This spring, The Old Coastguard in Mousehole hosts an exhibition dedicated to the turbulent seas of Mount’s Bay.
Words by Lucy Studley
There can be few better settings for a solo show exploring the powerful vitality – and volatility – of the sea than The Old Coastguard in Mousehole. As its name suggests, the Victorian building was once a coastguard lookout point overseeing an all-too perilous stretch of coast. Now a soulful 15-room hotel and restaurant, the homely interiors (think Bloomsbury set, transported to the Cornish coast) provide perfect shelter from whatever weather the Atlantic might disgorge on the shoreline beyond the hotel’s garden gate.
For the small village of Mousehole, centred on its historic harbour, the sea has both bestowed riches and claimed countless lives. The awesome power of the sea and its life-giving qualities are the subject of oil painter Penny Rumble’s solo show, which will hang in the restaurant and bar area at The Old Coastguard until the 11th June.Meticulously planned by Penny’s fellow artist and curator Gillian Cooper, the show consists of 14 canvases, most of which are on a dramatic scale. “It will be quite an immersive experience for our guests, diners and art lovers who come to visit specifically to see the show over the next few months,” says Gillian. “Penny’s work is absorbing and exhilarating – you can almost feel the salty spray when you’re in a room surrounded by these wonderful paintings!” Alongside the work is displayed an extract from John Masefield’s poem, Sea Fever, from which the exhibition takes its title: ‘I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied.’
It’s a call which resonates strongly with Penny – an avid sea swimmer. From her home studio a mile or so inland from the shores of Mount’s Bay, Penny often succumbs to the irresistible pull of the sea. “When we moved to Cornwall in 2008, I decided then and there that sea swimming would be part of my life,” explains Penny. “I swim all year round now, and have even co-authored a book with my friend Sand Rothwell documenting our swimming adventures in Mount’s Bay.” Swimming Mount’s Bay tells the story of an aquatic journey of 8.5 miles, undertaken in 15 swims. Each swim is helpfully documented, with detailed information of entry and exit points including a log of the crucial post-swim cake and coffee spots, of which The Old Coastguard is one of course.
Understanding this passion of Penny’s for cold water immersion – a health-giving act when performed with common sense and respect for the sea – is vital context for her work. Many generations of artists have painted Cornish seas, but it’s unusual to find it as pure subject matter. ‘Clifftop painters,’ capturing swathes of sky, rugged coastline and the sea outwards to an unbroken horizon are much easier to find. But Penny’s canvases place the viewer firmly in the sea itself, our perspective is one of the swimmer, either navigating the waters, or contemplating launching in.
“I often think about painting when I’m swimming,” says Penny. “I’ve swum with an underwater camera before, and that desire to capture the behaviour of the water is always hovering in my mind when I’m in the sea.” A real understanding of the behaviour of our coastal waters, gained by sometimes painful experience, is another quality which sets Penny’s work apart. Her training as a zoologist taught her to observe nature closely – an instinct which has never left her. “When your laser-like focus is on one subject, i.e. the sea, it has to look real,” she explains. “That seems an obvious thing to say, but you must consider the natural behaviour of waves and tides at that distance from the shore, plus the impact of wind direction and how the light hits the water at certain times of day... So, the paintings might appear abstract on the surface, loosely painted, and emotionally charged, but in actual fact there’s a scientific element to them as well.”
Penny always carries a sketchbook, where she makes notes as well as watercolour sketches, and often has a camera slung over her shoulder. In the studio, she surrounds herself with these snippets of inspiration, gradually imbibing them as visual aids while she prepares her canvas. First a thick layer of gesso is applied and allowed to dry. This gives the canvas a distinctively rich texture and is the first layer of what will become a thick, almost pliable body of paint.
In some ways, Penny’s method verges on the sculptural, as she creates a relief-like surface. She applies layers of paint, preferring oil to acrylic as it dries slowly and therefore can be manipulated for longer. It’s an energetic, physical process. “When they learn I’m a painter, people often start talking about how therapeutic and relaxing it must be,” recalls Penny. “I’m afraid that’s not the case for me personally! Painting in this way is visceral and quite exhausting. It’s intense and requires concentrated effort, the outcome of which is sometimes frustration but more often it’s uplifting and very rewarding.”
Penny labours away, applying shades of white, grey and blue, often using her hands to smear and manipulate the paint as she works across the canvas. A palette knife is a favourite tool, used to reveal earlier layers or flick paint onto the canvas. She might sweep a small cloth across an area to suggest passages of water pressed smooth by wind. “There must be areas of calm within a painting, otherwise there’s nowhere for the eye to rest,” explains Penny.
Like many painters, Penny finds it difficult to define when a painting is finished. “Because oil paint takes so long to completely dry, there’s always a risk I’ll return to a canvas and that can be problematic. However, what generally happens is that I look at a painting and decide that it’s overly worked, so I strip back the layers, smooth and simplify in certain places, finding a better balance across the whole composition.”
Penny’s work is distinctively modern, yet her canvases look fantastic when juxtaposed with antique furniture – another passion of hers. Alongside her husband Simon, Penny made her living as an antiques dealer when the couple lived in the Cambridgeshire fens before their move to Cornwall. Their present home near Penzance, a lovingly renovated Cornish farm dwelling with outhouses-turned-workshops, now houses the antiques business as well as Penny’s studio.
The couple plan to launch this joint venture to the public during Cornwall Open Studios in May, after which people will be able to visit both the long barn housing antique furniture and original works of art, and Penny’s painting studio. “Galleries have their place, and I am represented by some fantastic ones, but I love to show work in different settings,” explains Penny. “I think people get a more personal feel for the work when they see it in my studio, alongside these amazing pieces of handmade furniture, or in relaxed settings like at The Old Coastguard.”
You’ll also find Penny’s work on display at The Gurnard’s Head at Zennor, which is sister establishment to The Old Coastguard. Edmund Inkin, who runs the two acclaimed ‘restaurants with rooms’ alongside his brother Charles, said: “Penny has long been a favourite artist at our two Cornish outposts. Her seascapes in oils really resonate with our guests, and this solo show is incredibly impactful in the sea-facing rooms at The Old Coastguard. I would urge everyone to come and see it, have a glass of wine or stay for lunch, and let Penny’s wild and restorative seas wash over you!”
The exhibition began on 1st April and runs until the 11th June, with a ‘Meet the Artist’ talk scheduled for 20th May.