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Portraits

Peter Lanyon

1918 – 1964

Peter Lanyon in his studio in St Ives, early August 1954.
Photograph by Adrian Flowers

In early August 1954, Adrian and Angela Flowers visited Peter Lanyon in ‘The Attic Studio’ in St. Ives, to photograph both the artist and his work. The results are preserved in two rolls of 120 black and white negative film held in the Adrian Flowers Archive. In one photograph, wearing his trademark black beret, and dressed in short-sleeved shirt and sleeveless pullover, Lanyon demonstrates the mixing of artists’ colours, using a muller (mortar) and glass sheet. Another image shows the artist leaning against a cupboard, with Angela seated on a couch beside him. In the background is a book press and a rotary grindstone. Hanging on the wall is the 1948 painting Headland (Tate collection). A third photograph shows the artist standing before his studio easel, pointing out details in a large painting in progress, Blue Boat and Rainstorm. In another image, Lanyon, smiling, leans against his workbench. On the windowsill stands a construction, while hanging on the wall is an antelope horn—a trophy probably brought back from South Africa, where Lanyon, aged twenty, had visited relatives. Also photographed were the slender columnar 1948 Construction, the 1951 Porthleven Boats, both now in the Tate collection, and Construction for Bojewyan Farms, a painted sculpture of curving forms dating from 1952 and now in a private collection. Another work photographed by Flowers that day include Lanyon’s plaster sculpture of a bull, from his Europa series. This was a work in progress, with copper pipes projecting from the animal’s head, forming an armature for plaster horns. The concept for the classically-inspired Europa series had taken shape in Anticoli Corrado, the hilltop town east of Rome, where Lanyon and his wife Sheila had stayed for four months the previous year.

Peter Lanyon with Blue Boat and Rainstorm in 1954, observed by Angela Flowers.
Photograph by Adrian Flowers

Lanyon was pleased with the photographs, and wrote to Flowers not long afterwards, requesting permission to use a black and white image of one of the works photographed during that session, for a book being produced by Patrick Heron. Lanyon offered to call to Flowers’ studio when he was in London on Monday 20th September, to collect the photograph. To assist Flowers in identifying the work [Construction for St. Just (1952, Tate collection)], Lanyon included a sketch in his letter [PL to AF at 44A Dover Street, letter in AF Archive c Sept 1954]. A painted sculpture made from discarded window panes, and inspired by pencil and charcoal sketches of the town that was once the centre of the Cornish tin mining industry, Construction for St. Just reveals how Lanyon was not only inspired by the art of Naum Gabo, but also used his own three-dimensional works to guide the completion of paintings, described them as akin to the scaffolding used to support a building in progress. In 1953, the painting that resulted from this process, St. Just, was shown at the Hanover Gallery in London in Space in Colour, an exhibition selected by Patrick Heron. It is now also in the Tate collection.


Just ten years later, the early death of Lanyon robbed British art of one of its stars. His career had been short but brilliant, his work carrying forward a Romantic vision, in which the energy and zest of Cornwall’s coastal landscape was infused with European formalism and Mediterranean colour, resulting in paintings that are in every way equal to the best abstract expressionist work produced in America, but also infused with a sense of history and human endeavour.

