I’m Chris Stevens, and I’m curator of the Peter Lanyon Exhibition at Tate St Ives. Peter Lanyon came from St Ives and became one of the most important British artists of the twentieth century, and one of the most important European painters in the post-war period. This painting is Lanyon’s The Yellow Runner from 1946. It started what he called his generation series, a series of paintings which seem to celebrate his home-coming at the end of the war, his recognition of the importance of Cornwall to his own personal identity, and also the imminent birth of his first child, Andrew. What you see in this series is through degrees of abstraction, a sort of enclosed space in which here, for example, you see a horse as if he is underground in a kind of palisade beneath the earth. It conjures up ideas of mining, particularly this form here that seems to reach the surface like a mineshaft. The hill is recognisably a Cornish landscape, and you can see the sea washing up against it. It’s about the realisation of family and homecoming, but naturally, made in 1946, it becomes symbolic of the post-war reconstruction.
Lanyon saw himself and explicitly associated himself with the landscape tradition, with the tradition of Constable and Turner in British art. But crucially, he didn’t paint landscape as seen from a particular place, not as seen as if through a window or through a lens; he wanted to paint landscape both from many points of view, many visual perspectives, but also conceptually from different perspectives. So his painting of St Just, for example, is about the history of that place, about the people of that place, about the exploitation of the miners, about the sense of landscape as carrying in it the history of its people. He names it after the town of St Just, which is the centre of the tin-mining industry in West Cornwall, and at the centre of it, one of the last things he paints is this long black shaft, which he says refers to the mineshaft in the landscape around the place. But he also says it’s like a crucifixion – the shaft becomes the cross, the barbed wire at the top of the mineshaft becomes the crown of thorns.
The landscape also attracts him in that he is fascinated particularly by the cliffs. He talks about being drawn to places where solids and fluids meet, and I think there is a great clue to his art there, his fascination with points of conjunction and distinction, sea and cliff; also where two bodies meet. There is often a figure embedded in Lanyon’s paintings. And again, his fascination with the phenomenological experience of being in a place, his fragile body being out in extreme weathers, and then ultimately gliding, soaring into space like the gulls that he had watched for many years. It’s very much, again, about that meeting of solid and fluid, his fragile solid body and this great amorphous space. And of course, tragically, that is the cause of his death – Lanyon died in August 1964 as the result of a gliding accident, aged only 46.