Andrew Lanyon - a tour-de-force that is at once Gothic narrative, philosophical enquiry, comic novel, a eulogy of the tragic history of St. Ives and the Cornish landscape and an eloquent demonstration of the processes underlying its own creation

Circular Walks Around Rowley Hall cover image

Andrew Lanyon, Circular Walks Around Rowley Hall, Atlas Press, 2006.

Circular Walks is a sort-of-novel that recounts the curious history of three characters: Vera, Mervyn and Walter Rowley; and of two locations: Rowley Hall and the Cornish town of St. Ives.
The human protagonists are three members of a family devoted to outlandish experimentation, mostly upon themselves or each other. Vera, the levitating psychoanalyst, explores the effects of geology on thought and language; Walter, a retired vivisectionist, preys on artists in the hope of forcibly curing them of their vile creative habits; meanwhile Mervyn, his father, is busy eradicating his son’s efforts by secretly creating strange cinematic extravaganzas and sculptures disguised as scientific apparatus. Or at least that’s what happens on one level…
In fact this is an indefinable book in which both text and image are given equal weight. A state of play (in both senses of the word) exists between them, words provoke images and images text, and a literal visualisation of a joyous creativity is brought into being. It’s a tour-de-force that is at once Gothic narrative, philosophical enquiry, comic novel, a eulogy of the tragic history of St. Ives and the Cornish landscape and an eloquent demonstration of the processes underlying its own creation.
Andrew Lanyon has been bringing out the Rowley books in beautiful limited editions for the past 20 years. This selection from the first 12 of them is the first time their remarkable content has been made more generally available. The author is the son of one of the foremost of the St. Ives artists, Peter Lanyon, and so was brought up in the strange atmosphere of a fishing village overwhelmed with “high culture"; his ambivalent feelings about this invasion underpin the narrative.

It cannot be over-emphasized that if the artist is kept at the proper temperature and humidity and correctly fed, and the cages are carefully cleaned out daily, the art disease is unlikely to recur.  It seems very probably that the art virus is present at all times, but can only become rampant and cause damage when the artists are in a debilitated condition from some other cause.  When any cage that has contained this disease falls empty, particular attention should be given to sterilising it.
Tucked away in the spare pages of history, between the articles on Important People and Major Events, lie countless stories of dreamers and eccentrics, amateur scientists with cockamamie theories, inventors with impossible concoctions, and mediocre artists blinded by their own talent.  Enter the Rowley family of Rowley Hall, who manage to embody all of these attributes and so much more.  The Rowleys, who might be described as something akin to The Lunar Society seen through the twisted vision of Edward Gorey, are the invention of artist, writer, and publisher Andrew Lanyon.

Rowley Hall, set in the artistic community of St. Ives, Cornwall, now sits empty and abandoned as the result of a restrictive clause in Vera’s will.  But once upon a time it echoed with activity.  Mervyn Rowley is described as a “sculptor, author and accountant,” Walter as “a retired vivisectionist,” and Vera (Walter’s niece) as “a geologist and psychoanalyst.”   Many of the family’s amateur experiments were in the area of art and reflect an obsession for explaining the very nature of art.  Mervyn’s boundless curiosity, for example, led him to experiment with weighing himself “whilst occupied with a variety of different thoughts” to comprehend the effects of gravity on different types of ideas.  Walter managed to discover that if spun at a certain speed, “a plein air painter will for a time produce entirely Cubist works.”  He also made the break-through discovery that “images grow weaker from being looked at (they suffer image-loss).”  Vera, for her part, briefly set up a shop in St. Ives where she sold only shadows.

This could all easily dismissed as a fun but forgettable whimsey were it not for the pleasure of Lanyon’s prose and the gems of perverse genius that can be found on practically any page.  Lanyon’s enthusiastic, gullible narrator is more or less the typical amateur writer who decides to turn out a family history, complete with clippings and old photographs pasted on the page.  The endless stream of unlikely stories and quirky theories that spew out of the narrator’s pen could inspire countless new artistic projects.
By twelve he had finished with architecture, changing course for less ostentatious activities.  For example, he wrote poetry with a pen which produced silken thread that the faintest breath disturbed.  One wrong move, of sentiment or metre, and the pen would reel in the entire rhyme like a disturbed pig swallowing her young.  It is in one of these frail texts sandwiched between glass that Mervyn predicted art would become an odourless and tasteless, if reflective (because it was behind glass) substance.  However, he believed that when it evolved into its final state, it would serve a vital function.  “For as mistakes are eradicated from every field of human endeavor by failsafe technology, art with its vast areas of emptiness will serve as a sanctuary, providing a final margin for error.”
In his notebooks, Walter theorized that artists were truly dangerous (although that never stopped him from making his own brand of eccentric art).  “As nature’s store of images dwindles…, painstakingly removed by painters or snapped up by photographers, the natural world becomes increasingly unstable.”

