1960 was the year in which gliding became a major source of inspiration for Lanyon. In June he made Solo Flight (Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh) and Cross Country, and about the same time he painted Rosewall (Ulster Museum, Belfast), Soaring Flight (Arts Council Collection) and Thermal (Tate Gallery) – five superb gliding paintings. He made several other paintings based on his experience of gliding that year, of which Strange Coast, painted in August, is almost certainly one.
Flight afforded Lanyon a new and strange perspective on his native Cornwall. It gave him a different vantage point on to a place he had previously only known at ground level and, more importantly, it led to his discovery of the immense and powerful forces that live inside the sky. The latter changed Lanyon’s understanding of the land. A cliff was transformed from being a sheer vertical rock face into a steady source of upward air that could support a glider in flight for hours on end; a town was a place of warm air and its edges a possible site of thermals that could lift the half-ton aircraft thousands of feet into the sky; a field became a landmark; a telegraph-wire a hazard.
Perranporth, the Cornish airfield from which he flew, lies directly above a cliff. Consequently, the coast figured strongly in Lanyon’s experience of flight. In Strange Coast there are hints of land and sea in the patches of green and blue, some of which are only glimpsed where he scraped back the brushy swathes of paler cloud colours to the painting’s ground.
If gliding was the source of Strange Coast, it was not necessarily the subject, or at least not the only one. Like many romantic artists, Lanyon thought of the landscape as a metaphor for feelings and ideas, and much of his work can be interpreted in that way. It is well known that he thought of the sea as male and the land as female, and the coast as being the place of their erotic and fertile encounter. Strange Coast, which can be thought of in this way too, contains a secret that may have been intended to deepen such a reading. Throughout his life Lanyon recycled canvases of works that he had abandoned, but only very rarely did he paint over a work that he had exhibited. Strange Coast is the only example among his post-war paintings where this is known to have happened. The picture is painted on top of a painting entitled Via Saracinesco, which he made in 1958 and exhibited at Gimpel Fils that year. He had visited the Italian hill town with his lover Susan Hunt in the spring of 1957 and told her that when they died their souls would meet above Saracinesco. A remnant of the earlier signature and date can be seen at the lower left of Strange Coast, and where Lanyon scraped through the upper layer of paint in that painting he perhaps revealed a personal subtext in the underlying surface of Via Saracinesco.
We are very grateful to Toby Treves for preparing this catalogue entry.