- Peter Lanyon 1918–1964
- Oil paint on board
- Support: 292 × 1092 mm
- Bequeathed by Eugene and Penelope Rosenberg 2015
The long, thin format of this painting, coupled with its palette of pale browns, greys and blues, may be seen to relate to a peninsular landscape, although references to the human figure also resonate in the image and shape of the work. The artist used oil glazes and a process of scraping to achieve the patchwork of colours that are evocative of the landscape of moorland, cliffs and granite boulders common to the western most region of Cornwall, from which the painting gets its title. Over and around this he painted a denser layer of pale blue, denoting perhaps the sea or the sky. While the painting can be understood as a generalised representation of a landscape, it is possible to read some aspects of the picture topographically – an intrusion of blue into the central form may refer to an estuary, possibly that of the Hayle River a few miles east of Lanyon’s native St Ives.
Peter Lanyon identified West Penwith as marking a key turning point in his artistic development from a form of abstraction influenced by the work of fellow St Ives artists Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and Naum Gabo to a new conception of landscape painting. In 1960, in a letter to the painting’s then owner, the architect Eugene Rosenberg, he explained how the present image had been painted over an earlier, more abstract composition, which he had entitled Horizontal by the Sea. He wrote:
Abstract construction illustrated in ‘Horizontal by the Sea’ is already evocative but is resolved only as far as all the forms curves and planes operate successfully in themselves. References outside these are impurities. It is these references and impurities which I developed in the later painting and so by choice opted for a richer and in fact more local vein. Subsequently, moral and aesthetic differences led me to break with Nicholson and Hepworth, though not with Gabo.
(Peter Lanyon, letter to Eugene Rosenberg, 9 December 1960, Tate Archive TG 4/2/597.)
Since 1939 Lanyon had been close to Nicholson and Hepworth, taking classes from the former, and developing a language of scraped, curving volumetric forms indebted to both, as well as to Naum Gabo. In 1950, the year after he painted West Penwith, he separated himself from Nicholson and Hepworth artistically and socially, and his retrospective account of the painting reflects that later change. In contrast to what he saw as a universality in their abstract work, he began a series of paintings based on ideas of actual places, their appearance and their histories. West Penwith was the first of these, conveying a sense of the region’s landscape, history and politics, with which Lanyon sought to align himself and his art. This new body of work was described by fellow St Ives artist Patrick Heron as subtly balancing Lanyon’s abstract principles and subject matter – the Cornish landscape and his own sense of identity – and culminated in his painting St Just 1953 (Tate L03594) and its related sculpture, Construction for ‘St Just’ 1952 (Tate T13431). This negotiation of abstract values and external subject matter was part of a wider renegotiation of modernist practice among a number of artists in Britain, Europe and North America in the early 1950s.
Chris Stephens, Peter Lanyon: At the Edge of Landscape, London 2000.
Andrew Causey, Peter Lanyon: Modernism and the Land, London 2006.
Chris Stephens, Peter Lanyon, exhibition catalogue, Tate St Ives, St Ives 2010.
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