Robin Tanner (1904 – 1988) is quoted as saying ‘as a boy I had two great longings – to be a teacher and to be an artist – and I have never wavered.’ About thirty years ago I had the good fortune to be selected to interview the lovely Tanner, a man who excelled as an engraver, a teacher and an educationalist. I confess I have not recalled Tanner’s name as frequently as I should over the years, but recently I was at Sevington Victorian School and saw his Wren & Primrose engraving (1935) as a card. I was instantly taken back to my youth and could picture myself sat at Robin’s knees as I asked him many questions. The kind ladies at Sevington gave me the card as a memento and it now sits on my bookcase.
The Wren & Primrose is a delightful almost Morrisian design, and is typical of the work Tanner created for Woodland Plants (1981) a book he published with his author wife, Heather. Tanner’s designs are intricate, well balanced and Ruskinian in their sacramental engagement with nature.
One could apply the term Pre-Raphaelite to Tanner’s style, in part because of his Ruskinian ideals but also because of the earliest of his influences: Gustave Dore’s Bible illustrations. Tanner ‘was most blissfully at home in this world of Black and White. The infinite range of tones, from brightest shining white, through countless silvery and darker greys of many textures, to richest, deepest, and most velvety black, positively enthralled me. Etchings and engravings became my chief obsession, and they still are today’. For Tanner the Wiltshire countryside was his home and his inspiration. He remarked that ‘all I wanted to say on copper…is contained in a few square miles of N. W. Wiltshire – a land of Cotswold stone, but a countryside that is Cotswold with a Wiltshire difference’.
Although born in Bristol, on Easter Sunday, most of Tanner’s life was spent in Wiltshire. In 1915, he was schooled at Chippenham Grammar School (now Hardenhuish Academy) and in 1921, he was a student teacher at Ivy Lane School, Chippenham. By 1922, he had enrolled at Goldsmith’s College, London, to undertake teacher training. Tanner remained in London for the next two years whilst teaching at Blackheath Road Boys School.
Tanner, like Paul Drury, William Larkins and Graham Sutherland, can be considered as part of the Neo-Romantic tradition. Inspired by the Palmer retrospective he visited in 1926, Tanner made his first etching that same year, A Tithe Barn (1926). He was particularly moved by Palmer’s early Shoreham works, e.g. Early Morning (1825) and you can see this when you compare it to The Old Thorn (1976). Tanner’s Martin’s Hovel (1927) carries with it similar mystic overtones as one would find in Palmer’s works, or even in William Blake’s. Another influence on Tanner was the etcher, F.L. Griggs.
In 1928, Tanner returned to Wiltshire to etch full time. His career relied upon the private sale of drawings and sketches initially and later through sales of exhibition etchings. From 1931, the date of his marriage to Heather Spackman, Tanner lived at Old Chapel Field, in Kington Langley where I had tea and cake with him all those years ago.
Tanner’s identity and work was very much indebted to Wiltshire’s countryside and the title of the upcoming exhibition in May – From Old Chapel Field – reflects this. If viewed as representing a narrow geographical sphere Tanner’s intimate pastoral relationship could be considered a limitation or failing somehow, but Wiltshire for Tanner was like Wessex for Hardy. It was in their blood. Their respective works enriched by their engagement with the natural landscapes they loved. Tanner’s works are justly admired by those that know and they have been exhibited in Bath, Bristol, Oxford, and London. He received numerous commissions including one from Nash’s Magazine to illustrate a Virginia Woolf essay. His works deserve much more attention than they currently receive despite appearing in important print making exhibitions, e.g. A Gothic Vision: Etchings and Drawings by F.L. Griggs (1966). This new exhibition will go some way to opening up new dialogues about his work, although the focus is upon the Tanners’ relationship with each other, their home and their collection of early folk art and twentieth century crafts.
Tanner’s works can be found in the Chippenham Museum and Heritage Centre as well as the Ashmolean, Oxford. The From Old Chapel Field exhibition is on from May 17th to September 17th at Chippenham Museum and Heritage Centre and entrance is free.