Peter Lanyon: Soaring Flight

Peter Lanyon: Soaring Flight

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.

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Peter Lanyon: Over the Jasper Sea

Peter Lanyon: Over the Jasper Sea

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.

Peter Lanyon, Thermal, 1960

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.

Peter Lanyon, St Just , 1953

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’.

Peter Lanyon, Soaring Flight, 1960
Peter Lanyon, Soaring Flight, 1960

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.’

Peter Lanyon Inshore, 1961

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.’

Peter Lanyon, Solo Flight, 1959
Peter Lanyon, Solo Flight, 1960

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.

Tony O’Malley: Hawk and Quarry in Winter, In Memory of Peter Lanyon 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

Ben Nicholson’s Cornwall

BBC4’s documentary, The Art of Cornwall, explored how the small colony of artists in St Ives became as important as Paris or London during a golden creative period between the 1920s and 1960s. The central focus of the film was on Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson – the latter first visited St Ives in 1928 when he discovered the mariner and primitive painter, Alfred Wallis.  The programme also examined how a younger generation of artists, such as Peter Lanyon and Patrick Heron, were also influenced by the Cornish landscape.

Nicholson and Hepworth were central figures in the thriving modernist art scene in 1930s London. Nicholson had begun his career painting landscapes and still lifes, but inspired by Mondrian, gradually turned to abstract art.  With the outbreak of war in 1939, recently married to Hepworth and with three young children, Nicholson reluctantly decided to leave London for the safety of Cornwall.  As the couple drove to the end of their road in Hampstead, they noticed Mondrian standing on the corner. They pulled over, rolled down the window and begged him to join them. He refused: he hated the countryside and anything green. Nicholson once recounted how Mondrian, noticing the leaves of a chestnut tree just visible through the skylight of Nicholson’s Hampstead studio, shook his head in disapproval and said: ‘Too much nature’.

When he first arrived in Cornwall, Nicholson went on with the white reliefs that he had been making in London.  They were made in the spirit of quietness and composure that Nicholson had admired in Mondrian’s studio. In St Ives, however:

Outside his Cornish studio the world must have seemed exceedingly disorderly: most days the sky going by at a ttremendous pace; the sluicing of waves and exploding of breakers, that endless pitiless tugging at the headlands by the sea; prevailing winds, quoits and stone hedges; the underworld of tin lodes; the hardship of it all, generastion after generation; harbours, like churchyards, bobbing with coffins.  Only very slowly did this have an effect on what he was doing.
– Christopher Neve, Unquiet Landscape

But the landscape did have an effect, modulated through his abstraction.  In addition, the film suggested, Nicholson turned to landscapes in order to earn a living during the war years. Paintings from the 1940s often show a landscape observed through a window with still-life elements in the foreground (below and top).

Landscape by itself is meaningless, but it works on our feelings in profound ways, arousing in us a sense of ourselves in relation to the outside world. What does it feel like to stare up at the night sky or to confront a mountain?  A picture which mimics the appearance of natural phenomena will miss the point, not just of their essential nature, but of ours too.  Instead, some equivalent has to be found: an equivalent of the way in which they act upon our sensibilities.
– Christopher Neve, Unquiet Landscape

In 1943-45 (St Ives, Cornwall) below, the still life of cups and vessels of the foreground interact with the far-reaching landscape stretching away towards the distant sea.  This work was completed in 1945 with the addition of the union jack as a gesture to celebrate V.E. Day and the end of the war.

These landscapes, with their primitivist style, reflect the influence of Alfred Wallis, whose work Nicholson had first encountered in St Ives in 1928. With fellow-artist Christopher Wood, Nicholson had chanced upon Wallis, seeing him painting through the open door of his cottage. As Nicholson later described it, they:

passed an open door in Back Road West and through it saw some paintings of ships and houses on odd pieces of paper and cardboard nailed up all over the wall… We knocked at the door and inside found Wallis.

Alfred Wallis had spent most of his working life as a fisherman. He claimed to have gone to sea aged nine and was involved in deep-sea fishing, sometimes sailing as far as Newfoundland in Canada. In 1890 he moved to St Ives where he became a marine scrap merchant. He began painting at the age of 70 ‘for company’ after the death of his wife.  Wood and Nicholson saw in his unconventional paintings an authentic, expressive vision, and a freshness and immediacy they aspired to in their own work.