Peter Lanyon in his studio, August 1954

Born into a well-off mining family, and educated at Clifton College in Bristol, Lanyon had taken great pride in his Cornish ancestry. Photography and music were part of his early education, and while still a teenager he took painting lessons with Borlase Smart in St Ives. In 1937 Adrian Stokes advised Lanyon to enroll at the Euston Road School, where Victor Pasmore and Naum Gabo were tutors, and he studied also at the Penzance School of Art. Back in St. Ives, it was inevitable that Lanyon would meet Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth, who had moved to Cornwall in the 1930’s, as did Gabo. During WWII, Lanyon served as a flight mechanic with the RAF in North Africa and Palestine. He was also stationed in Southern Italy for two years, during which time he painted murals and gave lectures on art. He ran an art education workshop for servicemen, developing his own austere, psycho-analytical, but optimistic approach to art. In 1946 he married Sheila St John Browne and over the next decade they had six children; their son Andrew also becoming an artist. Lanyon was inspired by Ben Nicholson’s approach to abstraction, and during the 1940’s made constructions that show the influence of both Nicholson and Gabo. He was a founding member of the Penwith Society of Arts in 1949, and had his first exhibition at the Lefevre Gallery in London that same year. In 1951, as part of the Festival of Britain, the newly-created Arts Council commissioned sixty artists to create large-scale paintings. One of these, Porthleven (British Council collection), an abstract work by Lanyon, is ambitious and hectic, crammed full of allusions to birds, gliders, harbours and quays, the composition surmounted by the clock tower of the Bickton-Smith Institute overlooking the harbour of Porthleven. Lanyon, Heron and Bryan Wynter were also included in the exhibition “Abstract Art”, curated by Adrian Heath at the AIA Gallery, and in another important show, British Abstract Art, held at Gimpel Fils, that same year.
In the early 1950’s Lanyon taught at Corsham College of Art, where William Scott was also a tutor, and later that decade he, William Redgrave and Terry Frost ran a school, at St. Peter’s Loft in St. Ives, with Nancy Wynne-Jones among the artists attending. Lanyon’s first New York exhibition was at the Catherine Viviano Gallery in 1957, when he met Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell and other artists. Over the following years he showed regularly at the Viviano Gallery. There was a demand for Lanyon’s work in the US, and in 1962 he painted a mural in the house of Stanley Seeger, in New Jersey. Initially tightly constructed, Lanyon’s work during the 1960’s became freer and more painterly. He took up gliding so as to appreciate the physical beauty of the Cornish landscape from the air, but died in a gliding accident in 1964, aged just forty-six.

Text: Peter Murray

Editor: Francesca Flowers

All images subject to copyright

Adrian Flowers Archive ©

Categories
Portraits

Patrick Heron

1920 – 1999

Patrick Heron in his studio with unfinished Yellow Painting (now in Tate Collection)
Visible in the background, Square Sun, January 1959 (National Galleries of Scotland)
photograph by Adrian Flowers, May 1959.

Born on 30th January 1920 in Leeds, Patrick Heron was a multi-talented creative genius, equally at home painting, writing, lecturing, or engaging in polemical discussions. He first came to live in Cornwall as a young child, when his father Tom Heron (1890-1983), a Fabian Non-Conformist and member of the Leeds Art Club, spent several years in St. Ives, as manager and partner at the Cryséde Silk company. Founded by Alec George Walker in 1920, Cryséde produced block-printed textiles—many of them abstract patterns— for dress designers, using silk sourced from the Walker family firm in Yorkshire. After four years there was a falling-out with Walker and in 1929 Tom Heron moved to Welwyn Garden City, where he set up a new company, Cresta Silks, building a factory on Broad Water Road, and opening retail outlets, on Bond Street, Baker Street and Brompton Road. The distinctive modernist fronts and interiors of the Cresta shops were designed by the Canadian Wells Coates, while Edward McKnight Kauffer also designed for the company. While working as a designer for his father, Patrick Heron’s love of Cornwall, where he had spent idyllic days of his childhood, saw him returning frequently to St. Ives. In the late 1930’s, he enrolled at the Slade School of Art, but attended only two days a week, while continuing to design fabrics for Cresta Silks. Melon, his first design for a Cresta scarf dates from 1934, when he was fourteen years old, while his Amaryllis, dates from two years later. Paul Nash also produced designs for Cresta fabrics, including Cherry Orchard (1931), as did Graham Sutherland and Cedric Morris.


With the onset of WWII, and also being requisitioned for parachutes, Cresta turned to making utility clothing. Heron registered as a conscientious objector (as had his father in the First World War) and, although suffering from asthma, went to work as an agricultural labourer in Cambridgeshire. Ill health 1944-45 resulted in his being invalided. He returned to St. Ives, where he worked for a year at the Bernard Leach Pottery, admiring the works of Shoji Hamada, and meeting Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth. After the war, he went back to work for Cresta Silks as head designer. Heron pursued his own career as a painter, and in 1947 had his first solo show. Nine years later, an exhibition of American Abstract Expressionist painting held in London marked a turning point in his career, inspiring him to move from working within a French Cubist and School of Paris style to one that showed the influence of the abstract painters of the United States. However Heron never lost that innate and instinctive love of colour and tactile surfaces, that derived both from his intimate knowledge of textile design and his enduring admiration for Bonnard and Matisse. While he pursued his career as an artist in Cornwall, the Cresta company continued to flourish and by 1973 there were 70 shops and over 1000 employees. After Tom Heron’s retirement, the company was taken over by Debenhams.


