Having devoured every word and illustration in Julian Francis and Martin Andrews's sumptuous book about the life and work of Rena Gardiner, and engaged in a very un-pretty tog-of-war over it, Bookhound and I immediately set off to visit some of our usual bric-a-brac and second-hand book haunts to see if we might come across any of her books.
Rena published forty-five books in her lifetime and once we had seen the pictures we were kicking ourselves. Racking our brains...had we bought any for the children when we used to visit National Trust properties around us here back in the day because Rena wrote, illustrated, printed and published a series of child-oriented guides to both Cotehele and Lanhydrock locally, and don't ask how many others we have passed over in second hand shops and on market stalls without realising their provenance.
We did quite well on Foray No 1 taking in Topsham and Lyme Regis and coming home with some bargains found at the bottom of boxes and lying forgotten at the back of shelves.
This was good news the books are still out there. Francis and Andrews' book does much to increase Rena Gardiner's profile and I agree with them, she most certainly deserves to be better known, so get out there and get looking everyone, rummage around those bins of old National Trust guidebooks in the charity shops and start to enjoy the exuberance and sheer cleverness of this brilliant artist.
Rena Gardiner cited Eric Ravilious, Edward Bawden and John Piper as major influences; John Piper also born in her home town of Epsom and with whom it is clear she felt that sense of local and artistic affinity. On leaving school (I still haven't discovered which school but it must have been very near to mine in Cheam) in 1946 Rena attended Kingston School of Art where she studied graphic art on a course which also included book binding and calligraphy, as well as printing and lithographic processes, all skills that would serve her well as she developed into a one-woman cottage industry and producing her own books from start to finish in later life.
A young Rena also met Joan Hassall and an elderly Gwen Raverat at an exhibition given by the Society of Wood Engravers on one of her many youthful excursions to London. Gwen Raverat, the revered woodcut engraver and likewise Joan Hassall, talented and in-demand and Joan the first woman to be admitted to the renowned Art Workers Guild founded by William Morris, later becoming its first female Master. Whilst Rena Gardiner, as her career progressed, had little interest in self-promotion or fame it must have been a meeting for her to savour. Interestingly, I thought... Joan Hassall was a perfectionist, 'often re-cutting blocks that did not entirely please her' (this according to an article I came across by coincidence in an old edition of This England magazine on the Tinker's shelves,) Rena Gardiner though loved and embraced the happy accident.
Looking at her work Bookhound and I have been deeply impressed by Rena's precision and accuracy, especially evident in the lino cuts created in the last years of her life and we saw those and great deal more thanks to a chance conversation followed by a phone call to Rachel Hunt, the House and Collections Manager at Cotehele. The archive was packed up and days away from being moved to the Dorset History Centre but if we wanted to go and look through it and promised to put it all back in the right boxes, we would be most welcome.
Faced with a phalanx of carefully labelled brown boxes it was a case of where on earth to start, but to open a box and find the original lino cuts was like discovering the map of Rena's amazing life...
Back to the beginning and all the sources of her inspiration... notes, scrap books, albums of photographs, sketches, mock ups of books, calligraphy, it was all here...
Here the sketch for Mullion Cove in Cornwall followed by the lino cut..
Rena revived her interest in lino cutting later in her life and the originals were fine examples of what an artist on our Drawn to the Valley Open Studios adventure last year called 'suicide' plates. A layer printed and then successive parts cut away from the lino, more layers of paint added to the print run and never to be repeated. It's a wonderful (and to my mind brave) technique ensuring and guaranteeing that only a limited number are produced...
We could have stared at them all day and, apart from a brief sojourn in the restaurant for coffee and cake, we did. Box after box of treasures.
Little mock-ups for the books that Rena would eventually draw up, print and bind herself..
If it stops raining (rubbish about that oak before ash thing) we are going to take this book out and do a Rena Gardiner trail around the Cornish coast before the holidaymakers arrive, so hopefully much more about it soon
There were boxes of original prints too and a few for sale.
In the end we couldn't stop ourselves, it seemed right to take home a wonderful reminder of an inspirational discovery, though we were torn between this one of the Cornish engine house...
Or maybe this one of the dovecot at Cotehele...
But settling in the end for this one...
Sycamore Shadows : The South Front (1998 12 x 16 ½ ins) Cotehele on a spring day. It is a place we go to often, this a walk we do each time and one that fills me with that sense of anticipation about the house through the archway and the orchards and gardens beyond.
We skipped back to the car with a spring in our step, the sort that you have after a really special day and with everything we had seen in the Rena Gardiner archive buzzing around in our heads. Who knew that the chance purchase of one book would lead to so much enjoyment.