Peter Lanyon: Inspiration in the air

For five years the artist Peter Lanyon soared, getting a bird’s eye view of the Cornish coastal landscape he loved. This new found hobby of Lanyon’s was the inspiration behind some of his most famous artworks, however it also came to be how he met his early death. This month we take a look at the life of the great british artist, his love of gliding and the artworks he created.

Early Life

Peter Lanyon in St Ives Studio (1954)

Born in St Ives, Cornwall to a wealthy mine owning family, Lanyon started out obsessed with the earth. His father was also an avid photographer and musician, so creativity was encouraged by his parents from an early age. St Ives remained his base, and Lanyon was taught by artists such as Borlase Smart, Adrian Stokes and Victor Pasmore during his teenage years. However, in 1939 he met established artists Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and Naum Gabo who had moved to St Ives on the outbreak of the Second World War. Lanyon received private art tuition from Nicholson, and the character of his work changed completely. Despite serving for the Royal Air Force from 1940 to 1945, Lanyon found time to paint and the influence of Nicholson and Gabo remained very evident in his work.

Upon return from his time with the Royal Air Force, Lanyon married Sheila St John Browne, and the couple wasted no time starting a family. Over the next decade, six children were born to the couple, Andrew, Jane, Matthew, Martin, Anna & Jo.

During this time, he also became an active member of the Crypt Group of Artists and a founder member of the Penwith Society of Arts, While also becoming a leading figure in the St. Ives group of artists. His craggy, early semiabstract paintings sought to give a feeling of being simultaneously inside and outside the landscape of the Land’s End peninsular, in the tunnels of the tin and copper miners, and on the granite outcrops above. Wanting to get ever more extreme perspectives on this ancestral landscape, he took to painting on clifftops and high on the moors, until one day in 1956 he saw three gliders soaring over the coastline and realised flying would give him the omniscient vantage point he craved.


Peter Lanyon in Glider (1963)

With his discovery of gliding in 1959, Lanyon’s paintings became looser and more ethereal as he attempted to capture the rush of air and movement, the sense of floating between states of atmospheric pressure that are invisible to the naked eye. He had created his own path to abstraction through his pursuit of the Cornish elements. “He would have liked to have been a racing driver,” his son says. “He loved speed. He wanted to get into the elements, to fly into the storm.”

Lanyon’s desire to confront nature overtook him when he was fatally injured in a gliding accident in August 1964. In reflecting on how much was lost with Lanyon’s death, it is chastening to observe how little Britain seems to esteem its artists. While his American peers, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and co, have been elevated to the status of global cultural heroes, Peter Lanyon, and his fellow artists in Cornwall have been hived off into the comfortable ghetto of St Ives Art. It’s time to look again at a true original, who looked at his ancestral landscape with an international sense of freedom.

Artwork by Peter Lanyon at Trinity House

Climb Out, 1964

DIMENSIONS: (unframed) 48.0 x 72.0 in./122.0 x 183.0 cm
SIGNATURE: Signed , titled and dated on the reverse
MEDIUM: Oil, polystyrene and wood on canvas

Climb Out is one of the last ever paintings to be produced by the master of Modern British art, Peter Lanyon, and is a key example from the series of works by Lanyon known as ‘the gliding paintings’, recently given their long-deserved due at the Courtauld Institute’s critically acclaimed exhibition, Soaring Flight. Painted from 1959 until the artist’s untimely death in 1964 (following a gliding accident), these works channel Lanyon’s experience of taking to the skies from the tiny Perranporth airstrip, perched on a cliff-top on the exposed northern coast of the Penwith peninsular. In the five years that Lanyon flew gliders, he logged some 385 flights – or 57 hours in the air, 46 of those solo. This is not a vast amount by the standards of committed glider pilots, but it was still an impressive amount of ‘studio time’ spent encompassed by the elemental forces that he had sought to understand and represent in his painting from the early 1950s.



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