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Peter Lanyon, ‘The Returned Seaman’

by Brandon Taylor

Born in 1918 and raised in Cornwall, Peter Lanyon grew up in the midst of the pre-war St Ives artistic community and knew well its traditional painters and sculptors as well as those modernists, such as Naum Gabo and Ben Nicholson, who chose to shelter there during the war.

For much of the 1940s he followed the modernists’ methods of abstraction, especially the fluid geometry of Gabo’s work as he saw it reflected in the shapes and forms of the landscape of the coast. Yet it was to more local imagery that Lanyon returned at the end of the war-time decade.

A large linocut ‘The Returned Seaman’ (1949), conceived on the scale of a medium-size painting, reverts to the ancient drama of the returning fisherman but in a graphic language that owes much to an innate affinity between medieval and modern style. Lanyon’s break-through painting of those years, ‘The Cape Family’, made in stages between 1947 and 1949 (now in the collection of the Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth) shows upright figures carved into the painting’s surface in just the manner in which a native Cornishman would see the standing granite rocks of Cornwall as they project into the sea.

The truth of Lanyon’s remark that ‘The Cape Family’ followed the physical form of “primitive carving and ivories, also medieval manuscripts” can be seen in the 1949 linocut - both in its method of being made, its imagery, but also in its spatial scheme. We see a female figure on the left whose naked lying/standing form manages to combine an aerial view of the land with an earth-bound scene below.

The returned seaman, on the right, now safely within the confines of the harbour (most probably Porthleven) is likewise a standing figure in addition to being the form of the harbour itself. In the centre a horse, symbol of the instincts, grazes in a field as well as helping animate pictorial relations between the seaman and his wife.

In fact, the extent of Lanyon’s complex imbrication of figural drama, land and sea can be seen in those versions of the linocut that have been hand-coloured by the artist; they show the woman, the field, some pathways and the harbour boats in yellow-ochre, hence legible as dry land, with the carved channels either side of the male figure and most of the areas between him and the woman, including the cross-shape, in blue, hence legible as water.

Soon after the completion of a set of linocuts on the theme of Cornish mining, also of 1949, Lanyon began work on what would prove to be his most important early paintings in the idiom that ‘The Returned Seaman’ prefigures and that he could take pride in calling his own: Porthleven of 1951 and St Just of 1953 (both Tate, London). An art of powerful pictorial and spatial contrasts, symbolic pertinence, and a strongly-felt sense of place, had been born.