The listening sea

To St Ives, with its twisting cobbled lanes and whitewashed cottages, for a retrospective of the artist Peter Lanyon. Unlike Hepworth or Nicholson or Gabo or most of the artists associated with the town, Lanyon was born in West Penwith. It was the landscape of his childhood, one he ‘knew in his bones’, according to John Berger. Berger says of Lanyon’s painting ‘Trevalgan’:

It is a painting, not of the appearance, but of the properties of a landscape: properties only discovered when one knows a place so well that its ordinary scenic appearance has long been forgotten.

And so into his landscape. From St Ives we drove along the coast to Zennor, stopping in the churchyard to find the graves of Patrick Heron and Bryan Wynter. We continued along to Gurnard’s Head, and made a visit to the pub, where WS Graham and Roger Hilton used to drink all night and then beg the long-suffering barmaid to cook them breakfast in the morning. Then to places I knew from Graham’s great poem-eulogy to Lanyon, ‘The Thermal Stair’: Levant and Morvah, with their worked-out tin mines that loom like ghost castles along the cliffs; Botallack, St Just, and then inland over the bleak, bleached-out wintery hills to Lanyon Quoit, that strange, ancient structure. These were the landscapes Lanyon painted, but as he said, ‘I paint places but always the Placeness of them.’

And we could find Lanyon’s palette in the landscape: the grey of slate, of smoke, of the sky on the verge of storm; the green of algae, of spring fields, of the ‘jasper’ sea (to steal a phrase from Graham); the white of chalk, of cloud, of wave-caps; the brown of cliff edge, of burnt heather. Once he took up gliding, his colours changed, became brighter, faster; racing blue, pure white, occasionally a bold strike of red as he reached higher and higher, not content with the familiarity of the ground, the contours of the land he knew so well. Gliding enriched him as an artist, but also brought about his early death, at the age of 46, in 1964.

Back to Graham’s poem, one of his most haunting and lovely, where the poet asks for a ‘thermal to speak and soar to you’, his dead friend. So many of Graham’s poems are about the search to find clarity through language, and here, he finds a common ground between the writer and the artist:

The poet or painter steers his life to maim

Himself somehow for the job. His job is Love
Imagined into words or paint to make
An object that will stand and will not move.

The poem is the object which will stand, as will Lanyon’s paintings and sculptures. These works ‘stand’ for a way of expressing landscape and our ‘stand’ as humans in the landscape. For Lanyon, the West Penwith coast wasn’t just a place of beauty, but a place of particular industrial history, the dark history of tin mining in the region. Lanyon talked about making a ‘pilgrimage from inside the ground’ to represent the lost mines, the dead miners. Lanyon said: ‘Images in painting do not stand for things. They are things.’

Tacita Dean writes of the shift in Lanyon’s work after he took up gliding: ‘his paintings begin to lose anxiety and something of the heaviness of earth and the old land.’ It was in the sky, she says, that Lanyon found his ‘elsewhere’. Graham understood this too. It was what they shared, an intimacy with the land, and the constant struggle to find a medium, and a ‘stand’ within that medium, to express how they felt.

Graham’s call to Lanyon is transformed into a tolling bell at the end of the poem:

Remember me wherever you listen from,
Lanyon, dingdong, dingdong from carn to carn.
It seems tonight all Closing bells are tolling
Across the Dutchy shire wherever I turn.