Soaring flight

by Simon Collings

Peter Lanyon, the British painter (b. 1918), started learning to glide in 1959, gaining his pilot’s licence the following year. The experience of flying had a major impact on his work. His gliding-inspired pictures have a vertiginous sense of space, of the viewer being suspended above the earth, the blue and white of sky filling the huge canvases. There is also a powerful sensation of the movement of air, the buffeting of the wind and the physical effort involved in flying. These are exhilarating paintings and among his best work.

I have always bracketed Lanyon with Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth, his contemporaries and near neighbours in Cornwall. But Lanyon never received the recognition that Nicholson and Hepworth did. In the early 1950s he became estranged from them after conflicts over the organisation of exhibitions in St Ives. Depressed and burdened by money worries Lanyon took to pissing against the wall of Nicholson’s house.

The poet W S Graham, a friend and neighbour of Lanyon’s, wrote a moving elegy about the painter called ‘The Thermal Stair’.  Lanyon died following a glider accident in 1964.

If you’re in London go and see the exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery: ‘Soaring Flight: Peter Lanyon’s Gliding Paintings.’ It is on until 17 January 2016. Lanyon was a native Cornishman whose abstract landscapes were strongly influenced by the wide perspectives afforded by the countryside around St Ives. Some were specifically inspired by the idea of flight, the wonderful ‘Bird Wind’, for example, painted in 1955. The paintings are in two rooms, the first showing work the artist made before he learned to glide, the second the gliding pictures.