Return to Cornwall



After a bad winter with TB problems, Canney decided to leave London for good and was appointed Curator of Newlyn Art Gallery (September 1956) , a post carrying a salary of £100 a year and a rent- free flat, and part-time teaching at Redruth Grammar School. There was also a small commission on sales of works in the gallery. Fortunately the post occupied only six months of the year annually, with the rest of the time free for painting. The gallery showed mainly works by members of the Newlyn Society of Artists, a body of professional artists, founded in 1895. With Barbara Hepworth, Canney organised the display of an open-air exhibition of British sculpture in Penlee Park, Penzance, in 1957. The exhibition included some important works, such as Henry Moore’s ‘King and Queen’.

From 1957 to 1958, Canney’s paintings begin to change under the prevailing influence of Abstract Expressionism, and that of the painter and fellow Cornishman Peter Lanyon, who exhibited regularly at Newlyn and became a close friend. This stylistic influence however, ran counter to that of the earlier paintings done in London and on arrival in Cornwall. “After a time I found that Lanyon’s intensely individual approach to the landscape was too personal for me, the pursuit of the ‘genius loci’ too elusive, and the informed automatism of the painting process too exhausting, both physically and psychologically,” he said. “I realised that I was beginning to seek the security of a more measured and geometric structure in my work again, and was also looking for some continuity from my earlier paintings and reliefs.

‘Although Gabo had left for America in 1946, his influence lingered on in West Cornwall, and Constructivism was a common subject for discussion. Evidence of a constructive approach was apparent in Lanyon’s early constructions and drawings, in the paintings of John Wells, in Barbara Hepworth's sculpture, and in the general look of St Ives painting at that time. The direction seemed clear enough, but I was not quite sure how to go about it, and a period of indecision followed.’

Canney met and saw the work of Marlow Moss, close friend of Mondrian and Max Bill and a founder-member of ‘Abstraction-Création’, who lived near Newlyn at Lamorna,  around 1956-7, and was profoundly impressed by her total commitment to an artistic and aesthetic ideal. ‘She was virtually a recluse and I never heard of anyone being invited to her studio. However, she would occasionally ride into Penzance in a pony and trap, dressed like a jockey and accompanied by her friend Hettie. When she called at the gallery, which was seldom, this petite and bizarre figure would stride rapidly around in a rather alarming manner, tapping her leg with a riding crop. Many years later her work had some influence upon my own,’ he recalled.

Peter Lanyon brought Mark Rothko, who was staying with him, to Newlyn to see the art gallery. ‘A man of great presence and charm, he was very generous about my work and spent some time looking at it,’ Canney recalled. ‘This was very encouraging, as I regarded Rothko as the most important painter on the international scene at that time. In conversation I referred to the majestic calm of one of his large canvases, but he rejected this interpretation: “There's actually a latent violence in my work,” he said. “I am, in fact, the most violent of all the American painters.”




Abstract impetus

Above: ‘Animal Coast’, 1958

Right, from top: etching of Newlyn Art Gallery, 1956; “Low Tide – Newlyn”, 1957; Peter Lanyon in his studio, c. 1959

Newlyn, Lanyon and Rothko