The start of Advent season is just around the corner (December 3!), which means our warehouse elves are busy packing up and shipping out Advent calendars every day. Some of our favorite Advent calendars in recent years have come to us by way of Alison Gardiner, a small family-owned company in southern England. At its heart: namesake illustrator Alison Gardiner, whose vivid and whimsical creations have quickly become Bas Bleu customer favorites. Recently, Alison took a break from the studio to talk to us about her creative journey, the benefits of supporting traditional artisans, and Prince William’s pet spaniel.
Bas Bleu: Tell us a little bit about your “art history.” Were you a creative child? When did you begin to seriously devote your time and energy to the visual arts? Did you receive any formal art education?
Alison Gardiner: I was a fairly creative child whether it was drawing, sewing, or using Lego. A strong influence was my father who was an exhibition and interior designer. He painted in his spare time and his work covered our walls at home. I have memories of him teaching me how to mix colors, which I was fascinated by. I decided at primary school that I wanted to be an “artist.” I spent five years at art college, specializing in printed textiles for my degree.
BB: How was the company Alison Gardiner born? What were the first products you developed?
AG: Whilst still at college I was lucky to have my work published as a range of greeting cards. My early work ranged from illustrating children’s books, magazine work, stationery, and textiles. The foray into ceramics came from a collaboration with the National Trust back in 2000. I was commissioned to produce mugs for twelve of their properties; this lead to me designing for more than fifty National Trust properties.
BB: For Americans who don’t know, the National Trust is a non-profit devoted to preserving and managing special places—including historic buildings—in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Is your National Trust collection a formal partnership or something born of your own interest in historic preservation?
AG: A bit of both. I have always been interested in architecture and having had an exhibition of my work based on buildings I approached the Trust to see if we could work together.
BB: Advent calendars are a longtime Bas Bleu tradition. How did you settle on Advent calendars, both as a canvas for your own art and as an importer/distributor of German calendars?
AG: I was first commissioned to design an Advent calendar for Buckingham Palace by The Royal Collection. I then went on to design one for Windsor Castle and then The Royal Mews. The success of these encouraged my husband and I to produce Advent calendars ourselves. Our calendars proved to be a success leading to collaborations with various heritage organizations, for instance Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust. This established us as being one of the leading Advent calendar publishers in the UK. In 2015 we were introduced to Coppenrath, one of Germany’s biggest publishers, to become distributors of their Advent calendars.
BB: Two of your Advent calendars feature renderings of Highgrove, the country estate of the Prince of Wales, and a stately house that bears a striking resemblance to Blenheim Palace, ancestral home of the Dukes of Marlborough. Is it easier or more difficult as an artist to faithfully replicate a well-known building than to create something original from your imagination?
AG: Well spotted! The “Christmas at the Palace” Advent is in fact Blenheim Palace. I enjoy the challenge of creating a design using well-known buildings. I use a fair bit of artistic license whilst still making it recognizable. With the Highgrove design I had fun including characters from the Royal family in some of the windows and little details like adding Prince William’s black spaniel and a toy helicopter, that looks the one he flew, in the children’s nursery.
BB: Your fine bone china products are handmade by traditional methods in Stoke-on-Trent, historically known for manufacturing Wedgewood, Royal Doulton, and Spode, among others. What benefits does a domestic manufacturer provide that an importer can’t?
AG: Despite the “Potteries” long decline over the last thirty years, Stoke-on-Trent remains a vibrant center for ceramics and in particular Fine Bone China. There are amazing skills hidden away just waiting to be connected to new designs. The pottery is about three and a half hours in the car from my studio, so it’s quite easy to visit and work closely with a wide variety of highly skilled individuals and firms. There is nothing like sitting down in the same room when trying to take my ideas and turn it into a piece of china. There is also inspiration all over the city; from the ceramic museums, old molds which potteries always seem to have hidden away which could be re-used to create a new product. As the products are handmade prototyping is much easier. It is not uncommon for me to have a proof prepared while I visit for approval. This is just not possible when working with a pottery on the other side of the world where the culture is so different.
AG: Apart from Advent calendars, I would say the mugs are probably the most popular item. From our mugs we make a range of other gift products e.g. fridge magnets, coasters, and notebooks.
BB: When you’re not working on illustrations for the brand Alison Gardiner, how do you enjoy spending your free time?
AG: I love gardening and cycling. I live by the sea on the South coast of England so we sail (in fair weather!).
BB: We’re booksellers so we have to ask: What’s your favorite book?
AG: Many favorites but one that springs to mind would be I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, a quintessentially English coming of age story that conjures up the confusion and excitement of late adolescence.
AG: We have recently produced a suffragette mug [available from Bas Bleu in January 2018], which I designed to commemorate the centenary in the UK of women’s right to vote. I seem to be going through a rather political phase as my next project is designing at Advent calendar for the Houses of Parliament for 2018!
BB: Last but not least: Our readers (and staff members!) love a nice hot cuppa, especially when curled up with a good book on a chilly day. As a native Englishwoman and a purveyor of fine bone china mugs, do you have any tips for us Americans for brewing the perfect cup of tea?
AG: If you have read our blog, then you will have learnt about the best way to make a cup of tea. However, I would add a few tips:
- Tea is like wine, it’s a blend and there are thousands of different blends to discover. Be adventurous and try lots of different blends of tea.
- The choice of cup or mug you drink out of will make all the difference. I would recommend fine bone china; if it is too thin then the tea will cool quickly, too thick and it does not feel like a special drink. I drink out of my mugs every day and they are perfect for tea!
- Tea is also much more than a drink; it has had a huge impact on the world over the centuries. The drinking of tea was very much part of the salons of the eighteenth-century bluestocking societies. I am sure your readers would be interested in reading about the social history of tea. A great book for your readers to learn about tea is Tea: A History of the Drink That Changed the World by John C. Griffiths.
BB: Our thanks to Alison for taking time out of her busy schedule to chat with us. Head on over to our website to shop all of our Advent calendars. And keep an eye out for the Suffragette Mug when it debuts in our Winter 2018 edition, due in homes January 2!
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