Of all the 50 or so books now published by Little Toller Books (based in Toller Fratrum near Maiden Newton) the handsomest so far is arguably Rena Gardiner: Artist and Printmaker. Within days of this book appearing in late April, copies were being advertised online for £50; its cover price is £20.
That kind of inflation is quite something when you consider that very few people have ever heard of Rena Gardiner (pictured above), whose main productions for many years were guidebooks for the National Trust (on places such as Montacute in Somerset), Salisbury Cathedral, abbeys and churches, stately homes and castles, towns, villages and archaeological sites.
This is the first book about her life and work. The authors Martin Andrews and Julian Francis say her story was “extraordinary” but it doesn’t really feel that way when you’re reading about her life. The sense of a vanished world is more striking. Rena was born in Epsom in 1929, went to a girls’ grammar school then Kingston School of Art, became a girls’ grammar school art teacher in Leamington Spa (remembered as “a strong, stocky figure with unruly hair and usually dressed in a tweed skirt and jacket with open-toed sandals”), moved to Wareham, taught art at Bournemouth School for Girls (another grammar; she used to go into work on a Lambretta), moved to Tarrant Monkton near Blandford, produced four big books about Dorset, guides to Corfe Castle, Salisbury Cathedral and St George’s Chapel in Windsor, had a minor breakdown, gave up teaching, went into full-time production of guides and prints, pastels and paintings, sometimes working 18 hours a day, died instantly of a heart attack in 1999. She loved travelling, never married, and seems to have preferred either her own company or that of female friends. She would read Trollope aloud to her companions on the beach.
Why the fuss about her now? Why has this book been flying out in its hundreds? Well, it’s steeped in affection for its subject, and gives a very good account of her working methods, which were unusual. Author, artist, publisher and printer, Rena did everything herself. Pictures of her cottage show it crammed with publications and equipment. Martin Andrews writes:
“Her work exemplifies the process known as auto-lithography, that had become popular amongst artists and illustrators in the 1940s and 1950s… in autolithography the artist draws directly onto the lithographic stone or plate with no intervention of another hand or photography. The artist is in control of the process and the spontaneity and character of the artist’s drawing is captured. It offers a freedom of expression and a chance to experiment with texture and colour which stimulates the artist’s imagination. Autolithography has economic advantages too, cutting out expenses for photography, copyists and retouchers, which added to its popularity during the austerity of the war.”
Hence the value and attractiveness of this celebration of Rena’s work. There are nearly 200 illustrations in the book, and they vary in quality and interest, but many — particularly ones from the 50s and early 60s — do have a very appealing freshness, vitality and charm.
‘Ravilious, Bawden, Nash and all that lot’
Rena’s main influences in the late 40s and early 50s, when her style was largely formed, are said to be John Piper, Eric Ravilious and Edward Bawden — just as nowadays the much-collected Cattistock-based linocut-maker Liz Somerville is inspired by “Ravilious, Bawden, Nash and all that lot”. (Liz Somerville’s new exhibition Path to Hambledon is at The Art Stable in Child Okeford from 13 June to 11 July, open Wednesdays to Saturdays).
Which raises an intriguing possibility that it’s worth briefly pursuing, just for the fun of it. Has the most popular and successful Dorset art of the last 75-80 years been Neo-Romantic? Piper, Nash and Graham Sutherland (particularly with his 1939 painting Entrance to a Lane) were the founding fathers of Neo-Romanticism, but it’s a notoriously difficult thing to define. Summarising wildly, it’s obsessed with an idea of the Spirit of Place that’s heavily influenced by DH Lawrence: “The spirit of place is a strange thing. Our mechanical age tries to override it. But it does not succeed.”