Wallis regarded his paintings as memories, recollections or expressions of his experiences – he said he painted ‘what used to be’. His principal subjects were ships at sea, especially the working sail ships that had disappeared during his lifetime, and the St Ives townscape and the countryside immediately surrounding the town.  He didn’t use traditional linear perspective, instead arranging his subjects in terms of relative importance – the main subject of a painting would be the largest object, regardless of where it stood in physical relationship to its surroundings.

Wallis painted seascapes from memory, in large part because the world of sail he knew was being replaced by steamships. As he put it, his subjects were ‘what use To Bee out of my memery what we may never see again…’ [Wikipedia].   Having little money, Wallis improvised with materials, mostly painting on cardboard ripped from packing boxes using a limited palette of paint bought from ships’ chandlers.  Two Boats (above) is painted on the back of a Selfridges box lid, while The Hold House Port Mear Square Island Port Mear Beach (below) was painted on the back of a printed advertisement for an exhibition.  It is a view of St. Ives in which the elements are rearranged so that they depart from strict topographical accuracy. It shows the promontary at St. Ives known as ‘The Island’, part of Porthmeor Beach (one end of which adjoins the Island), and Porthmeor Square.

After the war, though Nicholson returned to abstraction, he continued to paint the Cornish landscape. Window in Cornwall and November 11 (Mousehole) (below) were both painted in 1947.

The two etchings of St Ives rooftops (above) were made in the 1960s, overworked by hand by Nicholson in pencil and gouache.   June 11 1949 (Cornish Landscape) (below) is one of a small group of compositions depicting farms near Halsetown, above St Ives. The building in the work is Chytodden Farm, near Towednack. An inscription written by the man who came to dominate the St Ives group in the post-war period, Patrick Heron, on the back of the composition – ‘Towednack’ – confirms the location of the view that Nicholson captured.

At the close of the programme the presenter, Dr James Fox descended into the bowels of the Tate where an assistant hauled out from storage the huge Patrick Heron painting, Cadmium with Violet, Scarlet, Emerald, Lemon and Venetian (above) – perhaps the most arresting moment in the documentary.

Patrick Heron was born in Leeds in 1920 into a family of uncompromising nonconformism. His father was an art lover, socialist and pacifist who had been a conscientious objector in the First World War, while his mother, too, was a pacifist and of fiercely independent spirit, with a passionate eye for the natural world.  Heron was a lifelong socialist and pacifist, a founder member of CND, and an active conservationist. He hated with a passion the Tory governments of the 1980s and 1990s, and refused a knighthood when it was offered by Margaret Thatcher.

In 1925 the Heron family moved from Leeds to Newlyn, where Patrick’s father ran a textile business. Patrick’s early years in Cornwall were idyllic: he was influenced deeply by the light, colour and landscape of what he called the ‘sacred land’ of his childhood. He never forgot childhood holidays that the family spent at Eagles Nest, the house above Zennor.

Patrick Heron The Boats And The Iron Ladder, 1947
Patrick Heron: Boats at Night 1947

In 1956, Heron was able to buy Eagles Nest, and moved in with his wife Delia and their young family.  From that time on, the house was the centre of his imaginative existence:

This is a landscape that has altered my life, the house in its setting is the source of all my painting.

Though his work now became non-figurative, it remained profoundly influenced by the landscape of West Penwith.  Among his first works of the period were the garden paintings, meshes of colour streaked and dribbled vertically on to the canvases.

Azalea Garden [below] was one of the paintings made in the first months at Eagles Nest… I referred to the series as ‘garden paintings’, since they certainly related in my mind to the extraordinary effervescence of flowering azaleas and camellias which was erupting all over the garden, amongst the granite boulders, at Eagles Nest when we moved down to begin our lives here. …The well-known crisis which confronted many British painters of my generation – I mean the moving over from overt figuration, however abstract, to overt non-figuration – overtook me at about this time.

‘The ancient valid response of the painter to the world around him is one of delight and amazement, and we must recapture it.’

The wild landscape around Eagles’ Nest inspired the floating boulder shapes and promontories of the large, Matisse-like abstract canvases that followed in the 1960s and 1970s – acrylics and prints on paper, based on bright, interlocking abstract shapes.

Patrick Heron and his wife Delia are buried in the churchyard at Zennor.  This photo was taken when we visited in 2006.

Patrick Heron designed the huge stained glass window that was installed in the entrance hall of the Tate St Ives gallery when it opened in 1993.

Patrick Heron Window for Tate Gallery St Ives 1992-93 (detail)

See also