Summary

Typically for Lanyon's work, Lost Mine combines an apparently abstract idiom with a precise external source. The broad, gestural style reflects the respect Lanyon had for American Abstract Expressionist painters. He had first seen the work of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning in Venice in 1950, but the broad black marks also recall the work of Franz Kline, who may have been among the many artists he met in New York in 1957. Unlike the work of the Americans, Lanyon avoided an all-over even treatment, however. Employing a favourite device, he juxtaposes a quiet area on the left with the larger confusion of rapid, twisting and interweaving marks on the right.

As the title indicates, this painting refers to a tin mine that was inundated by the sea and abandoned. Colour operates figuratively and symbolically. The black represents the mine shaft and signifies death, the blues are the sea and sky, the red signals life and danger. Lost Mine was painted in the artist's studio in Carbis Bay, close to the Cornish town of St Ives, and an idea of Cornwall is central to its meaning. Lanyon was a Cornishman and that cultural identity, and the history of Cornwall and its tin mining industry, was a central aspect of his persona and his art. The tragedies of mines driven under the sea in search of more ore, and then flooded, epitomised an idea of the miner exploited by mine-owners from beyond the region. Lanyon had grown up at a time when the mines were in serious decline and there was much hardship and unrest among the remaining miners. Though radical politics were unusual for such an artist, the conception of landscape as a repository of history was a common aspect of contemporary views of the land and of romantic notions of landscape. On a more abstruse level, the process of entering the mine and re-emerging became, for Lanyon, a symbolic rebirth and a metaphor for his own identification with west Cornwall. Thus, this work could reasonably be seen as a political protest at the exploitation of a region, and of an underclass, and as meditation on individual identity.

Lost Mine was made at a moment of transition for Lanyon. In the early 1950s, he had made paintings, such as Porthleven 1951 (Tate N06151), about specific places and their histories and associations. Between 1957 and 1959, his themes were more temporal and less topographically specific, being largely about the weather or events. In the summer of 1959, he went gliding for the first time and the following year he began to make paintings based upon air movements and the sensation of the artist's body suspended, silently, in space. The present work pre-dates the first gliding painting, but was completed after his first flight. While it may be akin to an aerial view, one might also see the contrast of quiet and violent sections as relating to the movement of air around the coast. Referring to the sense of actual depth achieved by the master of landscape painting, Lanyon described his gliding as 'an extension of what Turner was doing'. Such works as Lost Mine were, thus, positioned within a landscape tradition while retaining their formal innovation.

Further Reading:

Andrew Causey, Peter Lanyon: Paintings, Drawings and Constructions 1937-64, exhibition catalogue, Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester 1978
Margaret Garlake, Peter Lanyon, London 1998, p.46, reproduced p.55 in colour
Chris Stephens, Peter Lanyon: At the Edge of Landscape, London 2000, p.145, reproduced p.146 in colour

Chris Stephens
May 2001