Lot 20
  • 20

Peter Lanyon

250,000 - 350,000 GBP
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  • Peter Lanyon
  • Witness
  • signed and dated 61; also signed, dated April 1961 and titled on the reverse
  • oil on canvas
  • 183 by 122cm.; 72 by 48in.


Sheila Lanyon
Gimpel Fils, London, where acquired by David Bowie, May 1994


New York, Catherine Viviano Gallery, Peter Lanyon, 30th January - 17th February 1962, cat. no.1;
New York, Catherine Viviano Gallery, Paintings, Sculpture: American and European, May 1962 (details untraced);
San Antonio, Marion Koogler McNay Art Institute, Peter Lanyon, March 1963 (un-numbered exhibition);
New York, Catherine Viviano Gallery, Paintings, Sculpture: American and European, 1970, cat. no.10, illustrated;
London, Hayward Gallery, Hayward Annual 1980: Contemporary Painting and Sculpture Selected by John Hoyland, 29th August - 12th October 1980, un-numbered exhibition, illustrated;
St Ives, Tate, Peter Lanyon, 9th October 2010 - 23rd January 2011, un-numbered exhibition, illustrated p.87.


John Dalton, 'Lanyon and Landscape', The Studio, vol.164, no.835, November 1962, pp.178-81, illustrated p.179;
Andrew Causey, Peter Lanyon: His Paintings, Aidan Ellis Publishing, Henley-on-Thames, 1971, no.172;
Andrew Lanyon, Peter Lanyon 1918-1964, privately printed, Penzance, 1990, illustrated p.7;
Chris Stephens, Peter Lanyon: At the Edge of Landscape, 21 Publishing Ltd., London, 2000, illustrated p.141.


Original canvas. The canvas undulates slightly at the corners, but otherwise appears sound. There is some very minor frame abrasion around the edges of the work in places. There is a tip of a nail from the stretcher apparent to the left side of the lower horizontal edge, with a spot of associated paint loss and one or two very fine lines of craquelure. There are some lines of reticulation apparent to some of the darker pigments, and there is a very minor spot of craquelure apparent to the white pigment near the centre of the right vertical edge. There is some minor rubbing and some small specks of loss to some of the tips of impasto in places. There is some very light surface dirt and one or two instances of studio detritus. Subject to the above, the work appears to be in excellent overall condition. Ultraviolet light reveals no obvious signs of fluorescence or retouching. The work is presented in a gilt wooden frame. Please telephone the department on +44 (0) 207 293 6424 if you have any questions regarding the present work.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

We are grateful to Martin Lanyon and Toby Treves for their kind assistance with the cataloguing of the present work, which will feature in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the oil paintings and three-dimensional works, to be published by Modern Art Press in association with Yale University Press.

Peter Lanyon’s Witness is a great American painting. The height and span of a man, monumental and monolithic in conception; executed in broad, sweeping gestures, which drag, turn, switch back; heroically titled – it has all the hallmarks of De Kooning, Motherwell and Kline at their best. It is a painting in which Clement Greenberg could have seen the ideas that he lionised in the New York School of Abstract Expressionism, a painting that references nothing else except itself, its only language that of mark-making and paint. An existential ‘Howl’ uttered purely in terms of paint.

However, rather than being painted in a loft in New York City or a barn on Long Island, Witness was in fact painted in a studio in St Ives, a fishing village on the tip of Cornwall, albeit a village that in the decades following the Second World War was to become a centre of the British avant-garde to rival London. And rather than be made by a European émigré or a hard-drinking son of the Mid-Western plains, it was painted by a native Cornishman, deeply connected to the magical, dark landscape of West Penwith. Lanyon had begun exhibiting in America in the mid-50s, holding his first one-man show with the legendary Catherine Viviano in 1957. He had met and befriended a number of the major figures of the New York School: Mark Rothko and his wife stayed with the Lanyons in St Ives in 1959, a trip that Rothko found so inspiring he thought of finding a building in Cornwall to create an installation of paintings along the lines of his Seagram Murals. Lanyon admired Kline too, whose work he has seen at the Sidney Janis Gallery, which, he noted, ‘seemed to be the best [of Abstract Expressionism] both as painting and as art’ – and it is perhaps Kline’s influence that can be most closely identified in a work such as Witness, although as ever with British abstraction of the late 50s and early 60s, it is important to stress how contemporary it was with the best of American painting. Artists on both sides of the Atlantic were finding themselves in similar places, often by totally different means and to very diverse ends.

Lanyon’s work, whilst superficially adhering to Greenberg’s proscriptions, also breaks many of his rules. Abstract in principle, they are equally concerned with the elemental forces – wind, rain and sea – that battered and shaped the landscape of West Penwith. From the very beginning, he wanted to paint the experience of the world around him, seen from above and below, in the mind’s eye, across time and place. As Lanyon himself wrote: ‘The thing that I’m interested in… is that there’s a place… the thing I have experienced that I am able to make into something new which is an equivalent of that… In the end the whole picture has to be that. It hasn’t to represent it…it has to be so charged with that experience that it is, the whole self: it will give back that experience to someone else’ (the Artist, interviewed along with Alan Davie and William Scott by David Sylvester for the BBC, 19th June 1950, Tate Archive, TAV214AB).

It was this desire to capture experience that led him, in 1959, to take up gliding. This allowed him to conceive space within his art differently and bring to his activity as a painter a more profound understanding of the elemental. Gliding was to enter ‘the realm of vertigo’, something that can be very clearly seen in Witness, with its vertiginous updraft of black to the left, which then hooks to the right only to be buffeted by a turbulent brushing of grey-white and forced back on itself.  With a change of mental perspective, however, the whole painting can also be seen from above rather than square-on, as a map of (perhaps) a solid headland, a harbour scooped out within it, black against a raging-white sea. This multiplicity of reading was key to Lanyon in these works.

In 1964, the year of his untimely death as a result of a gliding accident, Lanyon wrote: ‘I believe that landscape, the outside world of things and events larger than ourselves is the proper place to find our deepest meanings…. I want to make the point that landscape painting is not a provincial activity as it is thought by many to be in the United States, but a true ambition like the mountaineer who cannot see the clouds without feeling the lift inside them… where skill and training and courage combine to make us transcend our ordinary lives’ (the Artist, ‘Some Aspects in Modern British Painting: An Artist’s Point of View’, lecture for the British Council in Czechoslovakia, 27th January 1964). Lanyon’s ‘gliding paintings’ have recently been given their own dedicated museum show, the Courtauld Institute’s highly acclaimed Soaring Flight, although they always feature strongly in any exhibition of his work, as Witness did in the 2010/11 Lanyon retrospective at Tate St Ives. It is no surprise, perhaps, that for someone who owned Lanyons from every period of his career, David Bowie would have one of the best of the ‘gliding paintings’, from the period where Lanyon was creating a truly international pictorial language.