Picture of the Month: He Came He Soared He Conquered – Rosewall by Peter Lanyon
As we approach the new year it feels like a good moment to reflect on changing perspectives. ‘Rosewall’ is the first of Peter Lanyon’s gliding paintings. Born in St Ives at the end of the Great War and central to the St Ives Group during the 50s, he took up gliding in 1959, inspired in part by observing the flight of seabirds over his native Cornish landscape, the subject at the heart of his painting. This painting was completed in January 1960, four months after Lanyon started his glider training. Before taking up the glider, he was keen on dramatic high perspectives like cliff edges and hilltops. Rosewall is a hill in Cornwall.
So ‘Rosewall’ was his first work to benefit directly by this new aerial perspective. We are used to the sky sitting blue at the top of the landscape but here it is what frames the whole experience. And the experience is a vortex of air, light and wind. Swirls of white air between us and the green grass and brown earth.
I’m not big on totally abstract painting – I prefer the kind with vestiges of the figurative – grass, earth, sky, clouds, the components of landscape, but combined with the feelings it provokes – vertiginous spectacle, thrill and fear, soaring freedom. Abstract expressionism of a rooted kind. While its head is in the clouds its feet are on the ground. At once airy and earthy.
Lanyon explained his motivation for gliding: “…I do gliding myself to get actually into the air itself; and get a further sense of depth and space into yourself, as it were into your own body, and then carry it through into a painting.” He linked his practice at this time to Turner and saw himself as part of a core English tradition of landscape painting. I love the notion of making possible for yourself a physical expereince so you can subsequently capture it in paint.
For the first time ever a comprehensive collection of Lanyon’s gliding paintings is now on show – in an exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery in Somerset House, London (running until 17th January 2016). Filling just two rooms, it’s a small but perfectly formed show, well worth catching to experience the ambitious scale of the artworks. This 6′ x 5′ painting normally resides in Belfast in the Ulster Museum.
Lanyon was taught by Victor Pasmore at the Euston Road School and Ben Nicholson in Cornwall. Nicholson was a contemporary at the Slade of Paul Nash whose aerial paintings like Battle of Britain (1941) would seem to be not-so-distant cousins of the Gliding Paintings. I love the landscapes of Nash for their combination of modernity and deep-rooted tradition, as much in the spirit of European Surrealism as in the heritage of English Romanticism. Lanyon is a worthy successor and deserves to be better known.
Previous Pictures of the Month.