The Yorkshire fishing port of Whitby, with its Abbey and church looking out over the sea, is not the sort of place you would expect to find a town council particularly sympathetic to art. However, local hero Len Tabner has been given the art gallery and council chamber for a big exhibition of his work. These splendid rooms overlooking the park and town are now showing 37 of his big paintings – perhaps the best opportunity to see Tabner’s work in the right kind of space, as distinct from a crowded London gallery.

Len Tabner was born and went to school on Teeside, where his father worked on the river. He went to Corsham Court, where Howard Hodgkin was teaching, and later to Reading University. By 1970, he had bought a cottage at Boulby, 650 ft above the sea, and he proceeded to build a substantial stone house entirely himself.  

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Building had always been a part of his life, together with his land and farm. By now he had married the sculptress Helen de Paravicini, with whom he had five children. His extensive travels began with a trip to Japan to work on a large painting for a memorial museum in central Japan. Then followed journeys on ships of the Royal Navy’s NATO winter warfare exercises in Arctic waters, Greenland and Norway, on supply and repair ships to Alaska and to the Falklands. Always painting the weather, sky and sea, Tabner painted on deck in all weathers, his easel weighted with a stone, so that every shift of wind or wave could be caught in paint. These pictures tell the story of his total concentrated study and fascination with the drama of the sea.

As Shelley wrote:
‘mid the sky’s commotion
Loose clouds like earth’s decaying leaves are shed
Shook from the tangled boughs of heaven and ocean’

Yorkshire people have been buying these wonderful pictures as they did Turners. I think their descendants will be grateful to them. The exhibition runs until the end of August.

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