The total history of the Rowleys can only be found spread across a dozen or so limited edition, letterpress-printed artist’s books issued by Lanyon himself since 1987.  My introduction to Lanyon and the Rowleys has been through the invaluable efforts of Alastair Brotchie and London’s Atlas Press, who, in 2006, issued Circular Walks Around Rowley Hall, a “subjective and biased” selection and re-editing that Brotchie distilled from the various Rowley books.  (Brotchie says that the author’s response to his surgery was “exemplary.”  When you are ready to shake the cobwebs off your normal reading habits, get one of the many reinvigorating titles from Atlas Press. -

THE ONLY NON-SLIP DODO MAT IN THE WORLD (A paperback edition at £10 is available only from Falmouth Art Gallery). Hardback edition of 50, not letterpress, 2013. £75.
SIX FEET TO INFINITY. Photographs taken by Andrew Lanyon in the 60s and 70s. Hardback, not letterpress, 2012. £65.
VON RIBBENTROP IN ST. IVES  (Published by Kestle Barton) Two dozen left. Paperback, not letterpress, 2011. £35.
THE DAUGHTERS OF RADON  Edition of 200. Hardback, not letterpress, 2011. £50.

In order of appearance. All are complete in their own right. No-one has ever been able to discern a sequence. All are letterpress, casebound, thread-sewn, in a slip case with tipped in colour plates. A set of all these Rowley books including a photocopy of the out of print ‘Deadpan’, £1,300. Some books have faint mottling on cover but otherwise good and guaranteed complete plates.
SECOND NATURE   ‘Lanyon belongs to the genus of Hamlets who clown, church organists who prefer pub pianos and poets who tap dance.’ Anna Adams. Apollo.  £295.
THE LOOSE CONNECTION  ‘Ingenious, funny, entirely constructive too given the chaos theory.’ George Melly. ‘The world would be the poorer without the revelations that a book like this provides.’ Sir Alan Bowness.  £220.
THE UNJUSTIFIED TEXT  ‘A bargain.’ Christopher Logue. ‘A beautiful, intelligent and provocative volume.’ Dan Rose, Word and Image Journal. ‘An exciting, incorruptible vision defended by a great talent.’ Derrek Hines.  £175.
THE QUICK CHANGE ACT  ‘Tears of laughter stream down my face…reading these books can cause untold damage to a carefully crafted face.’ Mo Enright. ‘Pure pleasure’. Ken Mellon. ‘The speed of delivery is breathtaking. Very, very clever indeed. A stunning simplicity and directness. The idea of all these cloned artists gives me a most satisfying hysteria.’ Lionel Miskin.  £175.
ROOM TO MANOEUVRE ‘Deftly using Vera Rowley as a literary conceit, Lanyon’s “Room to  Manoeuvre” is a profound work of “ction-philosophy-psychology rendered into his unique idiom.’ Christopher Bollas. ‘A major work.’ Simon Frazer. ‘One of the most satisfying objects and effective obliterators of ennui ever fabricated.’ Peter Blegvad. ‘The book blurs the boundaries between philosophy and psychology, between linguistics and logistics, between poetry and hilarity. Each new thought comes embodied in its own drama from a gentle reverie on the way children bring the house into the garden and vice versa to a superbly comic turn placing the origins of language in the excuses of male hunters when they failed to bring home the bison.’ Jane Addams Allen. ‘A distinctive achievement.’ Phil Bowen.  £175.
DYING FOR ETERNITY  ‘Magni”cent.’ Patrick Hughes. ‘The book: a glitter to “nd at every reading.’ Jennifer Martyn. ‘You do not open such a book so much as step inside.’ Des Hannigan. ‘Incandescent.’ Simon Frazer. ‘Lanyon at his unmissable best.’ Derrek Hines. ‘So much for science.’ Anton Nickson.  £120.
A PERSISTENCE OF VISIONS  ‘The humour is as fresh as ever and always masks serious intent. Lanyon invariably “ts his own de”nition “…poets are guardians of the groundless, last bastions for phantoms…” and at his best achieves its conclusion “…striving to touch the immaterial lightly with their lips, they sear the sea.” John McDowall. ‘I have sometimes wondered if Vera Rowley might have been up at Cambridge during Wittgenstein’s era – though her joyful detachment seems to have more in common with the great mystics – in spite of her ploys to dispel any aura of spirituality. A marvellous book.’ Jennifer Martyn. ‘I rarely have time for reading. But when I began idly looking through your ‘Persistence of Visions’ I was at once gripped and read it avidly with growing delight and sensations of inspiration.’ John Michell.  £100.
THE TOWER OF SILENCE  ‘A mature essay on language.’ Rodney Burt. ‘It made me laugh out loud, and rather raucously, so I was glad I wasn’t on a train.’ Roz Chandler.  £90.
A NOVEL SOLUTION ‘Intriguing background details to life at Rowley Hall. The art of camouflage refined to the nearest degree. Another essential piece in the jigsaw.’ Jennifer Martyn.  £90.
THE PALETTE AND THE RETORT  In which words and images fall for each other. A possible solution to the ongoing Rowley saga. £90.
VERA’S DISAPPEARANCE   Letterpress, hardback, 100 edition.  £75.

