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Fellow-feeling for a scarred landscape

05 September 2014

The painter Peter Lanyon and the poet Jack Clemo shared something deeper than a Cornish background, argues Stephen Laird


Seeing salvation: St Just (1953), by Peter Lanyon, 224 x 122 cm. (Private Collection)

Seeing salvation: St Just (1953), by Peter Lanyon, 224 x 122 cm. (Private Collection)

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 their ideas.

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 against nature."

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 black labour.

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 mines.

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 End.

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 "arms".

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 originated.

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 revelation.

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 claypit.

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: www.wheal-martyn.com.

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