Part 1: Important Fine Art
28 November 2012


(1920 - 1980)

oil on canvas

177.0 x 72.0 cm

signed lower right: EDWIN.TANNER

$40,000 - 60,000
Sold for $78,000 (inc. BP) in Auction 27 - 28 November 2012, Melbourne

Private collection, Sydney
Charles Nodrum Gallery, Melbourne
Private collection, Melbourne, acquired from the above c1989

Catalogue text

The prodigious talent and singular sensibilities of Edwin Tanner found serious fun in his art, especially in those early paintings of offices and their inmates. The best known of these, which became a cause célèbre when exhibited in Melbourne in 1954, is The Public Servant, 1953 in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Empty, with the clock at 5pm, Tanner played on the leitmotif of the eloquence of emptiness with skill. By 1950 he had joined the ranks of the public service as engineer in charge of structural design for the Hydro-Electricity Commission, Hobart. Artist's Office when in the Public Service (private collection) appeared in 1952. Those celebrated works of 1954 which followed, Waterpower Persons, Professional Engineers and Man in Office, combined office life, service, and engineering design. As autobiographical reflections, the most striking feature is isolation, starkly present in Man in Office and its order of emptiness. The slightly bent, grey-suited figure is shown from the back, positioned in the indefinite middle ground of the painting, dominated by his surroundings. (The back view of a figure had a strong metaphoric appeal to Tanner, again walking away from the viewer in his 1960 oil painting in homage to Shakespeare, 'There's a Tide In the Affairs of Men', formerly in the collection of Kym Bonython, Adelaide.) In our painting, the anonymous one walks alone from the tearoom, normally a place of conviviality, his solitariness emphasized by the single bottle of milk, the cool, slim edge of the refrigerator, and the paradoxical stillness.

Into this and other like paintings Tanner poured his personal loneliness generated by shyness, extended through independence and individuality. On the professional engineer's side there is mathematical precision, clarity and balance translated into art through superb draughtsmanship. Striking linearity and precision of layout recall the engineer's drawn plan or blueprint. Refinement of structure and neutral setting continue in the cool, almost monochromatic palette - colourless surrounds as a metaphor of the office worker's lifestyle. Although the overall image has a sense of abstraction in its devotion to form, Man in Office evokes a moving poetic feeling, Tanner's eloquence being unrivalled in Australian art. This comes from his Welsh birth and upbringing in the poetry and music of his native tongue. Tanner's wry wit and social commentary, however, was not confined to painting, being quoted thus by John Reed - 'One day I will create a painting that bleats like the bleat of a reticent, complex, sensitive man against the regimentation of physics, political science, the makers of lists, the mob, and against large, passionate prize-winning paintings.'1

1. From Reed, J., (ed.), New Painting 1952-1962, Longmans, Melbourne, 1962, quoted in Reid, B., 'Maker and Signmaker - some aspects of the art of Edwin Tanner', Art and Australia, Sydney, vol. 9, no. 3, December 1971, p. 213