Robert Tavener

Printmaker and illustrator with a prodigious output
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The Independent Online

Robert Tavener, artist and teacher: born London 6 July 1920; married 1941 Catherine Skardon (died 1998; one daughter); died Eastbourne, East Sussex 12 July 2004.

The artist Robert Tavener's work is bold and colourful. His strikingly assured images, whether of boats, guardsmen in their long-plumed helmets seated on horseback, or of the Sussex landscape he loved, brought him innumerable commissions from prestigious clients.

Yale University, Prudential Insurance, American Express, Whitbread, McDonald's, Sainsbury's, Marks and Spencer, the General Post Office, Chase Manhattan Bank, the Greater London Council, London Transport, the BBC and Shell all sought work from him. Unlike many other artists, Tavener could always sell his pictures.

And yet it was as if all his confidence and conviction went into his creative output. Tavener himself suffered from continual self-doubt, anxious that his work was out of fashion and refusing to acknowledge the praise that was due to him and which readily came his way. A deeply private man, he was uncomfortable promoting his work. During the course of his career he held some 35 solo exhibitions but would not even address the circle of friends and potential buyers who gathered around him at the private views.

Robert Tavener was born and brought up in Hampstead, north London, where his family had been tailors and glovers. His interest in art even as a child was obvious - painting and making chalk drawings on the pavements - but after school he followed his parents' wishes and took an office job. In 1940 he was called up into the Army and served in the Royal Artillery.

Tavener's wife-to-be, Catherine, lived in the same street in Hampstead as him, although their first meeting was in an air-raid shelter during the Blitz. To marry he took unauthorised leave from his regiment to return to London - to anyone who knew him well this was extraordinarily untypical behaviour. In 1944 he landed at Arramanches in Normandy three days after D-Day.

At the end of the Second World War, while still a soldier, he studied for eight months from June 1945 in the arts and crafts faculty at Göttingen University, the formation college of the Rhine Army. His testimonial recommended that he be given every possible assistance in becoming an artist. Subsequently he studied at Hornsey College of Art for a National Diploma in Design, specialising in lithography; he also gained his art teacher's diploma from London University.

He took up teaching posts at Medway College of Art in Rochester and St Martin's School of Art in London. In 1953 he moved to Eastbourne College of Art and Design, where he became Head of Printmaking, Illustration and Graphic Design and Vice-Principal. On the one day a week which staff were expected to use for their own creative work, he continued instead to travel up to St Martin's School to teach. Instead, his free time was mostly given over to working - in this he was totally single-minded.

For 50 years Tavener and his wife lived in Tussocks, a former coach house to an estate on the edge of Eastbourne. The garden gate opened directly on to the South Downs Way leading up to Beachy Head, where he exercised his beloved Jack Russell terriers every day.

The house was full of books and ceramics and Tavener's own pictures. In his studio inside the house hung an enormous mirror which took up the whole of one wall. Here he kept his Albion Press, cast by Harrild & Sons of Fleet Street in 1882, which he used to produce his fine prints, each one individually engraved, rolled, proofed and printed in a signed edition of between 25 and 75 prints.

Tavener's output - in lithography, linocut, woodcut, screen-printing, watercolour and gouache - was prodigious. He described his work as

English countryside and English architecture. Shape, pattern, colour, texture, design. In other words, my subject matter is a personal interpretation of the richness, variety, beauty, and the underlying relationship with the past, of our landscape and building.

His architectural subjects included Oxford and Cambridge colleges, York Minster, Canterbury Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, and Wren's City churches.

From the 1950s Tavener was commissioned to design posters, promotional material, magazine and book covers and illustrations. Hamish Hamilton, Longmans, Oxford University Press, Methuen and Penguin Books all employed him as an illustrator. For the BBC he produced small linocut or pen illustrations to listings in the Radio Times.

A great deal of Tavener's work is owned by public institutions, including over 25 public art galleries through England and Wales, and overseas in the United States.

Every year for 34 years, he exhibited at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, and he also showed at the Glyndebourne Festival, the Barbican, and the London Weekend Television Centre on the South Bank and at many other exhibitions sponsored by the Arts Council of Great Britain and the South East Arts Council. In 1966 he was elected to the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers and Engravers and he was also a member of the Society of Sussex Painters.

Physically slight, Tavener was always smartly dressed, frequently with a cravat. In his youth he swam and played badminton and tennis. He was a highly intelligent man with an academic manner and a sharp sense of humour; he was also very well read - there were scribbled notes and quotations from books all over his house.

After his retirement from Eastbourne College in 1980 he continued to work freelance as a printmaker and watercolour painter and also lectured and taught on residential courses. Following the death of his wife in 1998, however, his own health declined and, except for the occasional watercolour, he worked little. For a long time turning the printing press was too much physical labour. All the while he continued to struggle with his personal faith and his lack of confidence.

A purchase of seven more pictures by the Government Art Collection, to add to the number of his works already in their ownership, brought Tavener satisfaction a few weeks before his death.

Simon Fenwick



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