Peter Lanyon (1918-1964)
Peter Lanyon (1918-1964)


Peter Lanyon (1918-1964)
signed and dated 'Lanyon 61' (lower right), signed again and dated again and inscribed 'ORPHEUS/Lanyon 61' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
60 x 60 in. (152.5 x 152.5 cm.)
Painted in 1961.
with Gimpel Fils, London, 1961.
Marzotto Institution, Valdagno, 1962.
Acquired from the above by the present owner.
Exhibition catalogue, European Community Contemporary Painting Exhibition 1962-63, Valdagno, Marzotto Institution, 1962, n.p., no. 53, illustrated.
Arts, November 1962.
Art in America, Winter 1962.
A. Bowness, 'Peter Lanyon' in Relazione Saggi Confessioni: Premio Marzotto, Vicenza, 1963, pp. 132-137, illustrated.
G. Butcher, 'The Marzotto Prize at the Whitechapel Gallery, The Guardian, 12 March 1963.
H. Galy-Carles, 'The Marzotto Prize Exhibition: Contemporary Painting - "European Community"', The Connoisseur, vol. 153, no. 615, May 1963, pp. 32-33, illustrated.
A. Bowness, exhibition catalogue, Peter Lanyon, London, Arts Council of Great Britain, Tate Gallery, 1968, pp. 29-30.
A. Causey, Peter Lanyon: His Painting, Henley-on-Thames, 1971, pp. 27, 64, no. 165, pl. 46.
A. Causey, exhibition catalogue, Peter Lanyon: Paintings, Drawings and Constructions, 1937-64, Manchester, Whitworth Art Gallery, 1978, pp. 42, 54, under no. 73.
A. Lewis, 'Peter Lanyon', Artscribe, 11, April 1978, p. 32.
A. Lanyon, Peter Lanyon 1918-1964, Newlyn, 1990, pp. 208-209, 232, illustrated.
M. Garlake, Peter Lanyon, London, 1998, p. 69.
C. Stephens, Peter Lanyon: At the edge of the landscape, London, 2000, p. 128, 187.
M. Garlake, The Drawings of Peter Lanyon, Aldershot, 2003, pp. 64-65.
T. Treves, Peter Lanyon: Catalogue Raisonné of The Oil Paintings and Three-Dimensional Works, London, 2018, pp. 18-20, 69, 455, 474-475, 477, 479, 483, 502, 641, no. 464, illustrated and illustrated on the cover.
São Paulo, British Council and Museum of Modern Art, Peter Lanyon, William Scott, Lynn Chadwick, Merlyn Evans: VI Bienal de São Paulo, October - December 1961, no. 12.
Valdagno, Marzotto Institution, European Community Contemporary Painting Exhibition 1962-63: Marzotto Award, 1962-1963, no. 53: this exhibition travelled to Baden-Baden, Staatliche Kunstalle, October - November 1962; Eindhoven, Stedelijk van Abbe-Museum, December 1962 - January 1963; London, Whitechapel Art Gallery, March - April 1963; and Paris, Galerie R. Creuze, May - June 1963.
London, Arts Council of Great Britain, Tate Gallery, Peter Lanyon, May - June 1968, no. 67: this exhibition travelled to Plymouth, City Museum and Art Gallery, July - August 1968; Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Laing Art Gallery, August 1968; Birmingham, City Museum and Art Gallery, September 1968; and Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery, October 1968.
Newlyn, Passmore Edwards Art Gallery, Peter Lanyon, November 1968, no catalogue.

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William Porter
William Porter

Lot Essay

‘It is impossible for me to make a painting which has no reference to the very powerful environment in which I live. I have to refer back continually to what is under my feet, to what is over my back and to what I see in front of me’ – Peter Lanyon

Orpheus (1961) is one of Peter Lanyon’s finest paintings, and one of his least known. It was last shown publicly in the 1968 retrospective at the Tate Gallery and has since remained discreetly with the present owner who acquired the work in 1962.

Compositionally Orpheus is a reprise of Lost Mine (1959; Tate), Lanyon’s masterpiece of two years earlier, albeit rotated by 90 degrees clockwise. That painting, which refers to the sudden and violent flooding of a marine mine, has a calm band of harmonious blues up its left side which is partly contained by a vertical and broken black line. Towards the top that barrier is breached by a swirling line of blue that leads into the amazing tumult of colours and strokes that dominates the painting. Lanyon reworked this pictorial idea in Orpheus but this time, rather than the flooding of a mine, his purpose was to evoke the story of Orpheus’s descent into the Underworld to rescue his wife Eurydice. Accordingly, Lanyon placed the narrow band along the top of the picture and invested it with a tremendous sense of compression and energy. The white horizontal that serves as a threshold between this top section and the rest of the picture is decisively broken by the thick stroke of white at the left of its centre and by the forceful black vertical that plunges through the line and into the red below. Here in the lower area there is a notable sense of spaciousness, particularly where the red spreads out on the left, and a slowing softness in the strokes and colour contrasts. Lanyon identified this as the Underworld and said it contained ‘a lyre shape’ (the instrument most commonly associated with Orpheus) and ‘the female form of Eurydice’ – a related drawing in Tate’s collection clarifies the presence of the figure.

