Words by Sharon Keene
Capturing the architecture and geology of Cornish sea caves in alluring and powerful paintings.
It is well known that Cornwall’s light attracts many artists to its shores, but at first glance Sarah Adams appears to have turned away from the sun, preferring the darkness of sea caves to the brilliance of big skies. Yet light illuminates her paintings, picking out sharp edges and facets, or the meniscus of a tidal pool. The presence of water carries it further still, reflecting up into the cavernous space. As the eye adjusts, hidden riches appear, in jewel-like colours of algae and the mineral-rich stone. “Light waves curve, and it’s more pronounced when the source is narrow,” she says. “Think of a white room, and how the light creeps in, gently delineating everything with minute tonal variations, the subtlety of it. This effect is magnified in a cave.”
Sarah’s love of the coast began as a child, on family holidays in Cornwall. She later attended Falmouth School of Art, continued her studies at Cheltenham and the Royal College of Art, and after graduating spent time in London, South India and then Jersey, where her focus turned to coastal landscape. The intertidal zone, that liminal space between land and sea, has always fascinated her, but on settling in Padstow, almost two decades ago, she turned her attention to the more architectural features of the tide line; the nooks and crannies so often overlooked.
“The Cornish coast is so varied, and the geology so rich; riddled with caves and natural arches,” she says. “The slate grey might be tinged with mauve or turquoise, criss-crossed by ribbons of quartz, while in contrast, the granite of Nanjizal is patterned with massive porphyritic crystals. There is a richness of texture too, and the fault lines and folds are testament to millions of years of intense heat and pressure.” Sarah lovingly recreates the structures and atmospheres of these mysterious places in her canvases: the caves, coves, cliffs and rock formations that undercut north Cornwall’s coastal edges.
Reaching her subjects isn’t always easy – some rarely reveal themselves – and meticulous planning and research is a necessary part of the job. Some places, she says, are only accessible once or twice each year, while others are relatively easy to get to, yet so changeable that each encounter is quite authentic and unique. “Every outing offers something new,” she explains. “Some of the most recent paintings of Newtrain Bay, also known as Rocky Beach at Trevone, are subjects I’ve revisited.” This natural arch, in fact, she first painted over a decade ago. “The elements have been busy; sections of cliff have fallen away, shapes have altered, and new vantage points created. It is a dynamic environment, made more so by changing sea levels and frequent storms, and the paintings have become a document, a record of that process.”
Documentation is key to Sarah’s way of working. Carrying a sketchbook, rather than a camera, she draws from direct observation, reconstructing the subject in pencil sketches and small colour studies, stone by stone. Each mark requires a proper understanding of the subject, and in looking so intently everything is not only recorded on paper, but committed to memory. The experience of being there, the light conditions on the day, the sound of the sea or the wind whistling through, all contribute to the finished painting.
Back in her studio, preparation may involve further composition sketches, to decide size and shape, and then linen is stretched, sized and primed. The painted surface is built up over many working sessions, and the finished piece may take a year to complete. “They don’t really get interesting until they’ve been on the go for a few months,” she says. “Waiting for the paint to dry before it’s worked again, each layer providing the foundation for the next. Oil paintings are a laminate, and light penetrates and surrounds the pigment, which enriches the image. It’s rather like working in a cave in some ways, the colours begin to glow as time goes by.”
In her studio, two storeys above Padstow’s narrow streets, Sarah’s current series includes subjects from Land’s End to Welcombe Mouth, just across the Devon border, with occasional forays to the south coast, and the Roseland. “The base of the cliffs are often more rounded, worn smooth by constant attrition, but as you look up, the rocks become more friable, more angular. This was particularly apparent at Welcombe,” she says. “Resolving the first of a new series always feels like an important moment, and so it was with this. The initial studies were done on site a few years ago, after quite a scramble across boulders along the shoreline at Welcombe Mouth, on an extra low spring tide. “This wonderful arch pierces a tall, narrow stack, which stands at the southern end of the bay. The strata are almost vertical, and from the land they resemble a wave at the point of breaking, massive blocks suspended, on the verge of peeling off like froth. The patch of sand revealed for barely twenty minutes before the sea reclaimed it.”
Closer to home, the Camel Estuary is another of her favourite subjects, whether it’s a quick sketch made out walking her Border Collie, Dab, or engaging in a larger project. Many visitors associate this part of Cornwall with rolling dunes and wide beaches at low tide, but again, Sarah seeks out a new perspective. She took advantage of a drop in the level of the sand to squeeze into a narrow cut in the cliff on a misty morning, where an unusual feature, a ‘handshake’ of rock, forms a small arch. Brea Hill, just visible, draws the eye across the water, lending scale and context to the finished piece.
There is often an urgency to working in this environment, she explains, and a need to gather as much information as possible before the tide comes in, or the light changes. “I sometimes have to rely on a kind of shorthand on site, resorting to visual reporting at the expense of experimentation, but drawing can also be a far more open ended and contemplative process; not a means to an end, but an end in itself.” In a sketchbook filled with ‘small events’, minute details are carefully observed, tiny features that may pass unnoticed in the larger landscape: the way water leaves a memory of its movement across the sand, or a breeze ruffles the surface of still water. A single droplet sends concentric circles racing across a pool, echoed by shadows on the pebbles beneath.
Homing in on this aspect of the coast in a new series of graphic works on gesso, Sarah explores the ephemeral and fleeting nature of tidal pools in ink, liquid charcoal and conte, capturing reflections, ripples and eddies, and a suggestion of what lies within. Sarah’s studio is full to the brim with books and treasures, mineral specimens and gleanings from the strand line, and work in progress fills the walls, while some of the finished works are on show in the gallery downstairs. She is also one of the very few living artists to exhibit at the Maas Gallery in London, since Rupert Maas, the BBC Antiques Roadshow picture specialist, discovered Sarah’s work in 2006 and offered to represent her on the spot. He has championed her paintings ever since, hosting a series of solo shows, sometimes across two venues, and taking individual works to Grosvenor House and TEFAF in Maastricht.
A ninth exhibition will open on 27th September this year, the first major collection of Sarah’s work since 2018. Previous shows have generated great excitement among collectors, who have queued – and even camped out – to obtain a particular piece. There’s a certain inevitability to learning that acquiring an Adams is almost as challenging as it is for Sarah to reach her subject. There’s an undefinable, evocative allure to these paintings, possibly best explained by Rupert Maas himself. “Looking at caves with Sarah Adams is to marvel with her at the natural cathedral shapes, the textures and patterns of geology, and the play of light over rock and pool,” he says. “She paints so honestly and intelligently, you can’t help but love her pictures because they are not about her, they’re about what she sees, and she loves it.”
Sarah Adams: A New Collection shows from 27th September to 13th October at The Maas Gallery, London.