Rena Gardiner: Chronicles of Dorset

10 February 2013
Ben Pentreath

Those keen readers who have discovered my friend Ed Kluz’s website and blog will already know the discovery that he made when he and Simon were staying with me the other week. You may remember, too, my post about Bridport Books and Rosie Young, and the hectic happy evening we had when Rose and Gracie & Andrew came over for supper?  That day.

Well, tucked deep in the back shelves of Rose’s fantastically stocked bookshop, Ed found two beautiful, rather worn, extremely unusual books. It was one of those moments. Dorset: The Isle of Purbeck, and Dorset: Tarrant to Blandford, had a fascinating, handmade quality, and as Ed opened the covers and as we browsed through them—well, we were both bowled over there and then by the beautiful, rich illustrations, with their bold perspectives, powerful drafting techniques, crude but brilliant printing, and extraordinary changes of scale and texture from page to page.

Rose told us a little about Rena Gardiner, the author; but Ed, Simon and I had never heard of her.  That evening we found a link on Google (yes, this is why I love the internet) to a lecture give by Martin Andrews, of the University of Reading. If you have a spare half an hour, I suggest settling down, as I did one evening a few days later, with a good glass of red wine, and enjoying Martin’s introduction to the quiet world of this extraordinary illustrator and artist.  Ed’s blog has catalogued the details of her career, and there is also a fine appreciation by Tony Burton-Page in Dorset Life that you can read here.

What I loved learning is the fact that every book she published was written, drawn, printed and produced by Rena, all made from start to finish in her small thatched cottage in Tarrant Monkton. Later on, she did become a little better known, writing a series of beautiful guide books for the National Trust, but essentially, working as she did, quietly, and entirely by herself, Rena never achieved widespread acclaim.  She died, aged 70, in 1999.

Her books were printed in limited runs, and, produced as they were on basic printing machines in Rena’s house, each one is unique depending on precisely how much lithographic ink she was adding to the reservoirs at each moment. This individual quality shines through from every page. The colours and registration are not perfect but so much the better for it.

Intrigued, I spent a little time – without, it must be admitted, the thrill of Ed’s first discovery (nothing can beat a real discovery, made in a little bookshop, in a small town) – looking for Rena on the internet and via the excellent Abe Books. I’ve been able to find a few copies, and as I write, there are one or two still for sale (it has to be admitted, at rather eye-watering prices).

Reading Rena’s books, with their clear language, and innocent, open hand, and looking at this photograph of her, standing at her printing press in the cottage as a younger woman, one feels struck by the impression of a wonderfully benevolent, kind person; a character that exudes from each page.

Rena Gardiner, 1929-1999, Chronicler of Dorset: a remarkable inspiration.




26 comments on this post

john wykessays:

Have loved Rena’s work since the 1980’s when I first came upon the large format Dorset books in a Cardiff bookshop. Have collected ever since. I corresponded with her when I worked for Dorset County Council. Am still looking for ‘Corfe Castle’, seems hard to find. The Andrews and Francis book is absolutely gorgeous. Thank you, Ben, for your splendid images.
Hope Rena continues to receive more and more exposure and appreciation.

Julian Francissays:

Martin Andrews and I are writing a book about Rena Gardiner which we expect to be published in 2014. This will cover the books, leaflets and cards and also her free-standing artwork


Dear Julian do let us know when it comes out!!

sue millettsays:

Rena Gardiner was my art teacher at Bournemouth School for Girls in the early 60s. We only really knew her work as the enormous mural over the school hallway, seen in the mentioned video. I remember her as being very kind and also very encouraging, I went on to art school much inspired by her. Recently a friend showed me the purbeck book and it clicked, I recognised the style, and remembered her. Have just ordered the Purbeck book for myself, a bit naughty given the price! I’m sorry to see she died rather young really.

