St Ives School : Peter Lanyon

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(George) Peter Lanyon (8 February 1918 – 31 August 1964) was a Cornish painter of landscapes leaning heavily towards abstraction. Lanyon was one of the most important artists to emerge in post-war Britain. Despite his early death at the age of forty-six he achieved a body of work that is amongst the most original and important reappraisals of modernism in painting to be found anywhere. Combining abstract values with radical ideas about landscape and the figure, Lanyon navigated a course from Constructivism through Abstract Expressionism to a style close to Pop. He also made constructions, pottery and collage.

Lanyon was born in St Ives, Cornwall, the only son of W H Lanyon, an amateur photographer and musician. He was educated at Clifton College. St Ives remained his base, and he received after-school painting lessons from Borlase Smart. In 1937 he met Adrian Stokes, who is thought to have introduced him to contemporary painting and sculpture and who advised him to go to the Euston Road School, where he studied for four months under Victor Pasmore. In 1936-37 he also attended Penzance School of Art. In 1939 he met established artists Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and Naum Gabo, who had moved to St Ives on the outbreak of war. Lanyon received private art tuition from Nicholson.

The character of his work changed completely and he became very involved with making constructions. Throughout the 1940s the influence of Nicholson and Gabo remained strongly visible in his work

From 1940 to 1945 he served with the Royal Air Force in the Western Desert, Palestine and Italy. In 1946 he married Sheila St John Browne. Six children were born to the couple between 1947 and 1957. Also in 1946 he became an active member of the Crypt Group of Artists, St Ives. During the 1950s he became established as a leading figure in the St. Ives group of artists.

Lanyon took up gliding as a pastime and used the resulting experience extensively in his paintings. He died in Taunton, Somerset, as the result of injuries received in a gliding accident and is buried in St. Uny’s Church, Lelant.

In September 2010 Peter Lanyon’s work was honored with a large-scale retrospective exhibition: Peter Lanyon October 9, 2010 – January 23, 2011 at Tate St Ives. Curated by Chris Stephens, Head of Displays and Curator of Modern British Art at Tate Britain, it was the first thorough museum retrospective for almost forty years.

Life and career

  • 1918 Born in St Ives Cornwall.
  • 1947 First child, Andrew Lanyon
  • 1948 Travelled around Italy in the summer.
  • 1949 Founder member of Penwith Society of Arts in Cornwall.
  • 1950 First one-man exhibition at the Lefevre Gallery, London. Began teaching at the Bath Academy of Art, Corsham (until 1957) where William Scott was senior painting master Invited by Arts Council to contribute to their Festival of Britain exhibition 1953. Spent four months living in Italy on Italian government scholarship Elected member of the Newlyn Society of Artists.
  • 1954 Awarded Critics Prize, by the British section of the International Association of Art Critics.
  • 1957–60 Ran art school, St Peter’s Loft at St Ives with Terry Frost and William Redgrave.
  • 1957 Visited New York for his first one-man show there, with Catherine Viviano Gallery and met Rothko, Motherwell and other artists, critics and collectors. He greatly admired the new American painting he saw both in Tate’s exhibition ‘Modern Art in the United States’ and on his trip to New York. Rothko’s work particularly thrilled him.

While Lanyon was becoming increasingly conscious of the English landscape tradition American art sped his development towards a looser and more open kind of painting.

  • 1959 he was awarded second prize, 2nd John Moores Exhibition, Liverpool. He began gliding, as he explained ‘to get a more complete knowledge of the landscape’.
  • 1961 he was elected Chairman of the Newlyn Society of Artists, Cornwall and was elected a Bard of the Gorseth Kernow, with the bardic name Marghak an Gwyns (Rider of the Winds) for services to Cornish art.
  • 1962 he spent seven months painting mural commissioned for house of Stanley J Seeger, New Jersey.
  • 1963 he spent three months as visiting painter, San Antonio Art Institute in Texas, also visiting Mexico.
  • 1964 he visited Prague and Bratislava to lecture for the British Council.

Peter Lanyon died after a gliding accident on 31 August 1964 at Taunton.

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