Andrew Lanyon is a polymath. He was a photographer who worked with Eve Arnold. He studied film technique, made several short prize-winning films and helped Stanley Kubrick in the early ‘70s as an assistant editor of Ambit Magazine. He has penned dozens of books, both fiction and non-fiction. He can conjure, he sculpts, he publishes, he writes poetry and songs and he paints. He probably dances and plays the bagpipes too though I never asked him about that. I met him at his latest solo art exhibition comprising some 40 small-scale oil paintings produced over the last decade.
The top shot is typical of his paintings. They are highly stylised in their simplicity, are tonal and built up from straight and curved lines. His figures are small because, he says, he never learnt to draw. “If I have to work on a figure that’s more than four inches high, I have to work on it for a week”, he laughs. He looks on himself as an illustrator, for each work tells a story. The above shows the St Ives painter Alfred Wallis looking at the wreck of the Alba, a boat that came to grief close to his house with the cost of several lives.
Lanyon has written acclaimed books on Wallis as well as his father Peter. Both were esteemed members of the St Ives artistic community. He has also written about a curious incident in 1937 when the then German ambassador to Britain, Joachim von Ribbentrop, spent a week in St Ives probably to scout possible landing sites for a future German invasion.
The above picture captures the essence of St Ives as a place with an extraordinary mix of characters. It imagines a scene in which the jumped-up Nazi with his ominous shadow, comes across the down-to-earth Wallis. In the meantime, the art historian Adrian Stokes, who did so much to make St Ives a centre for modern art, lounges on the beach contemplating colour and form.
Colour is something to which Lanyon is averse, as a result, he says, of having grown up with black and white photography. His self-confessed drawing limitations, however, free him from realism and he is very thoughtful about the way he constructs his works in relating the forms and the shape to the idea and tone. “One of the big things I’ve been most interested in is between what straights do, how far they go, whether they are on the diagonal which means they’re moving and exciting or whether they are vertical or horizontal, and how the curves inter-relate with shapes. It’s the contrast you look for that is satisfying the eye.”
The pictures above are illustrations from a series of poems called Lily and Miller. The miller is reprimanding Lily from the window for picking flowers too close to the river, worried that she’ll fall in and that he’d have to rescue her. The next one shows him taking off her wet clothes as the mill turns through the window.
Windows recur in these works. Interiors next to exteriors make for good contrasts. Another feature of his paintings is that they are uncluttered. “I usually like to leave some areas free so the eyes have got somewhere to rest. I don’t cram it full like schizophrenic art where every area is filled. So I vary the sizes of the spaces…I’m choreographing the spaces.”
The lengthy title of the image above illustrates a song he wrote about two lovers who arrange to meet but get their directions mixed up. Don’t worry though. They meet up in the end! Lanyon is a prolific song writer. For the past 20 years, he and a group of musician friends meet for a few days each year to put music to his lyrics and perform them in front of 70 people in a country house. They’ve recorded 1200 original songs in that time but have no interest in selling them. The best of them he believes were recorded sight unseen within 15 minutes which says something about the creative process.
A gentle humour recurs in Lanyon’s oeuvre. If the miner on the left, above, breaks through to the surface, the golfer’s going to end up in a bunker rather bigger than she might have imagined. As Andrew Lanyon so elegantly writes in the catalogue to the show, “the hope is to preserve some of the humour generated by writing, while soaring above the chatter of text, when the pointed nib has been dropped for the broader brush”.
Andrew Lanyon is showing at Beaux Arts London, 48 Maddox Street, London W1S 1AY until 1 February 2020. The gallery will be closed between 21 December and 6 January.
All images are courtesy of the artist and gallery.