Margaret Powlingsays:

I would like to echo Philip Bewley’s comments, Ben. I love your book, too, and especially your observations about the size of bedrooms, with which I agree. Do you know, my late mother had a mocha mug but I parted with it when I was disposing of some of her things (some? That’s an understatement!) but I did keep loads of things which are now either on display or in my Resources Cupboard. I shall just have to content myself with three of the books which have struck such a chord with your readers. I love books showing such detail.

Mary Jenkinssays:

The books are wonderful and I want them all! Such a find and thank you for sharing them. Regarding your book – I of course have one and have given quite a few as presents. Love spotting the Mocha mugs as I collect them too!

I enjoyed looking at these illustrations so much that I thought I should properly thank you. These are treasures. I was immersed in each, and looking at them produces a cosy, nostalgic feeling.
Speaking of treasured books, your own book, English Decoration by Ben Pentreath is one that I treasure. I purchased it in December, and I look at it frequently. It produces a similar feeling when reading it to the one described above. Thank you.
Warm regards,

Margaret Powlingsays:

Sorry, 4th comment! But I’m so delighted you have drawn your readers’ attention to the work of this wonderful artist and print maker. I’ve now managed to buy three of her books on Abe, but the rest (those which I particularly want) are just too expensive now. But I am satisfied to have three of them.

Margaret Powlingsays:

Oh dear, I’ve now bought Cotehele, too! I should not look at your blog, Ben! The illustrations remind me partly of those by John Goodall (love his series of books without words) and also John Piper (take a look at J M Richards’ book The Castles on the Ground which is illutrated by Piper (the book, if not already familar to you, is subtitled ‘The Anatomy of Suburbia’, a book on architecture and the environment written just after WW2.)

Margaret Powlingsays:

I have managed to buy the Trerice book via Abe.

Margaret Powlingsays:

What wonderful books, what a talent! Not heard of this artist before, but I would love to have these books.

Utterly gorgeous. Thank you for sharing.

Katherine Leeeechsays:

Splendid … inspirational … tang-fastic x


I am sure I have one on Salisbury Cathedral (from a vist to UK many, many years ago) – I too, must go and look for it. Love your blog Ben, it is always so calm and beautiful. Felicity

These are wonderful- a real labour of love. I don’t know how she did it (and I speak as a printmaker myself).
It’s interesting how some artists just slip from view and others don’t. I suspect that if these books were by Ravilious or Bawden, they’d be worth a fortune by now….


Real book art.


Beautiful books, of a quality, and intensity of vision, that seems rare today. I presume one her influences was Bawden?

When I was a child, I had a Chaucer coloring book (that came with a little floppy orange record of Chaucerian English — because what child wouldn’t want to listen to that while coloring in the Wife of Bath?) and something about the font in Rena Gardiner’s book covers that you posted reminded me of that coloring book. So I looked it up on the internet — here it is: It certainly seems to share a certain handcrafted spirit. Perhaps by an admirer of hers?


I’d never heard of Rena Gardiner, but am also struck by the appealing picture of her as a young woman. Love the illustrations you’ve so kindly shared, and now will have to see if Abe books can supply me with a copy of my own! Many thanks for another charming post.


How beautiful! Thanks for sharing. I can’t imagine the hours and hours and hours that went into each drawing. Brings me back to my time in interior design school and having to do similar drawings…of much less charming spaces! I wish we saw more of this today.

Rena Gardiner means “clean curtains” in Swedish. Really.
What lovely books with wonderful illustrations. Such treasures to have on your book shelves.
I am so pleased I read your blog. A little piece of magic this time. Thankyou.


Absolutely beautiful. Thank you, Ben.

I have my favourite bookshop in North Wales and when I visit, usually once a year, I have to stop and get a few books. The books you found look so wonderful. I love the hand-drawn interiors. Very unusual. Thanks for sharing.

She is wonderful! I am lucky enough to have two of the Dorset ones and going from your photos, mine are much “greener” generally. Fascinating! I have a Corfe Castle one somewhere which I now must find!

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