A LIFE LIVED BACKWARDS
Alex Wade, September 2009 issue of Cornwall Today
“The best thing about being a son of is that it might raise the stakes a bit. You've got to raise
your own game.” Thus speaks Matthew Lanyon, one of six children born to Peter Lanyon, one of
the luminaries of St Ives modernism. But while Matthew is now an established artist in his own right, a man at ease with his illustrious lineage, it wasn't always so.
“After university, I went travelling for about four years and then, upon returning to Britain , trained as a carpenter and joiner,” says Lanyon, a tall, sturdily built man with quintessentially Celtic black curly hair. He immersed himself in work in the building trade for a decade, specialising in house restoration in Cornwall , the county of his birth and upbringing, and Leicester , where he attended university. Lanyon – whose measured sentences are every bit those of the intellectual – admits that there was a degree of dissonance between his education and early career.
“This was the mid-Seventies, a time when the disassembly of classical training began,” he says.
“I enjoyed the inversion of the public school values I'd been brought up with.” And, chuckling wryly, he says that he also cultivated “the pursuit of mediocrity.”
Today, though, merely a cursory glance at Lanyon's work reveals that he was never destined for
the average. His abstract canvasses are brimful of artistic and literary allusions, but with their abiding resonance is a sense of fun, too. Just as there are tribal, naïve echoes in what is often a subtle, almost melancholy palette, the whole is always infused with a delicately ironic, nuanced take on the familiar, so that Cornish icons such as Porthleven or Godrevy become fresh, new, re-imagined. Likewise, when Lanyon tackles the White Horse, creating a monumental 22ft painting which will be the centrepiece of a forthcoming show at Penzance's Rainy Day Gallery, it is in an almost rebellious, certainly insouciant way, comprehensively redrawing the known to take the viewer on a journey at once spiritual and secular and always deeply, knowingly observational.
Lanyon's oeuvre is abstract art of the highest order, but it is difficult not to conclude that rebellion has consistently been crucial to its genesis. He is, indeed, a curious mixture, shy and introverted and yet remarkably open about a cataclysmic event in his life – the death of his father when he was 13. Peter Lanyon died in 1964 in a gliding accident; Lanyon has written that “His death came into me like an ocean.” Speaking in the workshop the uses as a studio in the garden of his West Penwith home, Lanyon sheds light on a problem faced by few but no less compelling for its comparative rarity – what it's like to be the son of a famous father.
Photograph, Matthew Lanyon
“There were six of us,” he says, “and we grew up in an environment in which the movers and shakers of the art world were passing the sugar and spreading the cream.” But though Peter Lanyon knew everyone who was anyone from the zeitgeist of 1960s abstraction – his mentors were Naum Gabo and Ben Nicholson – his offspring weren't really aware of his status until later in their lives. ”We never thought of Dad as a famous artist,” says Lanyon. “We got on with drawing and painting, because that's what we did as children, but never with much thought of its significance.”
With his father's death, Lanyon consciously sought a different path than the artistic one. “I won the art prize at ‘O' level but deliberately set out to study something different. I studied science instead.” His teenage academic preoccupations led to a place at Leicester University , where he took a degree in Combined Sciences, and then came the lengthy stint in the building trade. Was this a deliberate attempt to escape his father's legacy, one that seemed more of a burden than a blessing? “Definitely,” is Lanyon's immediate, unequivocal response.
Now, though, Lanyon is in the first year of his third decade as a professional artist. He is highly acclaimed and utterly absorbed in the process and act of artistic creation. He will get up at 3.00 a.m. to observe sunrises and thinks nothing of working 11 hour days. Aside from gardening and reading – he cites the Italian writer Roberto Calasso's The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony as an inspiration, and is also partial to the great Russian émigré Vladimir Nabokov, not to mention Samuel Beckett and Greek mythology – he does little other than work on his art. How, then, did things turn around so much? How, in short, did he come to painting?
“Sometimes, a rock has to move out of the way before a thing can happen,” says Lanyon. “In my late 30s something shifted. I was fortunate, because I'd made some money in the building trade, so I was able to start on my painting with some degree of security.” By then Lanyon was married to Suzanne – who died two years ago – and the couple had a young son, Arthur. The family had settled in the West Penwith home in which Lanyon still resides. Lanyon painted because “I realised that you could have a sickness that can't be diagnosed. I understood that not painting was making me sick.”
But his embrace of art did not entail self-promotion. Indeed, although many artists are ill at ease with the world of commerce, Lanyon comes across as one of the most avowedly non-commercial there is. Eventually, though, a friend's insistence led to the beginning of a relationship with Martin Val Baker's Rainy Day Gallery. Lanyon's September show is Val Baker's 200th . As well as the huge White Horse painting, it will feature fresh takes on Porthleven, Godrevy, Porthgwarra, Nanjizal and other landscapes in Cornwall, a county which Lanyon describes as “a tremendous opportunity – it's everywhere – Cornish granite has even found its way to India”.
There will also be works in the continuation of Lanyon's ‘Alphabet Series', collections of tiny homeopathic bottles neatly arranged on framed shelves, as if in a medicine cabinet, with each bottle's label containing text which may, or may not be, part of a wider, all-encompassing narrative. On one, the question “is vladmir out of copyright yet?” is posed, while another says “it was a date, lolita”. As ever, Lanyon's writerly sense of the world is apparent, for, as he says, “language is the last thing you have before death”.
Lanyon cheerfully admits that his life “has worked out backwards.” With characteristic wryness, he says that his main aims now are “to keep taking the next breath” and to complete the year's worth of work for The Rainyday Gallery exhibition in 2011.
Logically, with his life going in reverse order, we might therefore expect him to adopt the naïve entirely by the time he reaches his fourth decade as an artist, but this complex, confessedly reclusive man is likely to surprise us yet further. One thing's for sure. Anyone whose studio wall is adorned by a handwritten exhortation to Damocles to “forget the sword, will you?” is not destined for mediocrity.
Photograph, Mike Newman
Alex Wade: www.alexwade.com Mike Newman: www.Ocean-Image.com