I recently visited the amazing Bridport Old Books in Dorset. The owner Rosie Young, has a fantastic eye for design and illustration. The shelves are lined with unusual and rare editions with beautiful jackets by many of the big names of 20th century British illustration. However on this occasion it was an unknown illustrator which really got me excited. At the back of a cabinet I found two books by Rena Gardiner. The covers of ‘Dorset: The Isle of Purbeck’ (1969) and 'Dorset: Tarrant To Blandford’ (1970) immediately caught my eye but the highly distinctive style of the illustrations was unfamiliar. I flicked through and at every turn a wonderful representation of a historic building or landscape leapt off the page. I left with both copies under my arm and a determination to find out more about the woman behind the books.
Rena Gardiner (1929 - 1999) studied at the Kingston School of Art in the 1950s during the golden age of post war design and illustration. The early influence of another Kingston alumni John Piper resonates through her illustrations as does the work of John Minton and Kenneth Rowntree. After graduating she became a teacher at a grammar school in Leamington Spa where she produced her first illustrated book 'Royal Leamington Spa’. In 1954 she moved to Bournemouth to take up a post at a girls school. Five years later Rena was commissioned to produce a vast mural measuring 10 by 30 feet for the vestibule of the new school building. A short time after in 1960 she published her second book 'Dorset: The South East’. This project set a working template for the remainder of her publications. Each illustration was produced using offset lithography, which involved working directly onto zinc plates and building up the image layer by layer. This was to be the first of her 'Workshop Press’ books.
In 1966 she published her first commissioned guidebook for St George’s chapel at Windsor Castle. This led to another commission the following year for a guidebook to Salisbury Cathedral. Over the coming years she self published books on Canterbury, Ely, Norwich and Rochester. This in turn led to a long list of guidebook commissions from the National Trust.
Rena was an incredibly hard working and dedicated illustrator and book maker. Each book took a year to produce. She printed and bound each copy by hand which makes the books even more precious. She never marketed her work and seemingly went unnoticed by the other big publishing houses of the time. This maybe goes some way to explain why she is so little known. The extraordinary energy and skill of her work shines through and in my opinion she deserves a place alongside her more well known contemporaries.