LAST month brought the 50th anniversary of the death of the
abstract-landscape painter Peter Lanyon, who was a leading light
among the St Ives group of artists. Twenty years ago in July, the
Cornish poet and author Jack Clemo died.
The two are linked by more than these anniversaries. They were
both giants of the Cornish cultural scene who displayed a
distinctive "religious" preoccupation with the county's man-made,
debris-strewn post-industrial landscapes. Exact contemporaries when
their careers peaked, Clemo and Lanyon were later honoured with
appointments as Cornish "bards", and their achievements were
ultimately recognised internationally.
But, while the compartmentalised worlds of literary studies and
art history acknowledge the significance of their respective
individual legacies, no real attempt has been made to examine the
extent to which they were aware of each other's work, or to compare
Jack Clemo (1916-94), was raised in the china-clay district of
mid-Cornwall, where he spent all but the last ten years of his
life. His father had been involved with the local industry, but was
killed in the First World War; so his mother - a committed
Nonconformist - took charge of his upbringing.
Clemo's childhood memories were essential to his art, because
his hearing was impaired in early adulthood, and was blind by the
time he reached his mid-30s. The scarred landscape which he
explored as a youngster is dominated by white spoil heaps, and
disused industrial buildings and paraphernalia.
COMBINING early influences, Clemo described symbolic reminders
of Christian salvation which he perceived in his home terrain. In
his 1948 poem "The Excavator", he wrote:
I feel exultantly
The drip of clayey water from the poised
Still bar above me, thrilling with the rite
Of baptism all my own;
Acknowledging the might
Of God's arm alone;
Needing no ritual voice
In speech or earthly idiom to draw
My soul to his new law.
Clemo was particularly proud of one of his best known poems,
"Christ in the Claypit", written in 1947:
. . . I peer
upon His footsteps in this quarried mud;
I see His blood
In rusty stains on pit-props,
Bristling with nails, not leaves.
There were no leaves
Upon his chosen Tree,
No parasitic flowering over shames
Of Eden's primal infidelity.
Just splintered wood and nails. .
Clemo was an articulate Calvinist in mid-career, and remains
distinctive among landscape poets for his Barthian rejection of
"natural theology". In his 1949 autobiography, he explained his
renunciation of the "natural" vision of the poet. "All poets are
aware of the antagonism between nature and dogma," he wrote, "but
no poet, except by the grace of God, ever takes the side of dogma
Clemo was not inspired by what is commonly glorified as "nature
as God intended". Instead, he saw ravaged, invaded, broken-down
creation as an indication and symbol of the need for the activity
of divine grace.
Similarly, he admired the distortions of human form found in
paintings by Picasso, whose idiom, he said, "is one which a
Calvinist can understand - an idiom freed from the Pelagian
obsession with 'beauty'".
Clemo concluded: "to the Christian, God is immanent only in
Christ and the Bible, and this primary immanence is communicated to
human beings exclusively through doctrinal faith."
PETER LANYON (1918-64) lived near St Ives. At the age of 20, he
visited relatives in South Africa. There, he was shocked by some of
the prevailing social attitudes, especially the exploitation of
Once he was established as a painter, Lanyon began to show a
strong emotional sensitivity to his home environment in west
Cornwall, where he was surrounded by evidence of a declining tin-
and copper-mining industry. He was troubled by a creeping sense of
personal responsibility for some of the hardships associated with
this activity - in previous generations, his own family, which had
owned an engineering business, had made its fortune from the
From the early 1950s - at the peak of his career - Lanyon made a
number of paintings and drawings, influenced by Picasso. These
feature and resonate with ideas, symbols, and stories from
Christian redemption mythology.
He agonised over one particular painting for several months.
Completed in 1953, its title is St Just, but its working
title was Crucifixion, and he occasionally (and
revealingly) referred to it as "my crucifixion".
The finished canvas measures 224 cm by 122 cm (just over seven
feet by four), which makes it more than "man-sized". The painting
certainly has forms, colours, and textures that suggest landscape.
St Just is a former mining town located within sight of Land's
A dull green predominates, and the system of black lines which
holds the composition together, evokes the stone walls that make up
the ancient field boundary patterns in the district.
Yet we know from Lanyon's own description of the work that
strong references to Christian narrative, doctrine, and experience
are bound up with these and other features. The central vertical
black section is both a mineshaft and the shaft of a cross with
ST JUST works simultaneously as an image of a place, a lament
about industrial exploitation, and a metaphorical crucifixion. In
the process of making the work, Lanyon dealt with his anxieties
about his relationship with the region from which he
He knew that miners from the St Just area endured considerable
hardship in the 19th and early 20th centuries, whether in or out of
work. Accidents were frequent, and 31 St Just miners lost their
lives in a disaster in 1919, which involved the ominously named
"man engine", a lifting contraption that they were using to ascend
from the lower depths after their shift.
In 1953, Lanyon wrote to an art-historian, expressing himself in
a style that lies somewhere between prose and poetry:
. . . the tragedy is the presence of man adjusting to the
granite and his impossible task when it is seen as a spiritual one
as well. . . To go down and be lifted up . . . more than ever it is
the cross that I see and there again the man who seeing all of his
journey and seeing then that it is impossible would have somewhere
to go . . . to rest in Christ's arms.
Lanyon's personal religious convictions are difficult to define
- they are vague and eclectic rather than dogmatic. Lanyon used
Christian language and symbols to convey "universal" meanings, but,
in some paintings and writings, there is evidence that he drew on
the mythologies of other cultures and religions.
A recently catalogued letter from the poet Charles Causley to
Clemo, dated 1955, reveals that Lanyon had read Clemo's
autobiography, and had told Causley that he had been profoundly
affected by it.
There is, then, a distinct possibility that Lanyon's paintings
from the early 1950s reflect his engagement with Clemo's writings.
Clemo eventually heard of Lanyon, and became aware of the painter's
rise to fame in the late 1950s, and his early death after a gliding
accident in 1964. Blindness, however, deprived the poet of the
opportunity to engage with Lanyon's work.
Both Clemo and Lanyon shared a means of interpreting landscape
in ways that can be described as "religious", although neither
pandered to the facile, popular claims linking beauty to
The poet and the painter displayed an extraordinary sensitivity
to some startling epiphanies of Christian redemption mythology, a
story of grace so irrepressible that, with the inner eye, it was
seen in some of Cornwall's most desolate places and ugliest
contraptions: the mineshaft, the "man engine", the excavator, and
The Revd Dr Stephen Laird is Dean of Chaplains and Honorary
Lecturer in Religious Studies at the University of Kent, and a
contributor to the new edition of The Oxford Dictionary of
Christian Art and Architecture.
Objects related to the life of Jack Clemo are on display in
the museum at Wheal Martyn, Cornwall: