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Australian art

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The engineers



Edwin Russell Tanner


31 Dec 1920 - 27 Nov 1980


Edwin Tanner has long been identified as an artist who worked outside the mainstream. He came to prominence as a painter during the 1950s when he began exhibiting a distinct series of works that are not easily categorised within the stylistic tendencies of Australian modernism. “He owes no allegiance to any particular school of painting but it has been suggested that he is the sole member of the class “mathematical expressionist.”” This description, from the artist’s biography in a 1960 exhibition catalogue, is a fitting one.

Tanner had trained as an engineer and was working in Hobart as Engineer-in-Charge at the Hydro-Electric Commission of Tasmania when he enrolled in evening classes in a Diploma of Art at Hobart Technical College in 1951. He completed this seven year course in four, and during the period of his studentship began exhibiting works, initially at the Contemporary Art Society in Melbourne in 1954. The same year, Tanner enrolled in a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Hobart, majoring in Philosophy and English.

Inspired by the varied facets of his intellectual pursuits, Tanner established an independent creative vision.Tanner’s expertise in mathematics, engineering and aeronautics informed his subjects, but his art was equally fuelled by his devotion to literature, philosophy and music. Combining these influences, he created works of a scientifically-inspired visual poetry.

'The engineers' is an exemplary work from this formative period and telling of the artist’s exploration of the relationships between humanity and technology. The engineers reveals a style of a taut linear precision that Tanner used to invoke subjects drawn from his daily workplace as an engineer. 'The engineers' embodies the fraught energy of a high tension wire in an image where human and machine elements have become interchangable and part of the interconnected movements of a finely tuned instrument.

Tanner’s compositions, though somewhat whimsical in appearance, are ultimately driven by his primary concern with exploring the “mysteries of the internal world” (Tanner 1963). As such, 'The engineers' is a product of his existential musings, encapsulating something of the conditions of a scientific age, as he questions the place of the self within the technological dimensions of the modern world.


Other Titles

Power House

Water Power Engineers



Media category


Materials used

oil on linen


79.0 x 98.5 x 2.5 cm stretcher; 87.0 x 106.2 x 5.5 cm frame

Signature & date

Signed and dated u.l. corner, black oil "EDWIN TANNER./ .54".
Signed lower c. verso on backboard, blue-green synthetic polymer paint? ".../ EDWIN TANNER.".
Dated bot c. verso on backboard, black synthetic polymer paint? ".../ 1953 - 1954".


Australian Collection Benefactors Fund 2019


Not on display

Accession number


Artist information

Edwin Russell Tanner

Works in the collection


Shown in 5 exhibitions

Exhibition history

Referenced in 5 publications


Nancy Borlase (Organiser) and Contemporary Art Society (New South Wales) (Co-ordinator), Sixteenth Annual Interstate Exhibition (1954), 'Catalogue:', Sydney, Oct 1954, n.p.. cat. no. 163 listed as 'Power House'

Anthony Fitzpatrick, Edwin Tanner: Mathematical expressionist, 'List of works', pg. 132-134, Healesville, 2018, 39 (colour illus.), 132.

Edwin Tanner retrospective 1976, 'The Catalogue (4)', Melbourne, 1976, n.p.. cat. no. 77 listed as 'Water Power Engineers'

The Arts Festival Melbourne: A guide to the Exhibitions with Introductory Commentaries on the Arts in Australia, Melbourne, 1956, 148. cat. no. 137

Author Unknown, The Sydney Morning Herald (15 October 1954), 'Young Painters' Show', pg.2, Sydney, 15 Oct 1954, 2. "Edwin Tanner's pseudo scientific "Power House" which finally attains to parody".