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Natural Companions

How a serendipitous friendship led to a creative cataloguing of Cornwall’s astonishing biodiversity.

Based in a wildly beautiful part of West Cornwall, like many of her peers artist Penny Rumble takes the natural world as her subject matter. Best known for her immersive seascapes which plunge the viewer into the churning waters of the Atlantic, Penny’s visceral connection with the rough-hewn protuberance of rock that is Penwith is plain to see. However, in her latest exhibition it’s a kaleidoscope of smaller details which are brought into focus one by one, as Penny draws on her zoologist training and companionship with fellow naturalist Dave Flumm to explore the captivating flora and fauna of the place she calls home. 

Penny’s academic studies and early career as a zoologist taught her to observe nature closely, a foundation which now underpins her work as a painter. For example, while her seascapes are influenced by a rich lineage of abstract painters, there’s also a closely observed figurative element to them. An avid sea swimmer, Penny has had ample opportunity to observe the natural behaviour of waves and tides, the play of wind across the water’s surface, and the mesmeric effect of ever-changing coastal light. On the thickly painted surfaces of her evocative canvases, the analytic and creative interpretations of these experiences come together. 

This first-hand experience of cold-water pursuits was shared in Swimming Mount’s Bay – an uplifting convergence of coastal exploration, nature, and art, which tells the story of an aquatic journey of eight and a half miles undertaken in 15 swims. Each swim is helpfully documented, with detailed information of entry and exit points so that the reader can follow each stroke and breath should they wish. It’s a uniquely engaging format, which Penny has returned to in her latest travelogue of the natural world. Her background and eye for scientific detail has been brought to bear in a collection of work for a major exhibition this spring, coinciding with the release of a new book. The result of a serendipitous meeting of minds, Walking with Dave charts forays around Cornwall undertaken by Penny and her friend and fellow naturalist Dave Flumm. All the original paintings and sketches from the collection will be available to see at the exhibition, which takes place at Penny’s rural studio near Penzance. 

“As an artist, I’d walked the cliffs of Cornwall many times in search of inspiration and stunning scenery,” explains Penny. “I considered myself relatively knowledgeable and engaged with the natural world. But when I happened to fall into conversation with Dave, I realised I was just scratching the surface. Along with our respective spouses we embarked on a year of walking Cornwall’s richest wildlife spots, and a kaleidoscope of amazing diversity – including some really rare species – revealed itself.” 

“I thought to myself,” Penny recalls, “here’s another journey of exploration I can take people on through my painting, in a similar way to Swimming Mounts Bay.” In an age of sensory overload, Penny’s books are a wonderful panacea. A Darwinesque slow travel guide to one of the wildest parts of the UK, with some endearing little cartoons of your tour guides (Dave and Gerda, Penny and Simon, or ‘the fab four’) thrown in, they’re an invitation to explore, discover, and reengage with the natural world. 

Penny took her camera and sketch books on these regular rambles, which included expeditions around Porthleven and the Lizard, along the Helford River, and into the depths of West Penwith to wildly beautiful places such as Kenidjack, Porthgwarra and Nanquidno. The book gives grid references for handy parking spots, so readers can follow in Penny and her companion’s footsteps, knowing which natural specimens to look out for as they walk. This treasure trove of natural history is truly eye-opening. Discover how the Pink Flowered Centaury got its name, and where to look out for the rare Black Mining Bee. Spot Charles de Gaulle in his bath (once seen, never unseen!) and learn how to discern Fungus Gnats from other flying pests. Some of the rarest birds to visit or reside in the British Isles were seen and catalogued, including an Osprey, Greenshank, Golden Plover, Great Skua, and of course, the Cornish Chough. Kingfishers, Woodpeckers, Jays and Nuthatches all make colourful cameos. Nesting Fulmars were recorded at Kenidjack but don’t get too close – these seabirds defend their nests by spitting a foul-smelling oily liquid at anything they consider a threat. 

Alongside the sketches and photos, the 30 oil paintings in this collection reverberate with energy. Penny clearly experiences a pure, almost childlike joy in her newfound depth of knowledge, translated onto the canvas in playful exuberance. Turbulent seas aren’t entirely neglected, with the awesome power of the Atlantic on display at Pendeen and Porthleven for example, but Penny also turns her hand to sedate stretches and pretty creeks of the Helford River with great success. 

“The meandering flow of a river, under overhanging boughs and tree roots exposed by the tide, was something new for me,” explains Penny. “It’s a different kind of majesty, that almost regal procession towards the open sea.” Though the subject matter is different, the tonal shifts, rich surface texture, and sense of drama of these large canvases is quintessentially Penny. 

All of the material – including maps and reference books – will be included in the exhibition at Penny’s own studio this spring, with sketches, paintings and limited-edition copies of the book for sale. “Seeing the works in situ in my home studio deep in the Cornish countryside gives a context you simply wouldn’t get from a gallery show,” she explains. Penny and husband Simon’s lovingly renovated Cornish farm dwelling is also home to the couple’s antique business, and the juxtaposition of the oil paintings with the carefully

curated pieces of furniture – all with their own stories to tell – is inspired.  “We’re very much in the wild west here, surrounded by rugged moorland and little pockets of ancient woodland, but the journey itself isn’t a trek,” Penny assures.

Penny’s studio is just ten minutes’ drive west on the A30 from Penzance and will be open from 7th April to 21st April, 10am – 5pm. All are welcome.


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