Intimate, Human..Peter Lanyon’s ‘Soaring Flight’ at the Courtauld Gallery

Poignantly personal in its endearing humanism, ‘Soaring Flight: Peter Lanyon’s Gliding Paintings’at the Courtauld Gallery displays a selection of Peter Lanyon’s late work, inspired by both the artist’s passion for gliding and his Cornish homeland.

This exciting exhibition, the first to bring together Lanyon’s gliding paintings and constructions around half a century after their conception, has been long overdue and firmly presents the artist as one of Britain’s most original and prominent modernist landscape painters.

Born in St Ives in 1918, Lanyon lived his life amidst the very landscape from which he drew inspiration; a landscape which would become the loci of his works. A pivotal member of the St Ives Penwith Society of Painters, Lanyon was a native Cornishman among other members including Hepworth and Nicholson.

With his St Ives contemporaries forging a division between an abstract and allegorical practice, Lanyon instead worked to ‘glide’, if you will, between the two, producing works born from a radical amalgamation of visual and emotive responses to his surroundings.

To heighten these sensory responses Lanyon sought a heightened perspective; after serving in the Royal Air Force, he joined the Cornish Gliding Society in 1959, flying solo in 1960.

Looking to the painting ‘Rose Wall’ (1960), which presents an arresting juxtaposition of a calm palette described with fervent form, the visitor can really engage how Lanyon conveys both visual and sensory perspectives.

The upper half of the canvas is a wash of pinkish-grey brushstrokes which form a vortex flanked by two vertical grey lines; like ripples in a still lake, this form is pulsated to the edge of the canvas with yellow ochre, blues, and whites. Here Lanyon presents us with a rendition of the landmark Rose Wall, a large hill at St Ives, and his physical and psychological responses of gliding above the location, expressed in the sporadic and energetic nature of each brushstroke.

Tracing the ‘invisible forces’ he encountered whilst flying, Lanyon’s paintings are full of dynamism and personality. Take a painting such as ‘Drift’ (1961), which describes the moment in which the glider is thrust into free flight after being released from its launch cable. Subtle pastel tones and ductile form reflect the heady sensation of breathlessness felt by the pilot, whilst darker grey lines allude to a runway or distant horizon. ‘Thermal’ (1960), sees Lanyon describe the spectacle, strength and spontaneity of a thermal uplift rising beneath his glider and dispersing.

A spiral of white violently ascends from the bottom right corner of the canvas into into smaller brushstrokes, dissipating into vast white and ultramarine plains.

Describing the air as akin to the sea in its ‘complex and demanding’ ‘world of activity’, Lanyon’s work highlights his ingenuity as a landscape artist by conveying this sense of dynamic depth through the flat space of modernist painting. ‘Silent Coast’ (1957), with its ominous spans of turquoise and carefully choreographed colour, first appears docile, but lean in closer and the work is anything but.

The explicit materiality of oil on board is choppy and changeable. Light illuminates both tactile waves of thick paint and translucent plains, which give way to undercurrents of contradistinctive colour. Using the very fluxes of sea and sky as inspiration, Lanyon submerges the spectator into the abstract.

Given the nature of these paintings as documenting one man’s sensory response to his environment, they are both intimate yet highly relatable in their humanism. Walking through the two rooms of the exhibition, the works encountered chronicle Lanyon’s exhilarating experiences like diary entries.

Yet it is this phenomenological theme which unites us as viewers; we each have bodily experiences of our environments, and draws to a homeland. Peter Lanyon soared above the earth whilst remaining grounded by his native land; a combination resulting in a series of unprecedented, dynamic and vivid paintings.

Laura Frances Green

‘Soaring Flight: Peter Lanyon’s Gliding Paintings’ runs until 17th January at the Courtauld Gallery and is accompanied by a catalogue co-authored by curators Toby Treves and Barnaby Wright