Rex Needle: The Bourne bank manager who exhibited at the Royal Academy

A collection of paintings by the artist R A Gardner, a local bank  manager who worked in Bourne a century ago and exhibited his work   at the Royal Academy, is due to come under the hammer next month. Column: Rex Needle EMN-140818-114711001
A collection of paintings by the artist R A Gardner, a local bank manager who worked in Bourne a century ago and exhibited his work at the Royal Academy, is due to come under the hammer next month. Column: Rex Needle EMN-140818-114711001
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A collection of paintings by the artist R A Gardner, a local bank manager who worked in Bourne a century ago and exhibited his work at the Royal Academy, is due to come under the hammer next month.

Robert Arthur Gardner (1850-1926) was born and educated at Peterborough where he began his career with the Stamford, Spalding and Boston Banking Co Ltd which later became Barclays Bank, and after working at their Peterborough and Spalding branches, moved to Bourne in 1884 as chief cashier.

Ten years later, he was appointed manager, a position he held until 1912 when he retired after 50 years of service by which time he had obtained a lease on Cawthorpe Hall, subsequently becoming the owner, and this remained his home until he died at the age of 75.

Gardner never aspired to public office but his interest in the welfare of the town inevitably resulted in a number of appointments. In 1888 he became a magistrate for the Kesteven area of Lincolnshire, later chairman of the bench in Bourne and when the Bourne Institute was founded in West Street in 1896 “for the healthy recreation, education and intellectual improvement of its members”, he was elected its first president.

In 1916, he was appointed a trustee of Bourne United Charities and during the First World War of 1914-18 he served as president of the Volunteer Training Corps. He was also an active supporter of the Red Cross, a committee member of the Butterfield Hospital and local representative of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Sport was among his hobbies, particularly cricket, and during his early days in Bourne he played for and captained the town XI and did not retire from the pitch until ten years before his death. He was also president or vice-president of many other sporting organisations in the district.

But most importantly, Gardner was a prolific painter who worked in France and Italy but he also loved the English rural life and many of his paintings depict scenes around Bourne. Several of his works were hung in the Royal Academy and in June 1924, he presented one of his larger paintings to Peterborough Museum, a canvas 36 inches by 28 inches depicting the heronry in the grounds of Milton Hall, near Peterborough, home of the Fitzwilliam family.

He was also a generous supporter of the Art and Industrial Exhibition staged at the Corn Exchange in Bourne in 1911, which attracted 1,400 entries from around the country and his landscape in oils showing the effects of the Great Flood of 1910 which devastated 1,500 acres of Bourne South Fen won a silver medal which is now on display at the Heritage Centre in South Street. During his time at Cawthorpe Hall, he made extensive alterations to the property including the addition of the present studio and the installation of gas for heating and cooking. He and his wife Sarah also spent a lot of their time in the gardens which were beautifully kept and where they also played croquet.

In 1926, he took one of his usual holidays in the south of France where he was taken ill with influenza which developed into pneumonia and he died at Nice on March 2, 1926. His body was brought home for burial in the town cemetery after a service at the Abbey Church. His reputation was such that the blinds of all private residences in the town were drawn during the service and businesses were closed.

A local newspaper described him as “a typical English gentleman” and added: “He was a friend of all sections of the community, irrespective of creed or social position. He was at home in any sphere of life and with any class or age of the community, an ideal speaker at any function, giving expression to a train of thought in pure English sentences. It is seldom that he spoke without revealing his keen sense of humour. He frequently made puns on his own name and invariably put any audience into good humour.”

Gardner left an estate worth more than £33,000 (over £1.5m by today’s values) and apart from legacies to his immediate family, most of his money and property went to his widow but on her death, he stipulated that various bequests should go to some of the organisations with which he had been connected during his lifetime such as the Bourne Institute, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Peterborough Infirmary and the Butterfield Hospital at Bourne.

After his death, his wife continued to live at Cawthorpe Hall until she died 17 years later, devoting her final years to the charitable causes previously undertaken by her late husband. They had no children and, according to his wishes, their estate passed to a niece Mrs Ernestine Constance Bourn Dunbar who bought No 4 West Road in 1945. She called it Cawhall and lived there until her death in 1972 when she was buried in the same grave in the town cemetery as her uncle and aunt. The Dunbar Room in the Red Hall, which she had restored in Gardner’s memory, was named after her.

Gardner frequently donated his pictures as prizes for Bourne organisations and charities and as a result many remain in the town in private hands while others, together with a charming self-portrait, hang in the wood panelled boardroom at the Red Hall where the trustees of Bourne United Charities hold their monthly meetings. On the 70th anniversary of his death in 1996, the town’s Civic Society held a one day exhibition of his work at the Red Hall where 40 of his paintings, including some that had been exhibited at the Royal Academy, were brought together for public view.

In recent years, his paintings have occasionally come up for auction but a total of 20 oils and watercolours have now been brought together for the 150th anniversary sale at the Bourne Auction Rooms on Tuesday 2nd September including rural landscapes, garden scenes and one of Cawthorpe Hall where he lived, and although not of considerable value, usually selling in the lower hundreds, they are regarded as a worthwhile investment for anyone interested in the town Gardner immortalised in his work.