Peter Lanyon 1918 - 1964


Commissioned by Stanley Seeger, USA

Private Collection, UK

Offer Waterman, London

Private Collection, UK


Manchester, Whitworth Art Gallery, Peter Lanyon - Paintings, Drawings and Constructions 1937 -64, 1978, cat no.77
Bath, Victoria Art Gallery, Porthmeor, A Peter Lanyon Mural Rediscovered, 25 October 2008 - 4 January 2009, p5-19, illus colour p15 and p36-7


Andrew Lanyon, Peter Lanyon 1918-1964, Newlyn, 1990, p302-309, illus colour
Margaret Garlake, Peter Lanyon, Tate Gallery, London, 1998, p58, 59, 63, 72, illus colour
Chris Stephens, Peter Lanyon: At The Edge of Landscape, 21 Publishing, London, 2000, p162, not illus

Toby Treves, Peter Lanyon; Catalogue Raisonné of the Oil Paintings and Three-Dimensional Works, Modern Art Press, London, 2018, cat no.529, pp 50, 68, 69, 446, 535, 562-564, 589, illus colour pp 565, 566, 567.


In January 1962, Peter Lanyon was commissioned by the American art collector Stanley J. Seeger to paint a mural for his home Bois d'Arc, in Frenchtown, New Jersey. The site, a music studio in a converted barn, required a work nearly ten times as wide as it was high and offered Lanyon the opportunity to paint on a grand scale. After viewing the space at Seeger's estate at the beginning of 1962 Lanyon returned to St Ives, where he produced three life-size sketches in gouache and indian ink. These were Porthleven, based on his oil in the Tate Gallery collection; Delaware, inspired by the river near Seeger's home, and Bois d'Art, 'a lyrical and light design concerned with the surface rhythms which might appear in the final work'.

When Lanyon next visited Seeger in May, he continued work on the drawings and finally Porthleven was selected. At some later stage its title changed to Porthmeor - Cornish for 'large cove'. Porthmeor Beach is St Ives' most exposed, north facing beach, and the name also refers to the studio address, No.3 Porthmeor Studios, to which Lanyon had been forced to move to accommodate the mural. Lanyon worked from this drawing, either laid on the floor or pinned to the bottom of the wall, with the mural placed immediately above it. He first declared his work complete in late July and, after a long passage by sea, the mural arrived in New Jersey in November 1962. Seeger requested some changes to the painting, requiring Lanyon to stay for a fortnight to work on the painting in situ, painting from scaffolding. He returned twice more to work on it, in February and April 1963.

The most notable changes made in America were a 'warming up' of the colours - Lanyon wrote to Catherine Viviano that 'Whereas the light in St Ives is very blue, Stanley's light is much redder, so I have tried to adjust to that'. [1] The composition was also changed to better account for the barn's existing architecture, its white rafters and tie beams.

The final mural is a vast panorama, which cannot be taken in all at once. As such, it refers directly to the unique geography of St Ives, where, standing on the farthest point of the peninsula, one can see an almost 360 degree view of the sea. Yet, its scope also connects it to the grander, 'cinematic' American landscape and the new wave of American painting which advocated art made on an environmental scale. Reading the work in sections, the individual passages of paint are as fluid and subtle as in any of Lanyon's best oils. Seen as a whole, he has maintained a dazzling sense of rhythm across the picture surface. Aided by a harmonious palette of, very Cornish, blues and greens, highlighted with warmer ochres and brick reds, the eye of the viewer is drawn around the entire surface, out to the edges, back in and out again. Lanyon enjoyed listening to Debussy's La Mer during his final painting sessions and these musical rhythms seem to have pervaded the final composition.

In his notes, Lanyon writes that the mural 'refers to many aspects of the sea, including associated myths. The main appearance of it {is} as a fast moving sea, with cross-shore drift and counter drift.' [2] In Lanyon's paintings, a landscape is invariably the compression of multiple perspectives, depicting land and sea from different viewpoints, in different weathers and at different times of day. He sought to portray not only the sensation of being in the landscape, but to create a complete portrait of a place, encompassing personal and collective history, culture and myth. It is clear that the subject of the mural, and its precise symbolic meaning for Lanyon, evolved as the project progressed. He associated the yellow area on the left with the Golden Fleece and he described the left-hand side of the painting as representing 'the past and events across the sea'. [3]

Lanyon had previously described the presence of a human figure in the original Porthmeor, 1950-1 (Tate Gallery Collection) and suggested that, in the mural too, one could see a vast recumbent female nude. This erotic analogy between land and the female body is itself both ancient and modern and appealed to Lanyon, who was at the time reading Jungian theory.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the collaborative nature of its creation, the final mural is a multi-layered and highly subjective work. This unique project bears comparison with Stanley Spencer's commission to paint the interior of the Sandham Memorial Chapel at Burghclere (1927-1932), an earlier example of private patronage, in which a chapel was conceived as a memorial to a lost brother. In both cases, the specifics of place and the almost self-indulgent nature of the commissions were, ironically, the catalysts for highly autobiographical works of art. The quality and completeness of these murals is such that they have outlived their patrons and transcended their original contexts to become masterpieces of 20th Century British art.

1 Letter to Catherine Viviano, 17 August 1962
2 Andrew Lanyon, Peter Lanyon 1918-1964, Newlyn, 1990, pp302-309
3 In handwritten notes by the artist for Stanley J. Seeger Jr titled "Porthmeor mural"