Peter Lanyon



Not on display

Peter Lanyon 1918–1964
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 515 × 770 mm
frame: 590 × 845 × 80 mm
Purchased with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1992


In 1963, Peter Lanyon recalled his return from the Second World War to his native Cornwall in 1946. He recognised how the landscape of West Penwith (the furthest part of Cornwall edged with a ragged coast), its history and his family's historic association with local tin mining were a fundamental aspect of his own identity. 'I think my own myth was built up over this thing of miners working under the ground, under the sea, coming up to the surface', he said (quoted in Stephens p.58). The semi-abstract landscapes which he produced in the immediate post-war years were informed by this idea and by a sense of personal rebirth on his return home.

Headland was painted in the artist's Attic Studio in St Ives, a well-known artists colony. Whether it is based on an actual place or a more generalised idea of the coastal cliffs around West Penwith is not known. The curve of the cliff is evident below the line of the horizon and the sea. Whether we are looking at a cliff top or down onto a sandy shore is unclear. In any case, the headland on the left hand side, which is very characteristic of the Penwith coast, is evident enough. It is as if we are seeing both a conventional landscape and a cross-section of the earth at the same time. This painting had been preceded by a series of works which shared the theme of 'generation', that is to say, of birth, growth and renewal. This was symbolised in several pieces by enclosed, womb-like forms, which were sometimes isolated as abstractions and at others shown within the landscape. Headland seems to continue this motif. This enclosed, involuted form appeared in the work of many of Lanyon's colleagues in St Ives at that time. It seems to have been an adaptation of Naum Gabo's (1890-1977) transparent Constructivist sculpture suited to the post-war years, when individual renewal and social reconstruction became dominant themes. It has been suggested that the recurrence of such womb-like forms may indicate an interest in psychoanalysis among Lanyon and his colleagues. In particular, his close friend, the writer Adrian Stokes (1902-72), advocated the writings of Melanie Klein (1882-1960) to which such imagery would be appropriate (Stephens, p.54).

Lanyon's technique of that time was also shared with other St Ives artists. Painted over a white ground, he applied his colour in thin glazes and scraped the paint down to achieve the effect of successive veils. This enhances the illusion of an enfolded three-dimensional space. While the scraping down of the paint was a practice which many younger St Ives artists adopted from the artist Ben Nicholson (1894-1982), the creation of illusional sculptural forms had been seen in Naum Gabo's wartime paintings. Lanyon had been taught by Nicholson in the 1930s, and the two remained close until 1950. Similarly, he saw Gabo as his mentor and was glad to adopt the Russian's term 'Constructivism' for his art. He saw this as having a formal and an ideological dimension - referring to both a sort of abstract art and a belief in art's social responsibility. In 1949, Lanyon told Gabo that his concentration on landscape may disallow him from claiming the title 'Constructivist', but he believed he remained true to the principles. Headland is both a representational landscape and, perhaps, a metaphor of personal or social renewal.

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
Chris Stephens, Peter Lanyon: At the Edge of Landscape, London 2000

Chris Stephens
May 2001

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Display caption

Lanyon was born in St Ives and returned to Cornwall after serving with the Royal Air Force during the Second World War. Headland – the dramatic convergence of cliffs and sea – reflects Lanyon’s early interest in the ambiguous spaces and edges in nature, the intersections of core and surface, land and water. Like Ivon Hitchens, with whom he corresponded during the 1950s and 1960s, Lanyon looked at landscape from multiple perspectives, recording his bodily experience of places from above, behind and below. Naum Gabo’s constructions were also important models for his working practice, which he referred to as ‘immersion in landscape.’

Gallery label, May 2007

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