Landscape Painters Anonymous

Sharing personal meditations on the subject of landscape painting, Simon Bayliss describes a group expedition from St Ives to Trencrom Hill in September drizzle.

At a party, someone asked me what kind of art I make. Stumbling, I said I make self-aware landscape paintings.

However, the most liberating piece of advice I’ve received recently was from a painter who told me to ‘embrace the Romantic’.

The Cornish landscape is a stimulant for unchecked self-expression. Remote and picturesque views are too easy to find. Unhealthy place-myths are born because artists romanticise already visually attractive locations.

On the day hurricane Irma made landfall in Florida, the ten participants on the Landscape Painters Anonymous (LPA) field trip met in windy drizzle at the Leisure Centre car park in St Ives, Cornwall, usually offering one of the best views of the seaside town. We set off on foot towards Trencrom Hill, a prominent viewpoint halfway between both coasts on the narrow peninsula.

En route everyone chatted, some reaffirmed friendships, while others got to know each other. We stopped in Steeple Woods, populated by old pollarded beech trees with gnarled, bending limbs. These became the focus of the first painting session. Once settled to paint, the group became noticeably silent, and the sound of wind in the leaves came to the fore.

LPA helps to lighten mythologies around the activity of landscape painting.

En plein air: literally ‘in the open air’.

Steeple Woods offered an enclosed environment with short vistas, dynamic shapes and perpendicular lines for lively compositions; a relief from horizons. On this otherwise grey day we found ourselves in a collage of lime green highlights layered over deep umber shadows.

When using watercolours, rain can become an unwanted collaborator. Laurence painted trees upside down so that drips became branches. One of Steve’s sensitive black line paintings of an old tree stump dissolved in mizzle leaving only its trace.

LPA is pragmatic.

I shy away from the notion that outdoor painting can be a spiritual experience. It might alienate anyone who doesn’t have those feelings.

I pretend to myself that landscape as subject is almost inconsequential.

Inspiration is normal.

When I’m asked (such as on a date) what kind of artist I am, I want to say post-conceptual landscape painter, but never do.

Aaron’s paintings of moss-covered tree trunks and rocks were enhanced by raindrops, which split the black pigment, creating a speckled organic effect like a layer of sediment collecting in patterned clusters.

Landscape Painters Anonymous was initially a vehicle through which to confess the guilty feelings I associated with landscape painting. Under the pretext of believing that landscape is a shallow subject and criticality must take precedence over inclinations and even pleasure, I conceived it as a semi-fictional self-help group for those who over-indulge in uncritical art- making.

Now, occasionally operating for real in the form of walks and drop-in sessions, LPA offers opportunities to indulge in the guilty pleasure of en plein air painting, within a supportive environment, away from external scrutiny.  Anonymity covers anyone not yet confident in painting, dissolving the public connection between the artist and their work, and promoting a modest and discreet approach to outdoor painting (easels are an extravagance).

‘At that time it was against the law to paint outdoors anywhere near the Cornish Coast. And to get the material I needed, here and there, I had to lie on my stomach under a gorse or any other convenient bush, in dread of being taken off to prison’ – Laura Knight, on her wartime painting ‘Spring’, 1916-20, depicting Lamorna Valley.[1]

After an hour of painting under the dripping canopy of Steeple Woods, we set off uphill to Knill’s monument, an elongated pyramidal tomb, using it briefly to shelter from horizontal rain. Usually Hayle estuary can be seen clearly. Our onward journey to Trencrom Hill took us along St Michael’s Way, an ancient pilgrim route to Marazion. As we approached the top of Trencrom, low clouds were beginning to clear and a 360-degree panorama opened over lush farmland. The sea could be seen clearly on both sides of the six-mile-wide peninsula, with St Michael’s Mount to the south and Godrevy Lighthouse to the north. With the wind gusting strong north westerly, Dom had set up a bell tent offering hot soup and shelter. Chamonix and Bonnie painted behind one of the granite tors, while others settled under canvas, looking out through open tent-flaps onto a vista of the distant pale crescent of Gwithian beach.

‘Do you hear? The moon is weeping in a secret room… The monks are troubled and full of woe. I’m a fly trapped in a bottle of shadows!’ Jonny Nice, The Fast Show.

