Peter Lanyon

Drawing for ‘Orpheus’. Verso: Figure Drawing

1960, c.1960

Not on display

Peter Lanyon 1918–1964
Crayon on paper. Verso: crayon on paper
Support: 561 × 767 mm
Purchased 1991


This loose, almost abstract drawing of a nude female figure was made in preparation for Lanyon's painting Orpheus, 1961 (Premio Marzotto Institution, Valdagno). It was almost certainly made in the artist's studio in Carbis Bay, near St Ives, Cornwall. The cursory, vigorous line is characteristic of Lanyon's drawing style, though many of his graphic works are more tonal than this stark example. A greater openness appeared in the artist's work following the impact of American Abstract Expressionism in Britain: the first major showing of the work of such artists as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline and others was in January 1956 and Lanyon met many of those artists in New York the following year. He had, however, known the work of Pollock and de Kooning since 1950 at least.

Lanyon's art was also close to that of the Americans in that they shared an interest in mythology. Many of his works refer to myths as symbols of nature or of individual states of being; there is frequently an erotic undertone. Study for 'Orpheus' depicts a nude woman seen from above with one foot hanging over the edge of the bed. In the final painting, which is square, the composition has been rotated so that the dividing line of the bed's edge is now horizontal, becoming in Lanyon's eyes the division between our world and the underworld. In Greek legend, Orpheus was a poet whose music was so moving that with it he was able to persuade Pluto, God of the Underworld, to release Orpheus's dead wife, Eurydice. The only condition for her release was that Orpheus should not look back until they reached the earth. This he did and Eurydice vanished for ever. His prolonged grief enraged the Thracian women and he was torn to pieces in a Bachanalian orgy. Lanyon saw the story as 'a seasonal myth about the seed lying in the earth during the winter and coming back to life in the spring' (quoted in Lanyon, p.209).

The imagery of the poet's descent into the underworld also recalls the theme of mining in Lanyon's earlier paintings. Both mining and the Orpheus legend offered a symbol of the artistic process. For Lanyon, Orpheus is 'like the artist searching for his image, for the meaning of what he is doing'. Or, 'The myth of Orpheus … is I think a parallel to my own painting activity. The muse disappears if I look back or repeat myself' (quoted in Lanyon, pp.208-9). While these ideas relate to Lanyon's interpretation of the original legend and the final painting, they should also be seen in relation to the image of woman. He was aware of the range of symbolism and meaning invested in the nude, of woman as mother, lover or muse, and such readings may have informed his depiction of the female body.

There is another, slightly more literal, drawing of a nude on the reverse of this drawing.

Further Reading:
Andrew Lanyon, Peter Lanyon: 1918-1964, Penzance 1990 (pp. 208-9)
Margaret Garlake, Peter Lanyon, London 1998
Chris Stephens, Peter Lanyon: At the Edge of Landscape, London 2000

Chris Stephens
May 2001

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Display caption

This is a preparatory study for the painting of the following year of the same title. The composition is of a nude seen from above and is more open and less dense than was his earlier practice. Lanyon visited New York in the late 1950s and was able to experience the work of the American Abstract Expressionists at first hand. As a result his work became less concerned with literal description than before and his use of line, as can be seen in this drawing, became freer and more gestural.

Gallery label, August 2004

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