Peter Lanyon Exhibition Lifts Glider's Works Of Art To New Heights
For five years the artist Peter Lanyon soared, getting a bird’s eye view of the Cornish coastal landscape he loved. Then, in 1964, he fell to earth and died in a glider crash, aged just 46.Detail from Soaring Flight, 1960. Photograph: Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London
An exhibition opening at the Courtauld gallery in London this autumn will bring together 15 major paintings on loan from international public and private collections that show the artist’s attempts to capture the bright blue sky and light and the harsh lines of the jagged coast.
They were all painted in the few years of intense creativity after Lanyon looked up one day while walking along a Cornish clifftop, saw three gliders pass silently overhead, and pledged to join them. He began gliding seriously in 1959, and first flew solo a year later, clocking up hundreds of flying hours until August 1964, when he died in hospital in Taunton.
Curator Toby Treves, author of the forthcoming definitive catalogue of the artist’s work, has flown in a glider to better understand the experience Lanyon was trying to capture, which included marks in the paint representing the thermals and currents in the air.
Lanyon is regarded as one of the major 20th-century British painters, though he fell so out of fashion after his death that the exhibition at Tate St Ives in 2010 was the first in decades.Solo Flight, 1960. Photograph: Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art Edinburgh
He saw himself as painting in the English landscape tradition set by artists he admired including JMW Turner. He was initially influenced by the St Ives school of artists, including Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth, who were drawn to the fishing village by the dazzling light and the cheap rents. He features among a raft of thinly disguised eccentric characters in a notorious roman-à-clef, The Dark Monarch – published in 1962 by another artist, Sven Berlin, and hastily withdrawn after being faced with the threat of a libel action, which inspired another recent exhibition.
Related: The art of St Ives is no sideshow
However, when Lanyon returned to St Ives after active service in the second world war, he fell out with most of the other artists. As the only native Cornishman among them, he saw them as incomers who did not share his interest in getting under the skin of the landscape – which he attempted literally, scrambling down mine shafts as well as soaring above them.
The rift became so bitter that, according to local legend, every time he passed Nicholson’s house on the coastal path, he urinated on the gable wall – hoping that the house would eventually fall down.
His son, Andrew Lanyon, born in St Ives in 1947, is a Cornwall-based artist and film-maker.