Rena Gardiner: Artist and Printmaker

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Rena Gardiner: Artist and Printmaker

Rena Gardiner: Artist and Printmaker

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I love the little vignettes that she has included in the BSG mural, they show a different side to her that’s also in the work she did for children’s books. I wanted this side to come out in our book so we’ve included a board game she designed for a leaflet and a puzzle inspired by Lindisfarne – there’s a more playful side of her on show, which is nice to see and I wish there was more of it. There’s also a wonderful drawing of the sculpture of Eve by Gislebertus that shows she was a very accomplished draughtsman as well. Rena Gardiner dedicated her life to her art, doing so alone in a thatched cottage in the heart of Dorset. Combining the great tradition of British topographic artists with the rich era of autolithography of the 1940s and 1950s, she created her own very personal and individual visual style. An unsung heroine of printmaking, uninterested in publicity or fame, she created an artistic legacy that is instantly recognisable for its exuberant use of colour and texture.

We’ll never know, but there are tantalising glimpses of Rena’s character throughout her work, such as in the enormous 10ft x 30ft mural made for Bournemouth School for Girls in 1960/61 to commemorate the original school buildings at the Lansdowne ahead of its move to a purpose-built campus close to Castle Lane. Lessons are captured in full swing, there’s an art class on the balcony, a school photograph being taken… and Rena includes herself astride her red scooter. With more space in which to work if not live, within five years she had given up teaching and was focussing all her efforts on The Workshop Press producing books for clients including the National Trust. She shied away from publicity, although articles about her work did appear from time to time, had little interest in critical acclaim and not much more in financial dividends. She wanted the guidebooks to do well, they paid the bills, but the work was its own reward. I’ve not been told this but I suspect she didn’t suffer fools well,’ he says. ‘She was not naturally gregarious and did not participate in village life at Tarrant Monkton of drinks and dinner parties. She would though, if asked, gladly help out with cards to be sold for church funds, but generally she just got on with her work and saw the small circle of friends she knew from her days as a teacher.’ We did the book to raise Rena’s artistic profile in the hope she might gain the recognition she appeared to have little interest in during her lifetime,’ says Julian. ‘Up until now the interest in her work has largely been a few nerdy collectors who happened upon it and fell in love with it, as I did when I first came to Dorset in 1980. I’ve collected her books ever since, but where there used to be 30 or 40 books readily available online at any one time, today there are only nine. So I think the book and the publicity surrounding can take some responsibility for that and it’s no bad thing as it is bringing Rena Gardiner’s fantastic work to a wider audience.’ A guide book to Corfe Castle came out in 1963. A copy was seen by a Canon of Salisbury Cathedral who proposed she illustrate a new guidebook for that building. She printed 3000 copies of this in 1964, which in turn led to a similar commission for St Georges Chapel Windsor in 1966. Further self-published books on other cathedrals and churches followed.Originally hand-printed and bound for friends in an edition of just 30, Rena Gardiner’s ‘Portrait of Dorset’ has recently been reissued by Design For Today. It is rightly considered to be her masterpiece, writes Jon Woolcott. In 1960 she produced her first book on Dorset: Portrait of Dorset, drawing directly on to the lithographic plates, and experimenting with texture. She applied colour instinctively as the plates were being printed – no two books were the same. She produced 30 numbered copies. This first book on the artist and printmaker Rena Gardiner (1929–1999) is long overdue. Her guidebooks to historic places, buildings and the countryside have an idiosyncratic style that is unique in post-war British art. Her principal achievement was some 45 books, all of which she wrote, illustrated and printed herself, and of which no two copies are the same. But her legacy also includes paintings, pastels and linocut prints. Her collectors and admirers are many, and in recent years a new generation of artists and printmakers have discovered her work, helping to spread the word and foster the recognition she merits.

One of the earliest known views dates from 1814 when J.M.W. Turner included it in a sketch of Cotehele. Guidebooks throughout the 19th century refer to the tower (which doesn’t seem to have a name) and the ‘most extensive and finely varied view’ which could be obtained from the top. It is simply ‘tower’ on early Ordnance Survey maps, but is known today as the Prospect Tower.

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Cotehele stands just on the Cornwall side of the river Tamar that forms the boundary with Devon. The estate was the ancient seat of the Edgcumbes, but by the 18th century it was a secondary residence, with the family preferring nearby Mount Edgcumbe, overlooking Plymouth Sound. On high ground above the house at Cotehele stands this solitary three-sided tower, of which little seems to be known. No inscriptions give even a hint of its history. The publication of Rena Gardiner: Artist and Printmaker, which includes an exhaustive list of her books, leaflets, cards and prints, has shone a light – albeit belatedly – on this most unsung of Dorset art figures and yet even now she remains something of an enigma. How pleasing. ◗ Her archive held at Dorset History Centre reveals not only examples of her work but also the whole process from the original sketches, the drawings on film, the metal plates and the linocuts. We also have examples of the completed books in Local studies. Her books are now highly sought after and collector’s items. As Rena Gardiner was a printer and lithographer by profession, The Baguette Press have decided to print the books lithographically, rather than the cheaper option of digital printing, to keep it in line with the spirit of Rena’s work.

Rena Gardiner was born in Epsom, where her father was an electrical engineer but also a skilled technical artist. In 1946 she enrolled at nearby Kingston School of Art to study graphics. During her time there she took the opportunity to visit as many exhibitions as she could and found herself inspired not by traditional art forms such as painting and etching but by much more modern artists and their techniques.She discovered the works of Edmund Bawden, John Piper and Eric Ravilious all of whom practiced lithography. She also discovered Kenneth Clark’s project Recording Britain and works by then unfashionable early landscape artists such as John Sell Cotman and Thomas Girtin. However, perhaps her purest artistic expressions are to be found in the work she did entirely for her own reasons. This required her to put on a dress and hat in which she felt most awkward; returning home she was relieved to don her normal practical attire of trousers and polo shirt,’ notes Julian in his text for the book.The Rena Gardiner Collection is held at DHC and, whilst it is not fully catalogued, it comprises of various preparatory drawings, transparencies, printing plates and lino cuts. We also have a collection of her publications and correspondence. March, daily Fine Foundation Gallery, Durlston Country Park, Swanage, 01929 424443, The primary technique she used was autolithography. This is a process when the drawing is taken from the original sketches and transferred on to clear film and then on to a metal plate. Rena did not work from a completed drawing. She used her judgement to build on the layers of hand mixed colour. Rena Gardiner’s guidebooks to historic places, buildings and the countryside have an idiosyncratic style that is unique in post-war British art. Enthusiasts for her work and admirers of her lithographic techniques have avidly collected her books. In recent years a new generation of artists and printmakers have discovered her work, helping to spread the word and foster the recognition she so richly deserves. Rena followed on in the great tradition of British topographic artists and from the rich era of autolithography of the 1940s and 50s, creating her own very individual and personal visual style. Independent, self-reliant, Rena dedicated her life to the writing, illustrating and printing of her books, working alone in her thatched cottage in the heart of Dorset. An unsung heroine of printmaking, uninterested in publicity or fame, she created a body of work that is instantly recognisable for its exuberant use of colour and texture. Her technique was completely her own, and bridged the gap between the studio print and commercial production – between the fine art of the private press and mainstream publishing. Because of the hand-crafted nature of her process, no two books of hers are the same. The illustrations in this book are from drawings made directly onto lithographic aluminium plates. They are therefore originals and not reproductions of drawings made on paper.’

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