Robin Tanner Collection (1904-1988)

ROBIN TANNER   (Wiltshire, 1904–1988) was an English artist, etcher and printmaker. He lived in London, and at Kington Langley, in Wiltshire.

The Young Gallery holds a selection of etchings, wood engravings, sketches and teaching aids devised by Robin Tanner relating to the teaching of design & handwriting.


His etchings began following night-school classes at Goldsmiths College in London. He had been inspired by visiting the Samuel Palmer retrospective exhibition organised by Martin Hardie in London in 1926, and his first etching was made in that year. He was particularly moved by Palmer’s early period Shoreham works which had been so influential on fellow students such as Paul Drury, William Larkins and Graham Sutherland. Tanner was thus part of the etching revival in England, but the market for etchings collapsed following the economic depression of 1929, and by the growing use of photography for illustration. Tanner turned to teaching to earn his livelihood.

Solomon's Seal
Solomon’s Seal

His passion for teaching fine art to young children was infused into many English counties through his role as H.M. Inspector of Schools in primary schools from 1935 to 1964. Tanner believed that the study of natural things and the exploration of arts and crafts, music and poetry were essential for the development of teachers and children. At the Ministry of Education, he ran courses for primary teachers, often with Christian Schiller. Following his retirement in 1964, Tanner took up printmaking again with dedication. He also had a sideline in topographical graphic book illustration, collaborating with his wife, Heather Spackman, whom he had married in 1931, and he published a number of books on printmaking aimed at children. Wiltshire Village was reprinted as late as 1978, and became a best seller. In 1932 they had moved into the house they built outside Chippenham, Old Chapel Field, where the diarist Francis Kilvert’s ancestors lie buried. They lived there for the rest of their lives. He was a founder and benefactor of the Crafts Study Centre, now at Farnham, Surrey. He was awarded an Honorary Degree (MA) by the University of Bath in 1977. His later work, such as Woodland Plants, shows the influence of William Morris.

Apart from pieces held at The Young Gallery, Robin Tanner’s work can be seen at the following: His etching plates are now held at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, and his personal papers regarding his educational work can be found in the Archives of the Institute of Education, University of London. The University of Bristol Special Collections holds letters written by Robin Tanner, along with some sketches, collected verses, and draft and final versions of his autobiography and volume of collected letters.The Crafts Study Centre holds the Robin and Heather Spackman collection which includes personal documents; correspondence; sketches, drawings, prints and etchings by Robin and Heather Tanner; notebooks and commonplace books kept by Heather Tanner; travel journals; and written work by Heather Tanner now held at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Robin Tanner’s personal papers regarding his educational work can be found in the Archives of the Institute of Education, University of London.

Study for Autumn
Study for Autumn

“The wonder of Robin Tanner’s art lies in his ability to convey the beauty of the commonplace. His work doesn’t depend upon chance efforts or superficial skills but on study, knowledge and understanding of his subject. Once he has absorbed the physical structure of a plant and its habitat, a fusion of these details and his own vision takes place which balances observation and invention in images as complex as the plants themselves, which yet seem to have achieved a simplicity as inevitable as that of natural selection.”

Robin Garton of Robin Garton Ltd, London. Publishers of “Woodland Plants” by Heather & Robin Tanner 1981