuries of mining. This comes into the picture, but so does the sudden event happening in the present, for the whole idea of the painting began when, flying over a cliff, I disturbed a bird on its nest. It is this range of experience – from the immediate to the historical – that I want to include in my pictures.
In Lanyon’s Last Flight, a BBC Radio 4 documentary broadcast in 2011 we learned 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.
We heard, too, that Lanyon had a temperamental personality: he could be combative and compulsive, was prone to melancholy and depression, and compelled to push things to extremes. Cross Country (a glider pilot’s term for a long distance flight which is both arduous and demanding) perhaps reflects both Lanyon’s troubled mental state and the hazards of changing weather on a long flight.
The caption for Cross Country suggested that Lanyon also saw that painting in terms of a religious pilgrimage. With Thermal, one of Lanyon’s best-known works, the artist is quoted as comparing the thermal cycle of uplift and down draughts to the wider experiences of life:
The experience in Thermal does not only refer to glider flight. … I have discovered since I began gliding that the activity is more general than I had guessed. The air is a very definite world of activity as complex and demanding as the sea….
The thermal itself is a current of hot air rising and eventually condensing into cloud. It is invisible and can only be apprehended by an instrument such as a glider…. The basic source of all soaring flight is the thermal – hot air rising from the ground as a large bubble. The picture refers to cloud formation and to a spiral rising activity which is the way a glider rises in an up-current. There is also a reference to storm conditions and down-currents. These are all things that arise in connection with thermals.
In her review of the exhibition for the Observer, Laura Cummings gave this vivid account of Thermal:
At the bottom, a thermal is beginning to force its way up through the sky below the glider, spiralling in white strokes through grey-blue air – weightless and yet terrifically strong. Then higher up, where the brush-strokes are looser and more fragile, comes the sense of a weakening air current, as if the glider was poised between rising and falling.
The canvas is pure shimmer and surge, veils of pale blue vibrating over thunderous ultramarine, the elation of uplift against the possible sudden downfall all there in the different speed, force and tension of brush marks scudding round the canvas.
Cummings went on to offer this general overview of the gliding paintings:
Every painting is lithe, strong and beautiful in its highly charged freedom
The sky is not some motionless or picturesque scene. Lanyon paints vapour hanging in changeable veils, distant cumulus as a blinding whiteness scintillating among a hundred hues of blue and clouds that materialise on the canvas as painted flux, never quite resolving into fixed patterns or forms any more than real clouds in real skies.
Breath, motion, quivering air, sudden plunge or turbulence: how perfectly Lanyon adapts his marks for every sensation. His hand, holding the brush, streaks across the canvas, the line proliferating like the vapour trail it represents; or slows down to graze the surface so that one has the sense of moisture freezing on the aircraft or condensing in shifting clouds. And in each painting, everything is happening all around him (and you) all at once.
Soaring Flight is another work which describes the sensation of flight with power and beauty. Lanyon commented that the red mark ‘rises up on the left side to set the whole in motion: one almost stays still in the inverted V, but then sweeps down to the bottom hand corner and back through the brown squiggle up to the red again’. He continued:
It’s the way you see a seagull in flight … soaring, hovering and turning away down wind very fast. The movement goes at different speeds so does the eye as it moves across and into the picture.
The Courtauld curators add this assessment from the art critic Eric Newton which draws attention to the way in which Lanyon has succeeded in representing the invisible forces of the air:
Areas of wild movement symbolizing the thrill of a lonely struggle between wings and air, with no definable objects, no foreground to give support, no landmark to lean on.
North East combines an aerial view of Perranporth airfield with circular lines that suggest the spiralling path of the glider’s flight.
It’s not obvious when reproduced, but Glide Path, made in 1964, is a multi-media work. The two black lines that slash across the painting and break up the space are formed by lengths of black plastic tubing. The work gives a sense of moving swiftly over the land, with the painted black lines suggesting the circuit of a flight. It’s a work that illustrates Lanyon’s dissatisfaction with traditional landscape painting.
Long Shore again reveals the way in which Lanyon combined both the figurative and the abstract. Appearing abstract at first sight, it clearly represents Lanyon’s experience of flights over the coast of Cornwall. It could be an aerial view of waves breaking along the shore, land and sea seen from this perspective to be in an eternal embrace.
Calm Air is more recognisably abstract-expressionist in its evocation of the boundary between calm air, represented by the empty space to the right of the picture and the turbulence of the thermal on the left, suggested in agitated brush strokes. Lanyon’s likened meeting a thermal to encountering a barking dog.
Near Cloud was one of Lanyon’s last paintings. In August 1964, his glider crashed in Devon and Lanyon died two days later in hospital. He was 46 years old.
Peter Lanyon is buried in Lelant churchyard near St Ives. The headstone on his grave carries an inscription from one of his own poems:
I will ride now
The barren kingdoms
In my history
And in my eye
Concluding her Observer review of this fine exhibition, Laura Cummings wrote:
Every painting is lithe, strong and beautiful in its highly charged freedom. And every painting comes at the experience of flying from an ever-changing angle. Lanyon’s staggering inventiveness could have continued undiminished, on the evidence of this marvellous exhibition, except that gravity brought it to an end. It has taken half a century for these gliding paintings to appear together, but in his case better late than never. This show, superbly curated by Toby Treves and Barnaby Wright, puts Peter Lanyon back into the ascendant.