As an writer, Heron contributed essays and articles to the New Statesman, Art New York and other journals, using the opportunity to champion the work of his fellow St. Ives artists, including Peter Lanyon, William Scott, Bryan Wynter and Roger Hilton. In his 1955 book The Changing Forms of Art, the argument for abstraction was set out with characteristic passion. The following year, Heron and his wife Delia bought Eagle’s Nest, a large house overlooking Zennor, five miles west of St. Ives. For many years, the area around Zennor had attracted artists and writers, including DH Lawrence, Katherine Mansfield and poet John Heath-Stubbs. Virginia Woolf spent her childhood summers at St. Ives, memories of which fill her novel To the Lighthouse. The artist Bryan Wynter lived nearby in Carn Cottage. The Herons settled in to Eagle’s Nest, welcoming fellow artists such as Roger Hilton and William Scott, and raising two daughters; Susanna, who went on to became a sculptor, and Katharine, now professor of architecture at Westminster University. Although Eagle’s Nest is a large house, Heron needed a separate workspace and so in 1958 moved his paints and canvases to the artists’ studios at Porthmeor. Other artists in the complex included Wilhelmina Barns-Graham and Terry Frost. The space Heron was allocated was No. 5, Ben Nicholson’s former studio, next door to Tony O’Malley. Although he remained an abstract painter for the rest of his life, Heron’s work retains memories of the Cornish landscape, small fields surrounded by stone walls, lopsided houses, and villages crowded around little coves. Through the 1970’s and 80’s, he continued to paint and write, achieving a legendary status both for artistic vision and idealism. A lifelong socialist and pacifist, he was involved in many activist campaigns to preserve the Cornish landscape. Heron received many accolades during his lifetime, but he declined both a knighthood, and the opportunity to become a member of the Royal Academy. He died at Eagles Nest in 1999.

In the Ember days, following Whitsun, May 17th 1959, the Flowers family; Adrian, Angela, and their two young children Adam and Matthew, travelled to St Ives for a short break. They stayed in a rented house at 6 Draycott Terrace. At the time Angela was pregnant with Daniel, who was born in August of that year. As always, work was combined with holiday. Adrian visited Patrick Heron at his Porthmeor studio, where several of the leading St Ives artists were based. Slim, in his late 20’s, and dressed in pullover and work trousers, Heron stands beside an unfinished large canvas as he is photographed. In one image he reaches out to touch the surface of the painting. This work is Yellow Painting (1958/59), now in the Tate Collection. The photograph shows the canvas some weeks before completion and reveals how Heron was using yellow, applied over mauve underpainting, to enhance the chromatic intensity of the work (an excellent description of Yellow Painting is given by Laura McLean-Ferris on the Tate website). During this period was moving towards the pure, soft-edged abstraction that would characterise his work in the early 1960s, while not letting go of the earthy, painterly quality of his canvases from the late 1950s with their embedded memories of landscape, stonewalls and hedges. In another photograph, Heron sits in a west country chair, looking at the camera, holding a large paintbrush. Although the photographs were taken using Kodak 120 colour negative film, the contact sheets were printed in black and white, with some colour prints. Today, No 5 studio has changed little, and still retains the wood-battened white walls, large skylight and bare floorboards that appear in the series of photographs taken by Flowers in 1959.

Patrick Heron in his studio, photograph by Adrian Flowers in May 1959

Text: Peter Murray

Editor: Francesca Flowers

All images subject to copyright

Categories
Portraits

Order and chance: The Art of Kenneth Martin (1905-1984) 

Kenneth Martin in his studio, c.1957 (JN 2803)
Photograph by Adrian Flowers

Between 1957 and 1975, Adrian Flowers made several visits to the studio of Mary and Kenneth Martin. Mary Martin, who died in 1969, pursued a distinguished career as a sculptor. Photographs of her by Flowers are featured in a previous post This is Tomorrow.

