Sunday 20 December 2015

Soaring Flight - Peter Lanyon

Soaring Flight - Peter Lanyon, at the Courtauld Gallery.

During the 1950s Lanyon produced near-abstract works that were deeply rooted in the coastal landscape of West Cornwall. Fuelled by a desire to experience the landscape as fully as possible he took up gliding at the end of the decade in order to extend and transform his art.

Drifting and plunging on the thermal currents he saw earth and air in constant flux and described the experience on canvas. Freed from an earthbound perspective, he produced works that offer a sense of his encounters with the land, sea and air. The paintings capture the bright blue sky, light and the harsh lines of the jagged coast. The paintings express the sky's different movements, textures and currents, encountered as Lanyon navigated through thermals and up-draughts to soar through the sky. The sensations of gliding were also connected to various emotional states, which he strove to convey in the paintings.

In August 1964 Lanyon's glider crashed and he died two days later in hospital. He was 46 years old.

Bird Wind, 1955 (oil on board)
Bird Wind pre-dates Lanyon's gliding paintings but was crucial for their development. It relates to birds in flight over a coastal landscape, the colours evoking land, sea and sky. The prominent dark grey line marks the trajectory of a bird flying upwards at a steep angle, slowing to the point of falling, and at the vital moment, turning sharply to recover flight.  Lanyon was fascinated by this manoeuvre, known as a 'stall turn'. He likened it to sexual abandon, a momentary loss of self.
Silent Coast, 1957 (oil on board)

Lanyon's landscapes often evoke turbulent and energetic conditions. Silent Coast is unusual in its calm and contemplative character. It refers to a drowsy sea viewed from high cliff tops. The painting's stillness derives from the arrangement of its large blue forms, pressing together and disturbed texture. Lanyon understood the sea as an echo of our 'human instability, waywardness, fickleness, mood and temper'. When he started gliding, the air also acquired such associations.

High Ground, 1956 (oil on board)

High Ground might be seen as a broad view of a landscape composed of field patterns, sea and sky. However, our viewpoint is uncertain and the painting's rich textures and array of marks draw us in, as if we are also seeing the landscape close-up. Lanyon explained that the diagonal line rising from the bottom left helped him to 'leave the ground and go up into the air and sky'. He recalled that 'about this time I saw three gliders over a cliff and decided to go up there myself'.

Solo Flight, 1960 (oil on board)

Lanyon painted this picture in June 1960 when he was preparing to fly solo, a momentous event for all trainee pilots. The thick red line describes the circuit of a flight. Lanyon explained that he wanted to convey 'a sense of solitary quietness and sharp awareness of the substance of the ground below'. In order to convey the proximity of the land over which he flew, he chose to paint on board to achieve a heavily textured surface.

High Wind, 1958, (oil on board)

Like Turner before him, Lanyon sought to convey the experience of dramatic weather conditions. This painting cannot be read as a simple landscape; rather, it confronts the viewer as a wall of tremendous energy, the action of Lanyon's brush akin to the forces of a gale. He produced this work the year before he learned to fly.

Soaring Flight, 1960

Thermal, 1960

At the bottom of this painting, a thermal is beginning to force its way up through the sky below the glider, spiralling in white strokes through grey-blue air - weightless and yet terrifically strong. Then higher up, where the brushstrokes are looser and more fragile, comes the sense of a weakening air current, as if the glider was poised between rising and falling. The sky is not some motionless or picturesque scene: vapour is hanging in changeable veils, clouds materialise on the canvas never quite resolving into fixed patterns.



  1. Peter Lanyon's landscapes are fascinating, are they not? His work introduced me to a rewarding way of looking at my surroundings.

    Today I have been working through my 2013 posts prior to removing them from my blog at the end of the year, and discovered a comment by you which slipped past me at the time. It was about continuing a conversation by email, and you were unable to find my email address. I have not been able to find yours. Mine is olga at should you still want to get in touch at any time.

    1. I do not like leaving too great a footprint out there. That is why I only have at most three years' worth of posts on the blog. I keep the posts for myself, and otherwise delete them from the web in January. I know that I perhaps disappoint some folks in doing this.

      I think that what impresses me most about the St Ives artists including Peter Lanyon is their individuality whilst also being a group. Also that the women amongst them also mostly had their own loud voice: Hepworth, Barnes-Graham, Blow,... Hilton unfortunately had to wait until her husband no longer cast a shadow.

    2. Why do you remove your posts Olga? That seems a real shame. Having read your comment I went to your blog and discovered that there are indeed no posts prior to 2013 - in the process I discovered that there are some posts there that I would have liked to have seen... I better be quick!

      Peter Lanyon's landscapes were a real revelation as I was not familiar with his work before going to the exhibition.

    3. The sequence of our comments has got a bit mixed up here, Olga, but I was going to delete part of the message once you'd seen it, and I could not get them in the proper order. Never mind....

      I agree with everything you say about the St Ives group of artists - a great achievement being a group and yet managing to be so different. And about the women too. I just don't know many of them - yet -. Learning about art is a work in progress for me, and keeping this blog is part of the process. (My degree is in sociology, and then I sort of re-trained in literature, because I taught English, and now I am learning about art) So, seeing Peter Lanyon's wonderful paintings was a revelation and a delight.