1918 Born in St. Ives, in the rocky coastal district of West Cornwall, a location which will be his favourite subject and source of inspiration throughout his career.
Educated at St. Erbyn’s School, Penzance and Clifton College.
1938 Studied at the Euston Road school for four months under Victor Pasmore.
1939 Met Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and Naum Gabo (who, after the out break of the world war, had moved to St Ives) and received private art tuition from Ben Nicholson. Under him he learned to think abstractly in terms of shape and space while still relating ideas to landscape.
Throughout the forties his works, made of rich crusty surfaces and deep colours such as black, greys and blues, show a strong influence not only by Nicholson, but by Naum Gabo as well. In fact, in those years he took up making construction as preparation towards the painting which, often built from fragile material and rarely exhibited, were initially very close to Gabo’s sculpture. As he would affirm in a recorded talk in 1962: ‘for me painting is not a flat surface. I’ve always believed that a painting gives an illusion of depth.’
1940-45 Served in the Royal Air Force in the Western Desert, Palestine and Italy.
1949 Founder member of the Penwith Society of Arts in Cornwall.
First one-man exhibition at the Lefevre Gallery in London. In reviewing the show, Patrick Heron moderated his enthusiasm with reservation over the restriction he felt Lanyon imposed on himself in his most abstract designs. At the same time Lanyon was creating a new "post-cubist" landscape painting, enriching the spartan structures of his late forties’ abstractions with the results of observation and experience.
1950 Began teaching at the Bath Academy of Art, Corsham (until 1957), where Scott was senior painting master.
Invited by the Arts Council to participate in the ‘Festival of Britain’ exhibition.
Had a serious argument with Nicholson regarding the latter’s intention to divide the Penwith Society of Artists into two catorgaries: figurative and non-figurative. Lanyon firmly believed the distinction to be false: as he later (1961) wrote reviewing a show at the St. Ives School, ‘They use abstraction as a method and landscape experience as a source. An artist who remains where he was born cannot see his country from the outside, he already knows it in its bones. These paintings reflect what appears be an irreconcilable conflict; an abstract style appropriate to the international scene with a local source...due to a false idea that abstract and figurative art are so different as to be irreconcilable.’
Lanyon understood that sensuous experience in modern life could not be described in its whole complexity by means of normal perspective, whereas the Cubist style appeared to be the right instrument to portrait the post-war existential experience in a modern way, avoiding at the same time the risk of provincialism.
1953 Spent four months in Italy living on an Italian government scholarship.
Elected member of the Newlyn Society of Artists.
1954 Awarded Critic’s Price by the British section of the International Association of Art Critics.
Lanyon’s work in the fifties seems to have a radical political undercurrent. References to historical events such as the flooding or abandonment of a mine, and depopulated farms and villages, that is to events implying the capitalistic exploitation of the region by powers from outside the region and against the interests of the locals, became frequent in his paintings. As the critic Andrew Causey has pointed out (1990), ‘for him the land was a resource belonging to the community with a character related to work and everyday life rather than leisure.
1957-60 Ran an art school, St. Peter’s Loft at St. Ives with Terry Frost and William Redgrave.
1957 Was in New York for his first solo exhibition at the Catherine Viviano Gallery. Met Rothko, Motherwell and other important members of the American art world. He greatly admired the new American painting and found in it the kind of free, pragmatic approach which opened up his own work’s closed static forms an informed the new lively and spirited style his art took up in the early sixties.
1959 Awarded II Prize, 2nd John Moores Exhibition, Liverpool.
Began gliding, as he explained ‘to get a more complete knowledge of the landscape’. This led him not only to a deeper and more exhaustive experience of the natural landscape, but to a greater serenity which would gradually permeate his paintings.
1961 Elected Chairman of the Newlyn Society of Artists, Cornwall.
Elected Bard of Cornish Gorsedd for services to Cornish art.
1962 Spent seven months painting a mural commissioned for the house of Stanley J. Seeger in New Jersey.
1963 Spent three months teaching a visiting painter at the San Antonio Institute in Texas.
As a consequence of his travels the subjects of his landscapes in this period include new and distant locations; at the same time substantial changes occur in his pictorial style; the palette turns brighter and the paint becomes thinner, more fluid in works which convey a sense of confident tranquility.
1964 Visited Prague and Bratislava to lecture for the British Council and was considerably impressed by the lively cultural and artistic scene which he found behind the Iron Curtain.
Died on 31 August at Taunton, as a result of injuries received in a gliding accident.
Though Lanyon died young, his work is complete as it represents in full the achievement of his generation. As Eric Newton had written in 1954 Lanyon was ‘a determined artist, manifestly serious in his attempt to express the almost inexpressible, careless of everything but his own artistic conscience, obsessed by his subject-matter and untidily groping for a more articulate style. This is the stuff that tomorrow’s painters are made of.’