The present text deals mainly with Kenneth’s life and work. Taken with a Rolleiflex, using fine-grain black-and-white film, the early photographs taken by Flowers of Martin show him white-haired, looking more like a scientist than an artist, fabricating the abstract metal sculptures for which he had become well-known. Over the ensuing years, Flowers documented the development of Martin’s art. The last photographs, of a suspended brass spiral mobile, were taken in March 1975 with an 8 x10” Sinar camera, in preparation for a retrospective exhibition at the Tate Gallery, held that same year.

Kenneth Martin in his studio in 1957, photograph by Adrian Flowers

Kenneth Martin was part of a generation of artists whose careers were interrupted—and also partly defined—by WWII. After studying at the Sheffield School of Art, and working for six years as a designer in that city, in 1929 he was awarded a scholarship to the Royal College of Art. There he met Mary Balmford, a fellow student who had moved to the RCA from Goldsmith’s College. They were married the following year. Beginning in 1934, Martin exhibited with the Allied Artists’ Association, and two years later showed with the London Group, becoming a full member of the Group in 1949. He also worked as a designer in his early years in London. His first solo show was held at the Leicester Galleries in 1943. He taught at St. John’s Wood School of Art and was also a visiting lecturer at Goldsmiths. 

Kenneth Martin mobiles. Both images 1960.
Photographs by Adrian Flowers

Initially, Martin painted in the ‘Euston Road School’ style, but as the 1930’s advanced, he became more aware of progressive European and American art. In the late 1940’s, inspired by Victor Pasmore and Anthony Hill, he began to experiment with abstract forms, in a style reminiscent of Russian Constructivists such as Rodchenko, El Lissitzky and Tatlin. However, in post-war Britain the audience for avant-garde art—particularly an art that traced its roots back to revolutionary Russia—was limited. Claims that this art in Britain had sprung fully-formed from an interest in pure composition are unconvincing, although it is true that geometry and mathematics formed the essential language of Martin’s aesthetic. He described his constructions as resembling drawing in space with metal—an upbringing in the engineering town of Sheffield perhaps having a bearing on this conceptual approach. Made from lengths of metal welded together, often arranged around a vertical central spine, Martin’s sculptures were based on the idea of retaining and embodying the memory of a spiralling dynamic movement in space, akin to a propeller in water. The idea of rotation in abstract art, found also in the Synthetic Cubism of Albert Gleizes, was further enhanced in his spiral mobiles, where the sculpture was suspended, and allowed to rotate freely. 

Kenneth Martin working on Screw Mobile 1959 in his studio c.1957
(JN 2803) Photograph by Adrian Flowers
Screw mobiles Kenneth Martin c.1957
(JN 2803) Photograph by Adrian Flowers

Although each pursued their own career, Kenneth and Mary Martin often worked closely together. In his introduction to the catalogue Mary Martin, Kenneth Martin, published to coincide with an Arts Council touring exhibition in 1970, Paul Overy described their approach: “In 1960 Mary Martin and Kenneth Martin made a Structure in Collaboration for a joint exhibition at the ICA, in Dover Street. It is a large work in four rectangular sections bolted together to form a large square, its scale and proportions directly related to the particular wall it was designed for, using the Fibonacci series in mathematics yet it does not give the impression of being coldly calculated. The whole structure is painted white and it seems perfect to combine the quiet, meditative introspection of Mary Martin’s earlier reliefs and the spiralling controlled energy of Kenneth Martin’s first series of mobiles.” The Martins worked on two such projects, the other being Environment, designed in collaboration with the architect John Weeks, for the ‘This is Tomorrow’ exhibition, held in 1956 at the Whitechapel Gallery. For this seminal show, the Martins made tall free-standing screens, again reminiscent of Russian Constructivist art, that embodied their theories on a modular, mathematically-based art, where accident and order were held in creative tension. Kenneth Martin’s creative method included using a limited range of materials, such as graph paper, square canvases and a restricted range of colours—and then he would, as it were, throw a dice, and introduce random factors into the composition. While he cited artists such as John Cage and Sol le Witt as having been influential in this regard, Martin’s art echoes the world of I Ching and the interaction of order and chance in the everyday world. Writing in 1987, Hilary Lane remarked “Kenneth Martin was interested in the opposition of experience and information and the puzzle of separating the two. He had a great capacity for experiencing the world; others have written of how the shortest journey in his company was made into a voyage of discovery. The physical sensations of moving through, over, under and across, of walking past, up and down were felt anew and tiny signs of nature, particularly as it triumphed in an urban habitat delighted him.” [Hilary Lane, University of Sussex, Introduction, Annely Juda Fine Art catalogue, 1987, p. 5] In a lecture given in 1956, Martin sought to outline the thinking behind his art:

