Obituary: Heather Tanner
Wednesday 30 June 1993
THE DEATH of Heather Tanner, barely five years after that of her husband Robin, the etcher, brings to a close a very fruitful artistic partnership. Heather joined heart and soul in Robin Tanner's career, sharing his Quakerly values, nurturing talents which she recognised in him from the beginning, and caring for their adopted Jewish son, Dietrich Hanff, whom they saved from the Nazi death camps on the very brink of war.
She was an exceptionally gifted naturalist and wrtier, with particular sensitivity towards wild flowers. They flourished in the Tanners' exuberant cottage garden at Kington Langley, in Wiltshire, where the couple spent all their married lives. Heather's texts for Robin's prints, mostly published in limited editions, have the lilt of an English not much heard in present times - one benefit, perhaps of her brilliant First in English at King's College London in 1921.
The two met as juniors at Chippenham Grammar School: the ardent suitor, as he confessed in his autobiography, Double Harness (1987), would slip notes to Heather when they both became monitors. They married at Easter 1931, she in a dress which - typically - the groom himself designed for her, made of wool and silk dyed with madder and woven by an aunt. Her friends said she looked like Jane Eyre in it; and indeed there was often a pert, Bronte- ish air about her as she made her guests welcome at the cottage door.
This enchanted place, Old Chapel Field, doubled as a studio and workshop where Heather was always on hand to help with the grimy and fastidious business of print-making. Her widely admired book A Wiltshire Village, first published in 1939, with illustrations by Robin - the Akenfield of its day - celebrates the rustic graces of an already fated countryside in terms which Robin's images have helped to perpetuate as art. The book ends with a lament for the impending doom of the village creed, 'What always has been always will be.' Heather Tanner only wished that were true - 'birdsong in the small hours, sunrise over the combe, the farmer calling to his carthorses and slipping halters over their willing necks . . . The sound of church bells at evening when cottagers tend their gardens and old men sit on the steps of the Market Cross.'
In time this gave way, in the Tanner homestead, to the nightmare of atomic war. Proceeds from the print room were diverted to the anti-nuclear cause, with Heather as its pacific champion. Stricken towards the end, but quick as ever in spirit, she was pleased to share the acclaim which was the Tanners' due. Finally she reserved a thought for their much-loved son, Dietrich, who died last year. 'What a blessing,' she told friends, 'that Dietie has not been left alone.'
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