Caught by the River

Rena Gardiner: Artist and Printmaker

15th April 2015


Rena Gardiner: Artist and Printmaker
By Julian Francis & Martin Andrews
Little Toller Books, 270 x 220mm sewn hardback printed on Munken papers
160 pages with on 150gsm Munken. Published 16 April.

The introduction to the book, written by Martin Andrews. Used with permission.

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.


With the publication of this celebration of Rena Gardiner’s work, we hope to draw attention to her considerable contribution to lithographic illustration whilst simultaneously shining a light on the broader aspects of her legacy as an artist – her paintings, pastels and linocut prints. None of this has been published before. Much of it was thought to have been lost after the sale of her estate and clearance of her studio following her death in 1999. Thankfully, during the research for this book a considerable body of her work was discovered in private hands and the archives of the National Trust at Cotehele in Cornwall. Its inclusion only serves to underline her achievement.

As a boy of eleven in 1963, I first encountered the work of Rena Gardiner when, passionate about the world of knights and castles, I bought her guide to Corfe Castle – excited and inspired by the colour and imagination of her illustrations which contrasted so much with the dull text and grey boring halftones of most guidebooks of the time. I became a keen collector of her books, and years later, in August 1993, I went to visit Rena Gardiner in her home and workshop in Tarrant Monkton and spent the day with her, recording a first-hand account of her printing techniques, artistic influences, her experiences at art school and her teaching career, and taking photographs of her at work. Much of the biographical and technical detail in the following text is taken from the tape recordings made on that day and therefore reflect her own words. She was kind and welcoming, always keen to talk about her books, surprised but delighted by my interest and attention; modest about her achievements but strong in her passion and belief in her work.


Sadly, I did not hear of Rena’s death until some years later, but in February 2010 I was contacted by Jan Gore, who had been taught by Rena at Bournemouth School for Girls. She introduced me to two of Rena’s friends and fellow teachers, Joan Shewring and Joy Cross, who were invaluable in providing background detail and printed material (sadly both have since died). Jan Gore has been an enthusiastic collaborator on this project, particularly in her research of Rena’s family history and on the archives of Rena’s work at Cotehele.

In 2013 I was also invited to meet a number of Rena’s former pupils at a meeting of the Leamington College Association (formerly Leamington College Old Girls) who were able to recall Rena’s early teaching days at their school.
Based on material donated by Joan Shewring and Joy Cross, the Department of Typography & Graphic Communication at the University of Reading has established a Rena Gardiner Collection where copies of the tape recordings made in 1993 are also housed. Because of Rena’s Dorset connections, some material is now also deposited at the Dorset History Centre in Dorchester. As part of this project we are keen to develop the collections in Reading and add to the material at Dorchester.
This is the first book to be published on the work of Rena Gardiner. The project was initiated by Julian Francis who has remained the motivating force and without whom the book would not exist.

Copies of this book are on sale in the Caught by the River shop, priced £20.