The wise men of Lagado in Gulliver’s Travels carried on their backs objects to take the place of the spoken word. The construction, were it to act as a substitute for oil painting or drawing, would be as cumbersome and unnecessary. But the construction obeys its own laws and the dictates of its own material and expresses in a tangible manner what can only be expressed by that means. It is architectonic but not architecture and, in the case of the mobile, mechanistic, but in an aesthetic machine not a useful one. [‘Invention, a lecture 1956’, first published in Kenneth Martin, Tate Gallery, London 1975]

Working with assistant Susan Tebby, herself a noted Constructivist/Constructionist artist, Martin received several commissions for public sculptures, including, in 1960, a stainless steel kinetic work for a fountain at Lambeth College in Brixton, and Twin Screws for the Union of Architects building in London the following year. His 1967 Construction in Aluminium is sited at the entrance to the University of Cambridge’s Engineering Department, amidst Georgian terraces at Trumpington Street, Cambridge, while his construction for the Nuffield Institute at London Zoo dates from that same year. Four years later Martin was one of the artists shortlisted for a public art initiative sponsored by the Peter Stuyvesant Foundation and the Arts Council. Having been selected, in 1972 his Construction was installed at Arundel Gate in Sheffield, on a site now occupied by Sheffield Hallam University’s Owen Building. Based on the same mathematical system of rotations (“pendulum permutations”) employed by the artist in his smaller works, this six metre tall work consists of alternating plates and boxes, welded together to form a vertical column. The sculpture was fabricated locally, by Thomas Ward Ltd in Sheffield. Although it was hoped Construction would be purchased by the city’s Polytechnic, this did not transpire, and the work was shortly afterwards transferred to London, having been acquired by the Commonwealth Institute for its new building in Holland Park. It was later sited in parkland at Sutton Manor in Hampshire, and then at Millbank Street in Southampton, before being transferred to the New Art Centre in Wiltshire. In 2007 Construction was sold to a collector in California, but more recently it has returned to England. [Dr. Susan Tebby Kenneth Martin: Construction 1972 (New Art Centre 2022)

Construction 1972 by Kenneth Martin, at New Art Centre 2022
photograph: Peter Murray

The removal of Construction meant that there was no public sculpture by Martin in his home city of Sheffield, an omission that has not been rectified over the ensuing half century. Nor is there a sculpture by him in Sheffield Museum—although he is represented by a late abstract, Chance, Order, Change 24 History Painting A. (A portrait of Martin by Jeanne Masoero, a friend of Adrian Flowers, is also in Sheffield Museum). In 1987 a joint exhibition of Kenneth and Mary Martin’s work was held at Annely Juda Fine Art in Tottenham Mews London, followed by exhibitions at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge and other institutions. Kenneth Martin is represented by several works in the Tate collection, in Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, and in other museums. In 2007-8, an exhibition of work by the Martins was held at Tate St Ives, and in 2022, on the fiftieth anniversary of its first siting, his Construction was sited again at the New Art Centre, at Roche Court in Wiltshire, with Susan Tebby contributing an essay to the catalogue published to mark the sculpture’s return.

Screw Mobile c.1960
Photograph taken by Adrian Flowers in 1975 for Tate Gallery exhibition in the same year

Text: Peter Murray

Editor: Francesca Flowers

All images subject to copyright

Adrian Flowers Archive ©