When I Slept Under Lanyon…

A friend tweeted a picture recently of her admiring ‘Soaring Flight’ by the incomparable Peter Lanyon.  It got me to thinking back to a show I was closely involved in some 37 years back when I worked at Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery. It was titled ‘Peter Lanyon: Later Works and here’s how it came about… I’d been working at the gallery for just over a year when Hugh Stoddart was appointed Director and in our early conversations either he or I raised our joint interest and enthusiasm for Lanyon. Hugh had been working in the South West as Visual Arts Officer for the region and had, in some way, been fortunate to have met Sheila Lanyon (the artist’s wife) and have the opportunity to view a portfolio or two of drawings, particularly late drawings made on his last trip to the USA.  Between us (at his suggestion) the idea of a show emerged. It was a hallmark of Hugh’s unbounded energy and ambition for the gallery that a museum style show (for which we had virtually no resources or funding) might even be contemplated. It was furthermore a measure of his unbounded generosity that he encouraged me (a complete rookie) to take a substantial role in creating such a show – I owe him a lot.

Looking back at the Lanyon materials I have, it might seem I’m making all this up as curiously the show has been omitted from the history…the listings of Ikon exhibitions in both of its survey shows of its history make no reference to it and I know of no recent listings of exhibitions that carry a record of it. And yet it did happen!  I have a poster for it here.


As mentioned the gallery operated on a shoestring and often ran a deficit (we several times had to get bail outs from the Arts Council over the four years I was there) hence the plain cheap poster and sadly no publication of any kind. As we were planning it the Whitworth in Manchester was in the latter stages of planning a large show that toured to several venues ending its run a few days before our show opened (I’m fairly sure nobody pointed this out to us and I cannot at this distance quite work out the chronology…as we certainly showed quite a lot of the works also on the tour..?).  Nonetheless we were able to put together a good deal of material.  Somehow Hugh persuaded Birmingham Museum to let us borrow Offshore and we had a long time supporter of Ikon in the person of Paul Aston (of top quality framers Gales) who lent us his Lanyon, a real beauty – Loe Bar.  Lanyon’s dealers Gimpel’s released a fair few works including Silent Coast and key late paintings including Clevedon Bandstand, Clevedon Night and Clevedon Lake.  But the real deal was the agreement to let us have access to the drawings.  I was deputed to go down to St. Ives over the summer and select from the portfolios a number of previously unseen drawings. My recollections this many years later are briefer by far than I might wish.  I do remember being particularly struck by a frottaged work of a Texan car numberplate and thinking it rather ‘pop’ and of others of manmade objects.  All distinctly ‘unlanyonish’ as I’d previously known them.  Whether these works have been widely seen elsewhere over the past four decades I don’t know…whether they were ever intended to be ‘published’ is perhaps a question too.  After all its not at all clear that Lanyon ever intended his constructions to be exhibited but they are a regular feature of more recent surveys of his work.  I do recall Sheila Lanyon being a generous host to the rather gauche young man who came to stay.  She made me a hearty meal in the kitchen at Little Wheal Owles on Carbis Bay (a place that really ought to have been acquired for the nation given its seminal place in the St. Ives story) where I sat admiring the largest Alfred Wallis painting I’d ever seen (up to and including this very day!) on a table sized piece of timber and then showed me to my overnight room.  At the head of the bed was a large Lanyon canvas…again I’m struggling to bring it properly into view but it was whites and very pale greens and as daring compositionally as Silent Coast or more so.  Whether it was a completed work or not I do not know, it certainly looked so to me, but I’m pretty certain its not appeared in any of the Lanyon shows I’ve seen.  At the time I knew I was extremely privileged to have had the opportunity to examine Lanyon’s work at such close quarters and over the years it has repaid me as a painter many many times over.

A glimpse of the past


My pal and I took a trip out to Birmingham to see the thoroughly excellent Barber Collection, currently augmented by some lovely works from the National Gallery, and whilst on campus I suggested we detoured around to the Arts Building so I might take another look at the Peter Lanyon mural.  It’s been thirty several years since I last took a very brief view of this work and I was surprised to see it still looking reasonably spruce.  Ok so a sparks had taken a small chunk out of the bottom right hand edge to get a thirteen amp socket in but otherwise in pretty good nick.  I wondered whether Lanyon had a particular location in mind for this piece…I’ll look it up and let you know maybe!

My interest in Lanyon goes right back to my youth.  In the Museum & Art Gallery in Exeter there were, for most of my early teenage years, only four or five ‘modern’ pictures…I eventually knew them all.  A Matthew Smith, a William Scott, Paul Nash…and a Lanyon.  I have curated a Lanyon show (back at the Ikon) and have pretty much all the material published on him.  This mural is mentioned (in glowing terms) in Andrew Causey’s text in the much sought after book from Aidan Ellis in 1971 but he doesn’t discuss it at all in his later book of 2006. Chris Stephens tells us a little more about the circumstances of the work in his book but not a great deal.  Perhaps the most interesting fact is that Lanyon’s first visit to the site was in January 1963 but the commission was not undertaken until the summer of that year.  In between Lanyon had spent time, time that had a profound influence on him, at San Antonio in Texas and made trips into New Mexico and Mexico itself.  The images and impressions of that must have been right at the front of his mind whilst working on the Birmingham mural.  The work was executed in a studio in St. Ives and, one imagines, that the construction, handling and colouration of the work must have been impacted upon by the experience.  Maybe that’s why the picture sits a little oddly in Lanyon’s output – straddling two conceptions of what a land/sea scape might be?