DEREK G.M. GARDNER
Gardner is widely considered to be the leading British maritime painter of the 20th century. Entirely self-taught, he became a master of his art with an unmatched skill for conveying the colour, luminosity and atmosphere of the maritime setting.
Gardner’s own life and upbringing was closely linked to the sea: his father was the Chief Engineer of the Clyde Trust and the Port of Glasgow, and he himself joined the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve as a midshipman in 1934. Although not classically trained, Gardner won a drawing prize and trained as a civil engineer, both indicative of the technical accomplishment he would bring to his work.
During The Second World War, he served in the Royal Navy on armed trawlers and destroyers in the North Atlantic and in the Mediterranean Sea. A particular moment of note in his WWII Naval carreer was Gardner’s participation in the naval attack on Algiers against Vichy France as part of Operation Terminal. Gardner recounts his memory of the assault aboard HMS Broke, carrying a detachment of US Rangers, as follows: 'We charged the boom at 25 knots just as daylight was coming, expecting it to be mined, but there was no explosion. We broke the boom and landed our troops, but the French brought up mortars and guns and we came under heavy fire. I went ashore to deal with a blazing warehouse. As the ship was sitting target alongside the quay, the only course was to retire. This we then did under intense gunfire, sustaining many hits as we cleared the harbour.'
Two days later Broke sank from the damage on its return to Gibraltar, although the crew was rescued by a passing destroyer. Having lost his hearing in one ear from the noise of the firefight, Gardner bore a mark of this experience for the rest of his life. Serving with distinction throughout the war, Gardner was mentioned in dispatches for distinguished service and left in 1948 with the rank of Commander.
Though Gardner held a lifelong interest in marine painting, evidenced by his watercolours of battleships when serving as a midshipman in the 1930s, his emergence as a highly sought-after maritime artist only came after his retirement from the Colonial Service and return to England in 1963. Before this point he had largely painted imagery of the Kenyan highlands while he worked there with his wife Mary, who he met at a dance in Mombasa. Consequently, having just lost the hearing in his other ear from an attack of Tick Typhus, and brought home by Kenyan independence, it was not clear that the most celebrated phase of his career was just about to begin.
Gardner had approached Gladwell & Company prior to his return from Kenya and Herbert Fuller immediately recognised his immense talent and a budding relationship began. It was thus that when Gardner settled in Dorset and began to restore an old cottage on the coast, his love for painting the ocean and the ships that sailed it re-emerged with stunning success. Lauded not only for his detailed historical observations but particularly his ability to depict the weather and water that frame and inform his subjects, Gardner’s works soon found favour with our clients. Quickly able to build a studio, Gardner was able to devote his days to paintings and his evenings to immersing himself in Naval History.
By 1988 the Royal Society of Marine Artists elected Gardner as their honorary vice-president for life, an accolade that stands testament to his position as the foremost maritime artist in the country. In 2005, as part of celebration of the bicentenary of the Battle of Trafalgar, an exhibition of his work featuring a painting of every ship in which Nelson served was presented in London, another indication of his national importance. Today his work is ubiquitous in texts on contemporary marine painting, and his paintings are featured in public collections including the pantheon of maritime culture, the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. That he achieved all of this despite only devoting his life to painting at the age of 60 should offer some indication of his peerless quality.