Peter Lanyon (1918-1964) was a celebrated abstract landscape painter and sculptor. He is recognised as one of the most important artists to emerge in post-war Britain, and was the only one of the St Ives modernists to be actually born in the town. While still at school he had received painting lessons from Borlase Smart, and after meeting in 1939 with Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and Naum Gabo, he had further tuition from Nicholson.
Lanyon served with the RAF during the war, and on his return to St Ives in 1946, he helped form the Crypt group with fellow artists Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Patrick Heron, Sven Berlin, John Wells and Bryan Wynter, and later was a founder member of the Penwith Society of Artists. However soon afterwards he fell out with Ben Nicholson over Nicholson’s plans to divide the Penwith into figurative and non-figurative, which he believed to be against everything that Borlase Smart had tried to achieve.
Peter Lanyon’s work was inspired by the Cornish landscape, which he explored by walking through the ancient mining sites, kayaking along the coastline and gliding over it, and applying these emotions to the canvas. He saw himself as painting in the English landscape tradition set by artists he admired, especially JMW Turner.
He visited New York for a one-man show at the Catherine Viviano Gallery in 1957, where he met Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell and other American artists, critics and collectors. He saw a similarity to his own work in the new American painting, and set about trying to source studios at Porthmeor and elsewhere in St Ives for Motherwell, Helen Frankenthaler and Sam Francis. He also hosted a visit from Rothko at his home in 1959, where Rothko met with other St Ives artists including Terry Frost and Patrick Heron.
His New York show also caught the eye of Stanley J. Seeger, a young millionaire who was assembling a large collection of modern European art. In 1962 Seeger commissioned a mural-style painting for his house in New Jersey, and the resulting painting, ‘Porthmeor’, was 10m wide and 1m tall. Lanyon needed a bigger studio for this commission, and rented Porthmeor Studio 3 from his friend William Redgrave.
Lanyon died in 1964 as a result of injuries received in a glider accident.
Text: Ben Crack