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The Face of Penwith

Peter Lanyon



The Cornishman is not double-faced but multiple-faced, facets of character which add up to a sort of innocence. He is never still himself except in death, but all the conflicts which lead to a game of hide and seek between native and the so-called 'foreigner' are part of a process which constantly surfaces the most diverse and conflicting factors. The Cornishman is fond of private secrets. A solemn intercourse of native with native, often intimate, is mistaken for a gossiping and vicious moralizing. The bush telegraph which puts the GPO to shame is a part of this intimate revelation from native to native. The part of this game which is revealed to the unfortunate 'foreigner' is that part which concerns him alone, the rest is none of his business. Prayer is a strong force, and in the greatest days of revivalist services, in Wesleyan chapels, a poetic resolution was achieved. The loss of such inspiring services is as sad for Cornwall as the closing of the mines.
There is a main force which is centrifugal and centripetal, a giving out and a taking in. In extremes this means a complete trust and desire to give absolutely everything and a converse withdrawal, a returning to a protective native envelope. The eye is prospecting and adventurous, it has also an inward look. Perhaps these qualities are most often found in insular people, and perhaps Cornwall itself has for centuries been almost an island. The intimate contacts of native with native revealed in Cornish Stories (understood and enjoyed for their peculiar flavour by natives only) remains. The Cornishman will change according to basic rhythms which are suggested here and will make a good job a 'fitty' job, as he says, not one just fit for purpose but a fitness within a rightness which is determined but his whole history and the nature of his country.
The following sketches offer suggestions o towards a revelatory process. They are made from outside by a certain detachment which is the artist's method, but from within also, in the hope that processes of revelation, extension and creation (latent in familiar objects) may themselves be revealed and shown to have a relativity in time and space. This complication of a familiar and plain scene is made in the interests of an analysis of Cornish character. In the congregation of the Cornish cross, a circular theme, the symbol of this process stands erect, revealed and outward, in the landscape.



From Wicca to Levant the coastline emerges out of carns and braken and cultivated greenland, revealing on its varied faces a sea history and a land history of men within and without and a commerce of man with the weather. Here, in a small stretch of headland, cove and Atlantic adventure the most distant histories are near the surface as if the fintal convulsion of rock upheaval and cold incision setting in a violent sandwich of strata had directed the hide and seek of celtic pattern. A motor-boat in some solemn gaiety with insistent cough searches out the exacted payment of ocean on land; the small rituals of business at the junction of rock and sea wall.
On carns of Zennor, Hannibal and Galva where giants may have hurled their googlies in mild recreation, an outline of earthwork makes evidence for a primitive brotherhood of man, of the great and small in life and death wherein animal joy and terror found resolution in the protective care of monolith and fort. Hereabouts, perhaps, the sun set westwards, shifting down the monolith to bury the light of primitive fire and rose again in the hearts of men from the east. The saints were in Cornwall.
From Levant to Wicca, an easterly direction , chimneys are crowned by brick flourish and the towers are lichen-covered, castellated and pinnacled. They rise upward out of the horizontal ground as if the thrust of stone had surfaced to the call of the native, given up its wealth to his endeavour, and been revealed by manufacture as an expression of inner intent. Invention, leading to extension of native culture, made present in time a process of ancient development.  The craft and skill and meaning of the native journey are outward and revealed at the land surface.


To bring the world within the hand and make immediate the farthest shore, seamen set sail for the mistress of the sea. From storm and shipwreck the homing seaman returns with cargo, unloading on granite quays a wealth of image. What stories he tells, and in his sea soul gives to the land, remain outwardly in his artefacts, are revealed to generations by the face of man and the character of his seaborn gear. This process has been a source of man's struggle to make himself as outward and revealed as this place of granite. Here sea and land answer the deep roots of man and present him with a face.
At Levant Mine, where tin and ocean meet, men fished for good after labour beneath the ocean bed. What is within the granite arms of harbour, sheltered  from surface mood and ground sea is concerned with an intimate bobbing, the playful game of boat with mooring, a small outward exchange reflective of deep ocean movements. A happy commerce in granite embrace. But the centre and focus of the lighthouse, port and parent are left alone as masts and sails, clumsy with their clawings, move out to their own aggressiveness. Man-engine and steam haulage pass contact to deep levels with man-baited rod and line. Where shifts go down and come up and ships in regular exchange remove themselves and return to parent, the resources of cornwall are best displayed and landed. In every small and intimate departure or arrival a wholeness of living is revealed, and in commerce of man with granite and Atlantic the transitory is made immediate, each facet related elementally to the next as aspect and image of a whole.


Running along Hayle estuary and round points to St Ives terminus a local train brings the man from pavement, office and city statue to a most complete revelation of history in the earth, to the open face of his country, the ultimate and prized beauty of the flower.
Richard Trevithick made a steam engine, a concoction of homely kettle and manufacture, a concept of extension whereby man's muscled arm is replaced by an idea made solid of motion and power in simple movements. Steam expansion and piston, valve gear and con rod, cranked for transference to rotary motion; the divider and compass, straight line and circle, all set on the wheels of a horseless cart for the ride up Camborne Hill in glory.
The industrial revolution moved inward and outward down and up the line: Par, Lostwithiel, Truro, Redruth, Camborne, Truro, St Austell and Saltash. From within the drawbridge fell across the Tamar.
To the demands of extension the Cornishman, evolving his time theme, the centrifugal and centripetal, makes invention, making real the face of his own tme, making objects and image from within.




'The Face of Penwith' was first published in The Cornish Review in 1950. It appears courtesy of Martin Val Baker and Sheila Lanyon, and is one of a number of essays published in 2009 in the Cornish Review Anthology 1949-52 available on Amazon: