The best of Dorset in words and pictures

Prints of England

Tony Burton-Page looks at the life and work of Rena Gardiner

The mural for Bournemouth School for Girls contains many fascinating details: Rena’s motor scooter can be seen between the main buildings, and she herself is taking an art class on a balcony.

Even if the name of Rena Gardiner is not familiar to you, you may well recognise the style of her work, particularly if you live in Dorset. The three foolscap-size books she published between 1968 and 1970 (The East Winterbourne Valley, The Isle of Purbeck and Tarrant to Blandford) have been admired in the county since their first appearance: her style is so memorable that it truly is a case of ‘once seen, never forgotten’.

Martin Andrews, a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Typography at Reading University, remembers when, as a boy in 1963, he visited Corfe Castle and was entranced by the guide book on sale there because it was so very different from the dull, formal ones usually on offer: this one was highly colourful and teeming with life. He discovered that it was the work of Rena Gardiner – in fact, it was one of her first publications. Like her subsequent books, it was illustrated by lithographic prints and, because she drew directly onto the aluminium lithographic plates, they were originals and not reproductions of drawings made on paper – a point which she was always eager to make.

The front cover of one of Rena’s Dorset trilogy: this one was published in 1970

She had learnt the technique while a student at Kingston School of Art in the 1950s. When she left, she took a post as an art teacher at a grammar school in Leamington Spa. To her delight, the Leamington School of Art and Craft at Beauchamp Hill had its own printing press, so she gathered together some of her drawings of the town (and by then she had already started her lifelong custom of drawing whatever took her fancy) and asked her colleague B J Currie to write some accompanying text. The result was the appearance in 1954 of a fifty-page book with the first publication of Rena’s artwork, in an edition limited to 33 copies. She would have astonished to learn that a copy of Royal Leamington Spa was recently sold in the USA for £270.

Rena was drawn back to her roots in the south, however (she had been born in Epsom in 1929), and in September 1954 she moved to Bournemouth to start her career as art teacher at Bournemouth School for Girls, which was then at the Lansdowne site of what is now the Bournemouth and Poole College. She lodged in Bournemouth for the first year or so of her new job before moving to an 18th-century cottage in North Street, Wareham, just down the road from St Martin’s Church. This was to be her home for the next ten years.

This composite portrait of Dorset never appeared in any of Rena’s books

During the 1950s, she concentrated on her teaching, although her colleague and lifelong friend Joy Cross noticed that she could not stop herself drawing or sketching in any spare moment. When the school moved in 1960 from their old Victorian buildings to a new campus on Castle Lane, it was decided that Rena would paint a mural of the old school on the vestibule wall in the new one. It took her the best part of the Christmas Term of 1959 – Joy Cross remembers that the Head gave her a lighter timetable – and it is enormous: about ten feet high and thirty feet long. It teems with life. The grounds are full of children playing, apart from a group posing for a photograph, and even the windows of the school buildings reveal lessons going on: Joy is taking a history lesson and Rena herself has an art class on a balcony.

Now in full creative flight, Rena published her second book, Portrait of Dorset: the South-east, which was a collection of 25 drawings of places in that area which had captured her imagination, together with her own text on the opposite page. She had been working on it for over two years, and in the preface she explained why it had taken so long. ‘The illustrations have been drawn on zinc plates and each printed separately by direct or offset lithography. Each page of type has been set by hand and printed on a small platen press. Finally, the text and illustrations have been assembled and bound together. Necessarily, because of the tremendous labour involved, it is a very limited edition, which, as the printing plates have been destroyed, cannot be repeated.’ In fact, there were only thirty copies printed, the first fruits of ‘The Workshop Press’, the imprint that all Rena’s books would bear from now on.

Rena Gardiner at work with her printing press in her workshop at Tarrant Monkton.

Her next book was a move away from the ‘fine art press’ world of limited editions. It was a book of drawings of Corfe Castle with, as she put it, ‘enough text to keep the drawings apart’. It was the book that so inspired Martin Andrews. This time she printed 750 copies – but as before, she produced the whole book by herself from start to finish. This was her artistic conscience at work. Years later, when asked why she had never taken on an assistant, she simply replied: ‘It wouldn’t be my own work.’

She took copies of the book to local booksellers and persuaded them to take on a few dozen and sell them. The plan worked: this was the nearest she ever came to advertising, and she never had to do it again, for the word about this talented woman was spreading. Maurice Bond, the Honorary Custodian of the Muniments at St George’s Chapel, Windsor, saw a copy and immediately wrote to her asking if she would collaborate with him on History in St George’s Chapel, which was duly published in 1966. Canon Dawson of Salisbury was also inspired to get in touch with her when he saw the book and their History at Salisbury Cathedral was published the next year.

This print of Thomas Hardy’s cottage at Bockhampton was designed for a greetings card

From then on, Rena had enough confidence and skill to work on her own, and she rarely collaborated again. Her next project was the previously mentioned Dorset trilogy, and by now she was so busy with her printing work that she decided that she had to give up her teaching post at BSG. She had outgrown her cottage in Wareham, which was far too small to cope with a printing press and all the paraphernalia that went with it, so she moved to a cottage in Tarrant Monkton which Joy had spotted in the Echo. She adored it, and the last thirty years of her life were spent at The Thatch Cottage, a name which would adorn every book she was to produce from now on.

Several more cathedrals now commissioned books from her, among them Norwich, Rochester, Ely and Canterbury; and then the National Trust, having been initially reluctant to make use of Rena’s talent, realised what they were missing, and for the next twenty years she published an astonishing succession of beautifully-made books for them.

Each book would take about a year from start to finish. She would visit the place which was to be the subject of the book, do lots of drawings and spend time on research. Back home, she would plan the layout and draw the plates for the printing. Each colour was printed off a separate plate, so had to be drawn separately, and a picture could involve half a dozen colours or more; the combining of the colours was where Rena’s artistic judgment and skill came to the fore. After the printing, she made the books up page by page, stapled them, cut them, packed them and delivered them. As she said, ‘I do everything except make the paper!’

Corfe Castle, from Dorset: the Isle of Purbeck

It was hard, physical work and eventually it took its toll. After yet another long day in 1999, she died at home in Tarrant Monkton. There is a small memorial in All Saints’ churchyard there – but there are hundreds of others all over Dorset and beyond in the form of her books, paintings and drawings.

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