The Artist who Became an Inspiration in Education

on Thursday, 21 February 2013. Posted in Art

The proposed changes to our education system have rightly been a topic of the press recently. As it so happens, a man who spent most of his life in North Wiltshire was pivotal to the development of art in education -  I’d like to tell you a little about him here…

Robin Tanner was born on Easter Sunday, 1904, the third of six children. He spent his teenage years in Kington Langley, the birthplace of his mother.

Robin attended Chippenham Grammar School before moving on Goldsmith’s College, studying to become a teacher. Whilst at the college he took evening classes to learn the craft of etching. He was one of a number who turned their backs on the popular ‘en plein’ air etchings, fashionable in the 1920s. Tanner covered the whole of his plates with etching, wanting to create a ‘pastoral revival’. He loved his home in Kington Langley ‘a pastoral dairy country with small meadows and high hedges. There is an ancient church every three miles or so in any direction’. Many of Robin’s etchings were created at his house and were of local scenes, such as the wicket gate into Sydney’s wood where the renowned 19th century poet and clergyman Francis Kilvert often walked. Tanner’s father also had artistic talent, becoming a craftsman in wood.

After marrying Heather Spackman from Corsham on Easter Saturday in 1931, the Tanners moved to Old Chapel Field in Kington Langley. Robin began teaching at Ivy Lane School, Chippenham, in 1929 (he had previously spent a year there as a student teacher). Heather was a writer, and they produced some works together, such as ‘Country Alphabet’ and ‘Woodland Plants’, using Heather’s text and Robin’s etchings.


Robin was accepted as an HM Inspector of schools in 1935, and had great influence on education in England by inspiring teachers (particularly head teachers). He managed this by ‘engendering their enthusiasms, refining their skills, deepening their knowledge, reinforcing their regard for the dignity of their calling, encouraging their concern for the enhancement of their working environment and the development of their caring roles’. He wanted schools to become happy, welcoming places and encouraged the use of artistic displays by the children to achieve this aim.

Robin felt that creativity could be used to drive all other subjects forward and that art was essential for an educational system to be ‘truly balanced and effective’. He saw art and craft as being an integral part of the life of the school; inter-related and not a separate entity.

“Every child has gifts and qualities that are unique… With help, praise, guidance, assurance and appreciation, each one can become in some way successful. The art of teaching is the art of discerning in children, of protecting, of promoting all kinds of hidden graces."


An exhibition was held at the Holbourne Museum & Crafts Study Centre in Great Pulteney Street, Bath in 1989, where Robin had been a Founder-Trustee. It was called ‘Robin Tanner Remembered: Etcher and Teacher 1904-1988'. The Robin Tanner Library at the Holbourne Museum was also named after him.

The Chippenham Museum and Heritage Centre displayed an exhibition about his life and works in 2004, celebrating the centenary of his birth.

In September 2010 a Chippenham Civic Society Blue Plaque was unveiled at Ivy Lane School to commemorate his achievements: 


‘Robin Tanner
    Renowned Etcher
   And Educationalist
 Taught Here


Robin Tanner was widely recognised both as an exceptional teacher and talented etcher.

“I believe that the arts must be at the very centre, the core of our lives. I believe that if the proper dignity of every human being were respected and his or her native gifts well nourished and cherished we should then reach our full stature and come into our rightful heritage – and help others to theirs."


Robin Tanner, 1904-1988


Julie Davis

Local Studies Assistant

More information on Robin Tanner’s family can be found under the parish of Kington Langley in our Wiltshire Community History webiste.

and in our Local Studies Library…

‘One English Path: A Centenary Tribute to Robin Tanner’ by Paul Miller
Ref: XTA.921

‘What I Believe: Lectures and other Writings’ by Robin Tanner
 Ref: XTA.829

‘Tributes to Robin Tanner 1904-1988’ by Christopher Frayling
Ref: XTA.921

‘Images of a Lost Eden: A celebration of the work of Robin & Heather Tanner’

‘Robin Tanner: a unique figure in Art Education’, by J. Webb
Ref: KIN.702


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