The most provocative account of Neo-Romanticism is probably still a piece by William Feaver, published in the London Magazine in June / July 1972. It’s hard to find but it’s well worth seeking out. One of the attractions of Feaver’s piece is that it sees the entire phenomenon through the lens of Geoffrey Household’s 1939 thriller Rogue Male, in which the hero seeks to assassinate a European dictator (based on Hitler, whom Household despised; this was the germ of the book — as Household told The Times in 1988 — ‘The man had to be dealt with, and I began to think how much I would like to kill him”). Pursued back to England by enemy agents, eager to eliminate him, the hero comes down to Dorchester, goes to and from Weymouth to buy a dodgy trailer, bikes the old Roman road to Eggardon Hill, moves on through the sleeping village of Powerstock and heads for the Marshwood Vale:
“At half-past twelve I was on the ridge of a half-moon of low rabbit-cropped hills, the horns of which rested upon the sea, enclosing between them a small, lush valley. The outer or northern slopes look down upon the Marshwood Vale. Here I passed out of the chalk into the sandstone: the lanes, worn down by the packhorses of a hundred generations plodding up from the sea on to the hard, dry going of the ridges, were fifteen feet or more below the level of the fields. These trade-worn cantons of red and green upon the flanks of the hills are very dear to me.”
‘Rogue Male remains an excellent gazetteer of the highways and byways of neo-Romanticism’
He then burrows into the earth, amid the roots, behind a camouflaged entrance of thorns in an old sunken lane somewhere north of Chideock. (Personally, I’ve always thought that Household was switched-on by the name of Quarr Hill — as the Rogue Male is the quarry — the target, the object of the hunt — but he’s also careful to specify: “It is not marked on the map.”)
Anyway, as Feaver says, “the novel remains an excellent gazetteer of the highways and byways of neo-Romanticism.”
He adds: “Rogue Male was clearly designed to make time stand still with excitement, to be lapped up with a box of Black Magic at hand to steady the nerves; and British neo-Romantic art was equally contrived as a revivalist, escapist, luxuriantly self-indulgent native growth, largely for private consumption… Its manners flourished over the war-conscious years, more or less coinciding with the last Georgian age, 1937-52, from the Abdication crisis to the conquest of Everest.
“It was essentially a pastiche art: part of the neo-Regency cult… against showcase cellular housing and abstract systematising.”
I wouldn’t necessarily apply the term pastiche, but this is one way of looking at the background to Rena Gardiner’s career. Is it too contrived to think that her first book Portrait of Dorset: The South-East (1960), of which fewer than 40 copies were created, all different, was “a revivalist, escapist, luxuriantly self-indulgent native growth, largely for private consumption”? Or to read a line like “These trade-worn cantons of red and green upon the flanks of the hills are very dear to me” and not mentally summon up prints by Liz Somerville (which again all differ because of her techniques)?
At the end of Rogue Male, the hero kills the Nazi agent Quive-Smith in a condignly ingenious manner and escapes to the Mediterranean. This development Feaver also relates to Neo-Romanticism: “Just as after the Napoleonic wars Turner had rushed off to Italy, and, delivered from his burrow, the Rogue Male dyed himself brown, sleeked back his hair and sailed to Tangier under new credentials, the neo-Romantically inclined went abroad…”
He’s thinking partly of John Craxton, another of the leading Neo-Romantics, inspired by William Blake and Samuel Palmer, mentored by Sutherland, whose works are currently on display in a major exhibition at the Dorset County Museum in Dorchester. Craxton’s early links with Dorset are normally glossed over in favour of writing about his extraordinarily well-connected beginnings in London — he knew everybody — but A Poetic Eye: John Craxton — A Life in Art from Cranborne Chase to Crete (on till 19 September, 2015) covers Craxton’s entire career in detail, including boyhood stays with his uncle — the artist Cecil Waller — in Minchington near Farnham, wartime spells at Alderholt Mill with the textile designer EQ Nicholson and late-in-life return visits to Cranborne Chase. The show also includes much work from his travels in Greece, badly reviewed in the 60s but now being re-assessed.
The Gardiner book includes a selection of images deriving from her many holidays abroad; her pictures of Venice are probably too reminiscent of John Piper. The critical consensus is that the Neo-Romantic manner doesn’t work so well abroad. But it does seem to be well-suited to Dorset. Or — put another way — there seems to be a taste in this part of the world for it that has never been stronger.