Peter Lanyon

St. Ives, Cornwall 1918 – 1964 Taunton, Somerset

Peter Lanyon was born on the 8th February 1918 in St. Ives, Cornwall, the only son of Herbert Lanyon, a semi-professional musician and photographer.  Following a private education at Clifton College near Bristol, Lanyon enrolled at Penzance School of Art in 1936.  He supplemented this formal training with private lessons under the painter Borlase Smart (1881–1947).  In 1937 he met Adrian Stokes, whose writing and aesthetic theories dramatically affected his work.  After a trip with his mother and sister to South Africa in 1938 and a period of depression, Lanyon enrolled at the Euston Road School in London in May 1939, as advised by Stokes.  Though he stayed for no more than two months, his principal teachers being William Coldstream and Victor Pasmore, he believed the experience was ‘exceedingly good training’.

Having returned to Cornwall, Lanyon noted the disintegration of his painting in July/August, but was once more aided by Stokes who suggested he take lessons with Ben Nicholson, which began in September 1939.  Receiving direction in formal aspects of abstract composition from a leading figure of British Modernism led Lanyon into experiments with reliefs and constructions, such as his White Track and Box Construction No. 1.  Throughout the 1940s the influence of Nicholson, as well as Naum Gabo and to a lesser extent Barbara Hepworth, was visible in his work.  Lanyon enlisted at the age of twenty and served in the Royal Air Force in North Africa, Palestine and Italy.  In 1946 he married Sheila St. John Browne and they had six children between 1947 and 1957.  After World War II Lanyon was actively involved with the Crypt group and was a founder member of the Penwith School of Art in 1949.

Lanyon had his first one-man exhibition at the Lefevre Gallery in London in 1950 and began teaching at the Bath Academy of Art, Corsham, until 1957.  From 1957-60 he ran an art school, St Peter’s Loft at St. Ives with Terry Frost and William Redgrave.  In 1957 he visited New York for a one-man exhibition at the Catherine Viviano Gallery, where he met Mark Rothko and Robert Motherwell.

Lanyon began gliding in 1959, as he explained ‘to get a more complete knowledge of the landscape’.  The lack of a source of power, other than the natural air currents on which one flies, makes gliding a far more elemental experience than motorised flying.  For Lanyon it was like being a bird; a solitary experience in which one must apply an in depth knowledge of natural phenomena.  This encounter with the movement of air over different types of land and sea, and the “bird’s-eye-view” of topography he came to understand as a result of gliding, was incorporated into his vision as an artist.  It evidently had a great visual impact on his painting and print-making.  Sadly though, what had been a source of creativity for Lanyon also became one of destruction; Lanyon died from injuries incurred in a gliding accident on 31st August 1964 at Taunton.

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