Review by Frances Castle.
‘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.’
These words were inscribed on the back covers of many of Rena Gardiners books, confirming that although you may have only spent a few pence on the book, what you were in fact buying was a hand printed work of art.
Rena Gardiner was a print maker whose work has largely gone unnoticed. From her cottage in Dorset she illustrated and produced guidebooks to historic places, buildings and the countryside. Little Toller have just published the first long overdue book on her, which includes nearly 200 illustrations from her books and prints, many which have not been seen in print before.
Rena Gardiner was born on 4 April 1929 in Epsom Surrey. She attended a local grammar school, and showed a talent for the visual arts. On leaving she enrolled at Kingston College of Art, and there, along with drawing and printing classes, she also learnt book binding and typography – skills that were to hold her in good stead later on. After this initial course she studied for a further two years on the National Diploma specialising in book illustration. It was on this course that she was introduced to lithography a printing process that was to become a passion for the rest of her life.
After leaving college Rena taught at a school in Lemmington Spa, it was during this period that she experimented with making her first lithographic book, Royal Leamington Spa (1954), printing and binding all 33 copies herself. Later that year she moved to Dorset to teach in Bournemouth, and took up residence in an eighteenth century cottage in Wareham with a garage that could be used as a print workshop.
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.
Her next book was on Corfe Castle, and it was the first she printed on her new Rotaprint offset litho machine. It was also the first book she saw as a commercial venture, hoping to sell copies to local book shops. It started to sell well and Rena was contacted by Salisbury Cathedral with a proposal for a guide book. Every spare moment of the following year was spent working on the book and 3,000 copies were produced.
By 1965 Rena had outgrown her house in Wareham and moved the Workshop Press to a thatched cottage in Tarrant Monkton that became her home for the next 30 years. It was here between 1968-70 that she produced three large format books on Dorset: The East Winderborne Valley, Dorset: The Isle of Purbeck and Dorset: Tarrat to Blandford which are probably her finest works. Unlike her later books these were not commissions, and Rena was able to experiment with interesting colour combinations, textures, and the printing process. They rejoice in her skill at drawing and describing the architecture and landscape that surrounded her.
Influenced by artists such as Eric Ravilious, Edward Bawden and John Piper, who had established their reputations before the war, Rena produced her Dorset Trilogy in the late 1960s; this may well be why her work has been ignored for so long. The books are beautifully out of time with the fast changing world of that period, and Rena herself lived a quiet and obscure life unconnected to any other artists or art scenes. While her books have been easy to pick up on eBay and in second handbook shops, it has been hard to find further information on her which is why this book is so welcome.
In 1970, Rena gave up her teaching job and dedicated all her time to print making over the course of the next 20 years she designed and printed scores of topographical guide books All of these were printed at home on her own presses, without traditional publishers or other outside help. What she did was unique, and blurred the lines between art, illustration, printmaking and publishing.
Frances Castle is an illustrator, who also runs the record label Clay Pipe Music.