Peter Lanyon: Thermal, 1960; John Gillespie Magee: High Flight, 1941
If there was ever a painting that matched John Gillespie Magee's High Flight, below, it is Lanyon's Thermal, above.
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air....
Magee was in the RCAF, Lanyon RAF; Magee killed at 19 in 1941, Lanyon survived to buy a glider and paint what he saw into the early 1960s. There is a resurgence of interest in Lanyon because of a new exhibition at the Courtauld. Well-known, but not well-featured, but now there are articles on him everywhere, Thermal explained, Silent Coast discussed: the point where abstract expressionism met English landscape.
However it is explained, what I see in Thermal is that 1960s Austin side mirror shape that gives the whole painting its scale from the era to the plane, to the air outside it.
Silent Coast, below, just from the name alone, tells us it is an aerial of a coastline, beautiful but less magical than Thermal, which is complex, difficult.
Perhaps surviving WWII (Lanyon was stationed in the North Africa theatre, dangerous, but not as lethal as John Gillespie Magee's Sqd 412, an RCAF bombing squadron flying over Europe where an aircrew's life expectancy was about two weeks) – perhaps surviving WWII made Lanyon particularly free. For those who did survive, the war had been the high point of their lives and they'd made it through. The last verse of Magee's High Flight actually does not seem to end, so sublime is the moment of flight. Like Thermal, it is entirely absorbed in the act of flying, where survival, or not, is in the future and hardly to be thought of.
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.
Where never lark, or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent, lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
- Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.