‘Every time I paint the southwest 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 was a wild and remote region. Farming, fishing and stone quarrying were hard and dangerous livelihoods, poorly paid and insecure. No wonder local 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 perfectly 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 wilderness of shingle by picking up a handful of pebbles and gauging their size. The great 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 great 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) – a subtle hint, set against the artist’s trademark geometric shapes and blocks of colour, of a dream-like element to these southwest coast and seascapes.

Christopher Somerville,
Walking Correspondent, The Times