Andrew Lanyon

The discovery of Alfred Wallis by Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood on a visit to St Ives in 1928 ~ 50 years after ~

1978–9

Artist
Andrew Lanyon born 1947
Medium
Oil paint on board
Dimensions
Support: 206 × 334 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Presented by Sarah and Alan Bowness in honour of Chris Stephens 2018
Reference
T15121

Summary

This is an oil painting on a landscape board support, made on an intimate scale. It merges two scenes or spaces: on the left two small figures – which the work’s title tells us are the painters Ben Nicholson (1894–1982) and Christopher Wood (1901–1930) – are crossing The Island, a headland in St Ives, Cornwall; on the right a figure in black with a black cap – identified by the title as retired mariner and untutored painter Alfred Wallis (1855–1942) – stands in his St Ives house at a table. The white triangle in his hands probably refers to the variously shaped pieces of cardboard Wallis used as supports for his paintings (see, for example, St Ives c.1928, Tate T00881). Unlike Nicholson and Wood, Wallis does not seem to look to the coast. A wall of his house is absent, which permits the viewer to look in and creates a configuration reminiscent of a theatre stage. This is a surreal and theatrical evocation of a moment well known within histories of modern art in St Ives, when Nicholson and Wood first encountered Wallis painting on boards at his table during a visit to St Ives in the summer of 1928. Wallis became for them an important example of the power of naïve expression, an untutored artist who could help artists and audiences to see the world afresh. The work is titled to suggest that it marks the moment of encounter between these men fifty years later, a symbol itself of the ongoing legacy of such an event.

To the right of Wallis’s room, a single black ship seems to move in correspondence with a flowing sea. The coast here, painted as a white surface that bends into the distance, recalls the bird’s eye perspective Wallis frequently used to depict his memories of sea journeys and the coast. The shift in tone between the two sides, which are physically separated by the roof of Wallis’s room, also suggests that the scene is taking place during a separate moment or time of day, or in an imagined place. In its colour it could be seen to depict night time, or the surreal landscape of Wallis’s mind, with his memories and artistic visions. The painting could be read as a juxtaposition of artists approaching St Ives as visitors – tourists, even – looking outwards at the town and surrounding sea, and the artist who had lived his entire life there, painting images from his mind.

Lanyon has shifted the presentation of this meeting away from an inward glance at Wallis, as recorded in photographs of his doorway, towards a more open view of Wood and Nicholson as visitors approaching from the horizon. The sparse configuration of the land and blending of perspectives give the work a quality of disquiet that encourages a reconsideration of the surreality of this important moment.
This painting is characteristic of Lanyon’s work of the 1970s, when he was engaging with the politics and history of art and other industries in Cornwall, where he grew up. The political nature of landscape painting, especially in a post-industrial regional landscape such as Cornwall, was a topic that was also of great interest and inspiration to Peter Lanyon (1918–1964), Andrew Lanyon’s father. Here the son continues his father’s legacy, but in a very different style. This painting is characteristic of the quasi-surreal narrative scenes he made in the 1970s, which often included pared-down and sparsely populated stage-like settings with strong shadows and flat planes reminiscent of the surreal landscapes of Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico (1888–1978).

Throughout his career Lanyon has played with the boundaries between fact and fiction, and with the mythologising representation of Cornwall and Cornish people in established histories of the place. Especially aware of narratives surrounding the artistic colony in St Ives, his work has sought to counter subtly these accepted ways of reading the place, and to reveal other darker histories. This extends also into his work in film, such as Splatt dhe Wertha (Plot for Sale), a Cornish-language film that deals with land ownership and power relations centre and periphery. His books and exhibitions merge known histories with imaginative reconstructions through texts and artworks in different media. For example, his book and exhibition Von Ribbentrop in St Ives (Helston and Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge 2010–11) dealt with the unlikely connections of the Nazi Foreign Minister Joachim Von Ribbentrop to the Cornish coast, revealing it as a location in danger of being claimed by disturbing contemporary political powers because of its qualities as a supposedly timeless and isolated resort.

Further reading
Andrew Lanyon, The Rooks of Trelawne, London 1976.
Andrew Lanyon, Von Ribbentrop in St Ives, Helston 2011.

Rachel Rose Smith
July 2018

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