Peter Lanyon



Not on display

Peter Lanyon 1918–1964
Watercolour, gouache, graphite and charcoal on paper
Support: 466 × 620 mm
Bequeathed by Jean Sheers 2000, accessioned 2002


In 1951 Lanyon began a series of paintings depicting the Penwith coastline in Cornwall where he had been brought up. Coast can be included amongst a number of works, including Porthleven (Tate N06151) and West Penwith (1949), in which he attempted to 'represent in paint this rolling together of a place with its human population, economic and social activity and historical past' (Stephens, p.64).

In 1939 a number of artists moved to the fishing village of St Ives in Cornwall. These artists, including Ben Nicholson (1894-1982), Naum Gabo (1890-1977) and Barbara Hepworth (1903-75), influenced the way in which Lanyon observed and painted the natural beauty of the Cornish landscape. In the following years he sought to create a relationship with the landscape through colours and forms. Although his paintings are rarely of recognisable sites, he stated that 'I do not consider my painting to be abstract. However, I may use of abstraction as part of my working method' (quoted in Garlake, p.7).

Lanyon layered multiple perspectives on top of one another in Coast in order, he explained, to depict 'many angles of vision, many experiences, many changes of light and weather … in a single painting' (quoted in Garlake, p.10). For example, the upper part of the painting is both a view looking down on a coastline with the blue grey area at the top understood as the sea, the yellow strand beneath it the shore, and the rest as land. The painting can also be read as a view of a cliff with the sea in the foreground. In the latter interpretation the small vertical black line on the right hand edge of the cliff top may represent a lighthouse. Lanyon used a variety of textures in order to allude to the changing physical conditions of the land. For example the thick white paint in the foreground, contrasting with the thin pencil marks scribbled on the surface, evokes the stability of the land in contrast to the movement of the sea.

Coast is typical of many of Lanyon's paintings in the 1950s in which he aimed to convey the subjective experience of being in and part of a place. He wrote at the end of 1948:

… the mechanics of the artist today are concerned no longer with space perspective, tone rendering or any of the formulae invented of the creation of verisimilitude because his aim is not to 'photograph' nature but to re-present nature of which he himself is part … he is concerned with the fundamental reality of space-time (quoted in Stephens, p.70).

Further reading:
Peter Lanyon: air, land and sea, exhibition catalogue, Camden Arts Centre, London 1992
Margaret Garlake, Peter Lanyon, London 1998
Chris Stephens, Peter Lanyon: At the Edge of Landscape, London 2000

Heather Birchall
August 2002

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Display caption

In 1951 Lanyon began a series of paintings of the Penwith coastline in west Cornwall, where he had been brought up. The area was already being redefined as a tourist site, but Lanyon resisted the idea that it was a place of only scenic or picturesque attraction.

Here Lanyon conveys a Cornish landscape long defined by economic and industrial activity. The structuring black lines refer to old mine shafts running under the ground and the sea.  Just as Paul Nash and other inter-war artists found unexpected visual qualities in electricity pylons, Lanyon also registers a line of telegraph poles.

Gallery label, September 2004

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