In 1955 Lanyon’s creativity seemed to go into hibernation when he made only one large painting, Europa that year. This had happened once before, in 1950, when the drop of productivity was a sign of a major change being underway. The nature of that change was evident in 1951 when he completed Porthleven (Tate Gallery, London) and the first of his place paintings, of which the group known as the St Just Series was the supreme expression in the early 1950s. Something similar happened after 1955. In 1956 he made the first of his skyscapes – a major subject of the late 1950s and early 1960s - and began what he called the Susan Series, whose theme – love in its fullness – underlay most of Lanyon’s remaining work. It is this series, based on his relationship with Susan Hunt, that Tree Top Nest relates to.
Although Lanyon had painted a handful of portraits and still-lifes in his early adulthood, his primary interest was and would remain the landscape, especially that of West Cornwall, where he had been born and lived most of his life. In the 1930s, when he was a boy, he had painted it as it appeared, but while he was away from Cornwall during the war he had realised that it was far more to him than a view – it was home. That is to say, the places of West Cornwall contained immense personal significance for him. In short, they inhabited the memory of his senses and his mind. And because he knew them so well he came to feel that he and the landscape were one indivisible living entity.
Living was the key and movement was intrinsic. Many of the stabilising conventions of landscape painting dropped away in Lanyon’s paintings: horizons multiplied and slid onto the vertical, if they appeared at all; orderly pictorial space, that principle of the landscape genre, was made erratic, even incomprehensible; cross-section, plan, and elevation co-existed; above, below, from the side, close-up and far away overlapped. Nothing was in harmony and nothing was static.
By the time he started the Susan Series, Lanyon was committed to this way of thinking about and painting landscape. And it was natural for him, as he was pulled into the stronger currents of love, to project that experience onto landscape. In Tree Top Nest the sky and the sea perhaps run up the right edge; the central block of green may be the fields and moorland; and the grey possibly sky or rock. But the broad strokes of black and the roughly outlined grey/white shape in the upper right, partly engulfed by black might be the tree top and the nest, inhabited by those patches of grey and white, slightly secluded, as lovers often are.
Lulworth (Albright-Knox Gallery, Buffalo), Tamarisk, and Boscastle (Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence), all painted in 1956 are part of the Susan Series. Other works in the series include Long Sea Surf, 1957-57 (Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC) and Saracinesco, 1961-62.
We are very grateful to Toby Treves for preparing this catalogue entry.