Soaring Flight: Peter Lanyon’s Gliding Paintings

Art, Painting
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 (Peter Lanyon: 'Drift', 1961. © Private Collection)
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Peter Lanyon: 'Drift', 1961. © Private Collection
 (Peter Lanyon: 'Glide Path', 1964. Courtesy of the Whitworth Art Gallery)
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Peter Lanyon: 'Glide Path', 1964. Courtesy of the Whitworth Art Gallery
 (Peter Lanyon: 'Therma', 1961. © Tate)
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Peter Lanyon: 'Therma', 1961. © Tate
 (Peter Lanyon: 'Calm Air', 1961. © Private Collection)
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Peter Lanyon: 'Calm Air', 1961. © Private Collection
 (Peter Lanyon: 'Iron Airscape', 1961. © Private Collection)
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Peter Lanyon: 'Iron Airscape', 1961. © Private Collection
 (Peter Lanyon: 'Long Shore', 1962. © Private Collection)
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Peter Lanyon: 'Long Shore', 1962. © Private Collection
 (Peter Lanyon: 'Near Cloud', 1964. © Private Collection)
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Peter Lanyon: 'Near Cloud', 1964. © Private Collection
 (Peter Lanyon: 'North East', 1963. Courtesy Beaux Arts Gallery, London)
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Peter Lanyon: 'North East', 1963. Courtesy Beaux Arts Gallery, London

There’s nothing more exciting for a certain type of artist than the prospect of viewing something completely new – some fresh, previously unconceived of perspective, a novel visual experience. Certainly, that seems to have been what drew Peter Lanyon to take up gliding in 1959. For the next four years, Lanyon regularly flew his glider above the rugged coastline of his native Cornwall, gazing across enormous vistas of land and sea before painting – once back on land – an account of his aerial observations.

The results are some of the most lyrical works of British modernism: paintings that feel at once spacious and ethereal yet wildly expressive, that combine map-like abstraction with an intensely personal, almost narrative quality. Ever since the time of Turner, part of the aim of landscape painting has been not to merely depict nature but to capture its essence, to convey its effects and sensations through the application of paint itself – and it’s this that Lanyon’s gliding paintings are so good at, especially when it comes to different sorts of weather conditions. Swooping flurries of grey and black denote buffeting winds, the languorous lift of a thermal is signified by a snaking red line, the placid vacancy of white conveys calm air – all set against the dominant tones of rich, resplendent blue: the blue of sky and ocean; of eternity or oblivion. In 1964, aged just 46, Lanyon died suddenly, while recovering from a bad landing.

Three small sculptures are also on display – not landscapes but ‘airscapes’, assemblages of scrap materials whose jutting intersections evoke a bird’s-eye view of the ground below. Particularly powerful is ‘Field Landing’, the final piece Lanyon made, whose jagged red planes and bits of shrapnel seem to suggest an eerily prescient sense of danger and catastrophe.

Gabriel Coxhead

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