For me, landscape painting extends beyond observation and formal concerns, drawing on bodily sensations, energy from the nervous system, time awareness, muscle memory, an education in twentieth-century art, and the performative act of mark-making.

Although the painting aspect of the expedition wasn’t much of a success, conversations left lasting impressions.

On the descent from Trencrom Hill, Io asked if I thought landscape was the most appropriate subject for artists in Cornwall. The question took me aback. My approach to landscape painting feels more like a nihilistic last resort, or an embarrassing anachronism, rather than a channel for communicating important issues of our time.  I am embarrassed by Romantic inclinations and political impotence.

In the painting St Just, 1953, Peter Lanyon uses the form of a crucifix to symbolise a great loss of life in the Cornish town from mining accidents due to negligence and poor management. Describing the work in a letter to a friend, Lanyon wrote: ‘I have just constructed and executed Christ and the result is like the residue of a NAPALM bomb’.[2]

Unlike ‘place’, landscape can only be seen from a distance, as a backdrop to the experience of viewing. Landscape is an aesthetic experience, while place is an understanding formed through a long-standing engagement with a location or area.

‘There are places, just as there are people and objects […] whose relationship of parts creates a mystery’ – Paul Nash.[3]

On the next LPA fieldtrip, inspired by Lanyon’s multi-sensory teaching methods, we will be lying backwards on cliff edges and rolling down hills.

Under a beech tree
a gust heaves its branches,
drops fall on my page

 At a gallery in London:

In the centre of the room, there was a large black desk, surrounded with boxes of unpacked exhibition catalogues and bubble-wrapped paintings. He felt himself slouching, so sat up straight and cautiously gazed at the three figures opposite. The paperwork that covered the desk – consignment forms and other gallery ephemera – acted as a welcome barrier. He knew he couldn’t tell the truth. ‘What am I supposed to do?’ he thought, and decided to adopt the same expression of concern conveyed by their pallid faces.

While the director poured coffee, he glanced at his supportive collector, and then at a curator who had mentored him as a young artist. He knew them well enough to decipher their expressions and pre-empt their apprehension. Preparing himself to say anything they wanted to hear, he was nevertheless prickling to jump on the next train back to Cornwall, where he would jog up the hill and abandon himself to rolling panoramas – distant views delineated by patchwork farmland.

‘Please understand that withdrawing is a difficult process’, he said. The words tasted sweet on his lips. ‘Like when I gave up pottery. It wasn’t a clean break. I had to go back a few more times to learn I didn’t need to do it any more.’ The lies were beginning to spill out and he felt a sick pride at his growing ability to dispense false promises and deceive those in power, those who trusted him.  He was half convinced that his act was noble, like a captive rebel fighter withholding information. 

‘I imagine that, rather than stop immediately, I may have to abstain gradually until I don’t need to do it at all’, he said gently, hoping to calm their worries. If only they would stop interfering, he thought, he could develop strategies for plein air painting that would ease their ideological objections. But even his daydreaming was insincere. He had no intention of appeasing. He just wanted to render the hills of Cornwall alla prima, with light washes and traditional techniques.

The ancient Greek region of Arcadia was mythologised in European Renaissance painting as an unspoiled, pastoral utopia where shepherds frolicked.  The notion of Arcadian tastes became used in the queer community in the early twentieth century as part of a burgeoning vocabulary referencing a longing search for a private rural idyll and a way of signalling shared same-sex desires.

Yesterday I watched the moon rise above a dark headland, shimmering silver over gentle waves. Time and thoughts lapsed, inner and outer merged momentarily.

Through painting I am searching for Arcadia.



[2] ‘The morrow we left behind’: Landscape and the Rethinking of Modernism, 1939–53, Chris Stephens

[3] Paul Nash, Andrew Causey, 1980


Text © Simon Bayliss and CAST (Cornubian Arts & Science Trust), 2018.

Simon Bayliss’s LPA field trip was commissioned as part of the Groundwork programme 2016-18, supported by Arts Council England. 

Simon Bayliss is an artist based in St Ives, working at Porthmeor Studios. His work often explores conflicting feelings of respect and irreverence for Cornwall’s artistic and cultural histories.

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