News & Insights

A Vision of England - A Collection of Etchings by Robin Tanner

28th January 2019. By Francesca Young

“My etched world is also an ideal world – a world of pastoral beauty that could be ours if we did by desire it passionately enough…” - Robin Tanner

Robin Tanner (1904-1988) was an engraver and an educator, a passionate advocate for both the natural world and the promotion of the arts in schools. Tanner’s richly textured etchings are indebted to the visionary depictions of the English pastoral landscape by Samuel Palmer, evoking dream-like idealisations of a rapidly modernising countryside.

Now, a collection of 20 etchings by Robin Tanner, with good provenance, are coming up for auction in the Modern & Contemporary Art Sale on 2nd March, alongside assorted publications, letters and catalogues relating to the artist.

Robin Tanner was born in Bristol, the son of a carpenter. Later moving to Chippenham in North West Wiltshire, Tanner attended the grammar school there (meeting his future wife, Heather), and spent a year in the town as a student teacher. In 1922 he went up to London to study teaching at Goldsmiths’ College and subsequently took up a teaching position in Greenwich. During this time Tanner returned to Goldsmiths’ to attend evening courses in etching.

In 1926 a visit to a major retrospective of the work of Visionary and Neo-Romantic artist Samuel Palmer at the Victoria and Albert Museum proved a seminal moment in his life.  Palmer’s almost mystical vision of the English pastoral landscape – with his depictions of moonlit cornfields and the like – would serve to set the young artist on the path he would follow for the rest of his career. After completing his first etching in 1926 – A Tithe Barn – Tanner increasingly focused on art and he became part of the revival in English etching that was emerging at the time. In 1928 he returned to Wiltshire to etch full-time and produced some of his finest works, such as Martin’s Hovel and Harvest Festival. However, the market for etchings crashed soon after this move, caused by the economic depression of 1929 and the growing dominance of photography as the preferred medium for illustrations in printed material.

Setting aside a career as an artist, Tanner once again turned to teaching having married his childhood sweetheart, Heather, and settled in Kington Langley near Chippenham. The couple lived in Old Chapel Field, an Arts and Crafts inspired house built for the couple by Heather’s uncle. They would live in the house for the rest of their lives. Tanner had a passion for teaching fine art, was a great exponent of arts, crafts, poetry and music in schools, and from 1935 to 1964 was an H. M. Inspector of Primary Schools – a role in which he excelled. However, throughout his career he continued to pursue other private artistic endeavours and publishing several books with his wife.

Following his retirement in 1964, Tanner once again dedicated himself to printmaking. His highly detailed etchings depicting pastoral scenes in North West Wiltshire are infused with an otherworldly atmosphere – at once timeless depictions of English rural life and idealised, often wistful scenes of a changing world. The dream-like quality he shared with Palmer was often exaggerated by the unnaturally low or high view point and a strong, transfiguring light such as that cast by the last rays of the setting sun.

Highlights of the collection include a signed and inscribed final state etching from 1929 of ‘Christmas’ (estimate: £800-1,200 plus buyer’s premium), and a signed and dated etching from 1978 of ‘The Wicket Gate’ (estimate: £400-600).

This group of etchings formed part of the collection of the late James Fairbairn of York, a colleague and firm friend of Tanner’s. James was a fellow H. M. Inspector of Schools and made many trips to visit the Tanners’ home in Kington Langley and in 1978 organised a holiday for Robin, Heather, Dietrich Hanff (a Jewish refugee adopted by the couple) and himself to York, Northumbria and the Scottish Borders. The etchings came directly into Fairbairn’s collection from Tanner by gift and purchase; whilst many items from the collection were dispersed by bequests in Fairbairn’s will, the current vendor received the substantial residue.

View sale details.

A fully illustrated catalogue will be available leading up to the sale.  

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