Since the late 1940s Lanyon had made paintings that evoked stories from classical mythology and other traditions, including those of Ancient Egypt and the Bible stories. Sometimes he made the reference overt by the title of the work, for example Apollo and Daphne (1949; private collection), but often it lay solely in the imagery, for instance the large crucifix that dominates St Just (1951-53; private collection), his masterpiece about the St Just mining district in West Cornwall. Of course, Lanyon was far from alone among 20th Century painters in referring to classical mythology; artists as diverse as Marc Chagall, Pablo Picasso and Jackson Pollock turned to the ancient myths for the same reason as artists throughout the ages have, namely as ‘a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history’ (T. S. Eliot ‘Ulysses, Order, and Myth’, The Dial, November 1923). Lanyon, who concurred with Eliot’s formulation of the mythic method, expressed it more poetically: ‘The world again is peopled by myths and legends both pagan and Christian which we evoke on the edge of our new abyss’ (Letter to John Dalton, 21 December 1956).

While the use of myths was common to artists of his generation and others, Lanyon’s interest in the sad story of Orpheus and Eurydice was also in a long tradition of Western painting: Jan Breughel the Elder, Nicolas Poussin, Peter Paul Rubens, and Jean-Baptiste Corot had all painted major works about the myth, and among Lanyon’s near contemporaries it was the inspiration for pictures by Paul Klee, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, Cy Twombly, and others.

In his public statements about the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, Lanyon said that he understood Orpheus’s journey to the Underworld as ‘a seasonal myth about the seed lying in the earth during the winter and coming back to life in the spring’ (Peter Lanyon, ‘Artist Speaks About His Work’, British Council recorded talk, 1963, Tate Archive, TAV 526 AC). What he did not mention, however, were the moving personal circumstances in which he made the picture. In 1955 Lanyon had fallen in love with Susan Hunt, a student at the art school where he taught, and the affair continued until about 1959. It was one of the major episodes of Lanyon’s life and the source of much work; indeed, at the time of his death in 1964, Sheila Lanyon, his wife since 1946, told Hunt that half the paintings would not have happened without her. It is clear from Lanyon’s private correspondence that he suffered great anguish when the relationship ended and that he mourned it for a long time thereafter. In those circumstances, it requires little imagination to sense the personal significance that the story of Orpheus and Eurydice must have held for him both in terms of Susan Hunt and his wife.

Shortly before his unexpected death in 1964, Lanyon returned to the myth in his last major painting Clevedon Bandstand (1964; pending in lieu allocation to Tate). In that picture Eurydice is represented by the inert pink figure on the left and Orpheus by the lively swirl of white in the centre; the two separated by impenetrable bars of green, white and black. Lanyon’s death a few days after he completed the picture has since added even greater poignancy to that work and to the presence of the myth in his oeuvre.

In 1962 Orpheus was chosen as one of the British entries for the Premio Marzotto, a prestigious annual prize open to Western European artists. Sebastian Matta won first prize for his painting La Question Djamila (1960) and Orpheus was one of the runners-up. Consequently, the Marzotto company bought the painting for their then headquarters in Valdagno, where it has hung ever since.

We are very grateful to Toby Treves for preparing this catalogue entry.

Peter Lanyon lived in Penwith, that ultimate thrust of south-west England into the rage of Atlantic tempests. This is a landscape of wind-scoured moors and granite outcroppings that resemble the bones of a land laid bare. It is a peninsula of wind-swept uplands edged by incisions of sheer jagged cliffs that drop vertically into the restless surges of the sea. It is a land of granite farm houses huddled like lonely secrets into the shoulders of the land; of cold gale-driven rainstorms that cut like steel razors; and of harbours with granite breakwaters around which cluster close-knit seaport towns with granite cottages and narrow lanes and the high-pitched shrieks of seagulls.

Peter was a landscape painter. He was, in my view, the greatest landscape painter of his generation -- not just in Britain, but in Europe. But he did not paint pictures of the landscape. His paintings were the landscape in action. It was as if his brushes, laden with liquid pigments, were the collisions of seas, winds and clouds, and the surfaces on which he painted were the granite core of the land. It was as if every painting and every drawing became a new and intense drama, a rage of form and texture and colour in motion.

No wonder Peter’s favourite artist of all was Alfred Wallis, the Cornish mariner who in lonely old age used pieces of discarded cardboard on which to paint dramas of fragile ships on violent seas, and the perils faced by seamen whose survivals were fueled by the ultimate loneliness of courage.

I knew Peter well in the nineteen forties and fifties. He wore a beret like a commando, and he wore his trouser-legs tucked into woollen stockings and tall leather boots as if he was ready to ride an untamed stallion. We would drive in a jeep at break-neck speed along narrow winding roads that undulated around and over turbulent hills – roads lined with hedges made of granite boulders -- and we would roar through the narrow lanes of granite villages, and out again over hills revealing sudden vistas of ocean and cloud. Or we would clamber perilously down steep cliffs and stand on rocks around which the sea would surge, and gale winds would sweep white salt spray into our faces and eyes, while the gulls would wheel and shriek overhead.

It was of no surprise that Peter would become a glider pilot, and that he would soar alone above Penwith, riding wind currents and through surging clouds; and perhaps no surprise that he would lose control and plunge tragically to his death. It was the inevitable and passionate way that he lived. But he has left us with a legacy of relentlessly fierce clash-filled visual poems, in all likelihood the most powerful, direct and dramatic landscape paintings of our century.

David Lewis
Friend of Lanyon, assistant to Hepworth, husband of Barns-Graham.

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