‘Every time I paint the coast,’ says Jeremy Gardiner, ‘it’s from a new viewpoint.’ The paintings brought together under the title of ‘Contraband’ explore the coasts of southern England in relation to their long-standing and notorious connection with smuggling.
Tremendous glamour attaches to the myth of the smugglers of the Georgian era as sturdy independent locals, flouting authority with gallantry and gaiety. But the violent reality was of wholesale corruption, terrorism and murder. These were wild times, and Jeremy Gardiner’s coast, the southwest in particular, was a wild and remote region. Farming, fishing and stone quarrying were hard and dangerous livelihoods, badly paid and insecure. No wonder poor men turned to smuggling tax-free brandy, tobacco and tea.
Local knowledge was essential, whether in choosing secure hides or the safest landing places. Sometimes these means of orientation were subtle, as at Chesil Bank on the Dorset coast, where the action of longshore drift has graded the shingle from pebbles the size of large peas around Burton Bradstock to cobbles as large as potatoes at Portland. A local smuggler could tell exactly where he was in this stony wilderness by picking up a handful of pebbles and gauging their size. The great shingle bank occupies the middle distance in St Catherine's Chapel and Chesil Bank From Above III, the landscape bathed in a baked orange glow, as hot as a Spanish plain. Beyond lies the Fleet lagoon with its string of isolated villages, the setting for J Meade Falkner’s celebrated smuggling romance ‘Moonfleet’.
In Gardiner’s paintings the most dramatic or best-known features of the coast may be distanced St Michael’s Mount I, disguised Golden Cap from The Cobb III or tucked away round the corner Lulworth Cove and Stairhole IV. Church towers, lighthouses, clifftop buildings, harbours, coastguard lookouts and even castles are miniaturised, as in Bird's Eye View, St Ives I, or the three paintings of Lundy’s North and South lighthouses. These manmade structures, etched in very fine detail, are subservient to the overarching abstractions of cliffs and landforms, often appearing overwhelmed by massive skies and seas.
In Solar, Seven Sisters I Gardiner turns this treatment inside out. Here it’s a natural form that is played down – the famous Seven Sisters cliffs in East Sussex, shown low and compressed like a foamy wave or billow of cloud. The coastguards who were foisted upon the smuggling communities lived distanced and ostracised in highly visible clifftop cottages, seen bold and clear in the foreground of the painting.
A technique of Gardiner’s that amplifies a general sense of dislocation in his work involves floating alum-coated paper on a layer of dampened carrageen moss overlaid with pigment. This produces cascades of organic shapes, pared back until only discernible in a fragment of sky over a distant Isle of Portland Chapman’s Pool from Emmetts Hill, Dorset or a surface of rock in a dominant cliff face Mullion Cove With Boats I – an elusive hint, set against the artist’s trademark geometric shapes and blocks of colour, of a dream-like element to these southwest coast and seascapes.
The fictional smuggler still grips our imaginations - the Scarecrow, parson-smuggler and dashing hero of Russell Thorndike’s ‘Dr Syn’ novels, or the sinister Vicar of Altarnun in Daphne du Maurier’s ‘Jamaica Inn’. But reality could be just as romantic. The lonely houses of Prussia Cove in the far west of Cornwall, half sunk in the cliffs Prussia Cove I, were the hiding places of smuggler John Carter, known as the ‘King of Prussia’, a strict Methodist never known to utter a curse. After a lifetime of lucrative crime and of battling the Revenue, around 1807 the King decided to abdicate his smuggling throne – whereupon he simply vanished, and was never seen again.
Essay by Christopher Somerville, February 2022