THE VEGETABLE PLOT  ‘One to think about as you weed your veg.’ Esmé Maylam. Not letterpress. £45
COUNTERART  ‘Innocuous yet so subversive. Very witty.’ Paul Newman. Not letterpress.  £30.
ANTI-LIT ‘I have giggled my way through ‘Anti-Lit’ several times.’ Peter Dallas Ross.  Not letterpress. £30.
A CARBON COPY  Not letterpress. £35.
NAPOLEON by Dave Scott about Bonaparte. ‘The robustly bouncing verse cuts the subject nicely down to size.’ Paul Spooner. £40.
VERTIGO  Christiane Kupke’s poems illustrated with A. Lanyon’s photographs. ‘Far above what one tends to find in poetry elsewhere.’ W. G. Sebald.  £40.
XAN XI DRINKS THE SEA  Paul Spooner’s incomparable working models. ‘Hybrid myth/models that transgress the rules of day to day sense.’ Dave Scott.  £45.
ABANDONED FILLING STATION Keith Spurgin’s nostalgia for motoring ‘fills me with desire to jettison my carless lifestyle, put on a pair of driving gloves and go flirt wildly with a pump attendant.’
Christiane Kupke.  £40.
LET’S PLAY DOCTORS  ‘I carry it with me always.’ Dr. M. Chaikin.  £35
LET’S PLAY TALKING  ‘Don’t believe a word of it.’ Rosa Levin. £35.
LET’S PLAY ANIMAL TRAINING ‘Another gem from the Sam/Rosa stable.’ Simon Frazer. £35.
LET’S PLAY HOW AND WHY with Sam and Rosa. 150 edition, folded, sewn.  £35.
PETER LANYON. THE CUTTINGS  Presenting the idea that this painter was driven by narrative as much as by images.  £250.

A FAIRY FIND (Portobello Books) Clothbound, full colour hardback. £12.99. Newspaper reviews: ‘Buy it or the fairies will get you.’ ‘A droll charming meditation on the power of the imagination.’ ‘A powerful, disorientating, idiosyncratic book.’
CIRCULAR WALKS AROUND ROWLEY HALL (Atlas Press) £18. Winner of Cornish Gorseth Adult Fiction Award. This is a selection from the “rst twelve Rowley books. ‘Inspiring, inventive, irreverent.’ ‘A literal visualisation of a joyous creativity is brought into being – a tour de force.’ ‘The iconoclastic insights and sparkling invention made me frequently laugh out loud with delight.’ Alison Oldham, Hampstead and Highgate Express.


Youtube Channel

‘Though Half of Me is Human’ by Andrew Lanyon with Angeline Morrison and Nigel Bispham. Animated by Paul Spooner.

Teddy’s Book of Nkots by Andrew Lanyon featuring Bill Scott and Dave Slater. Music by Pete Jones

About Andrew Lanyon
From 1966 – 1968 studied at the London School of Film Technique. Co-organised the Durham Surrealist Festival and produced a catalogue. Spent several years as a freelance photographer. Co-produced the Casual Eye, an exhibition about snapshots for Northern Arts. Assistant editor of Ambit poetry magazine for a short time.
In 1976 constructed The Rooks of Trelawne – a major touring exhibition for the Photographers Gallery (London), accompanied by a book. This was followed by another touring exhibition with a book, The Vanishing Cabinet.
In 1987 began self publishing letterpress books.
During the mid nineties, returned to film. The first to be released was Splatt dhe Wertha (Plot for Sale), a Cornish language film directed by Bill Scott which won the Golden Torc award at the 18th Celtic Film Festival in 1997.


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