Professional artist, Tony Todd was well known to
Surrey's Red Biddy Gallery through the success of his interpretations of
Dylan Thomas's, Under Milk Wood. Keen to encourage Tony to
produce a new body of work, the owners suggested that, My Family and
Other Animals by Gerald Durrell OBE, might provide the right
inspiration. The book had been a lifelong favourite of Claire Longstaff,
co-owner of the Gallery but it was unfamiliar to Tony at that
stage. He settled down to a good read and no sooner had he absorbed the
first few chapters, than inspiration was leaping from his head to his
Throughout his long career, multi-talented Tony has proved himself
highly capable at copying nature but is his imaginative pictures which
place him head and shoulders above the artistic crowd. His humorous,
colourful style has been likened to that of the late, great, Beryl Cook
OBE who painted quintessentially British characters with such panache.
Tony had combined all those skills to produce 10 paintings that capture
brilliantly the author's evocations of this eccentric family's sojourn
'It was exciting because the author's descriptions were so wonderfully
vivid they seemed like a gift to an artist, but it was challenging too
because my interpretations needed to remain faithful to the text',
It has taken fifteen months to complete the project, throughout which he
had the added challenge of working through a troublesome shoulder injury
and the need to keep a City client waiting patiently for his very large
Written and narrated by Gerald Durrell, My Family and Other Animals
records his five years on Corfu from the age of ten, following the
family's sudden 'migration' from dreary life in Bournemouth. He is
surrounded by his adult family of Margo his self-obsessed sister; Leslie
his gun-toting brother; Larry the oldest sibling and a writer; and
Mother who somehow remains the linchpin of this disparate group
throughout their many dramas.
Tony's series of paintings of paintings captures so convincingly this
other-worldly environment with its vibrancy of exotic flora and fauna
and the palpable warmth of bright blue skies and seas. The
eccentricity of the family members, their pets and friends is
brilliantly represented in the individual characterisation of Tony's
figures, whilst the swirling arrangement of each composition cleverly
reminds us that we are looking at a part of a flowing narrative that
constitutes the family's disordered life.
We are introduced to this bohemian world through
when Spiro, the family's 'champion' delivers them to their first island
home - the strawberry-pink villa- surrounded by a riot of colourful
vegetation. What a great depiction of the leathery faced, 'barrel
bodied' Greek and the disparate members of the family as they disgorge
their belongings from Spiro's beloved Dodge taxi.
In Sally in the Orange Groves we start to share the
adventures of Gerry the obsessive, 'corn-top' naturalist and his devoted
companions of Sally the donkey who leads them onwards and upwards and
Roger, the exuberant dog leaping excitedly at the prospect of another
journey of discovery. In the background is the 'enchanted archipelago'
which he investigates later by boat.
Gerry's extraordinary freedom pauses somewhat when his Mother, concerned
about his 'running wild', brings a succession of tutors into his life.
Tony paints a portrait of each of these eccentric figures with aplomb:
There's George, bearded and bespectacled under a straw hat
and swinging his walking stick 'vigorously' en route to teach Gerry. His
pupil most enjoys the lesson on how to create giant maps replete with
indigenous crops, animals and geographical features. Within the scene is
the pet pigeon, Quasimodo, who is excluded from the lessons after
spilling green ink on a freshly completed map. Unwittingly, the most
valuable lesson George teaches Gerry is the importance of recording
natural history observations on paper; this was to have implications on
the boy's future life as both a respected conservationist and an author.
Next comes the sartorial scientist, Theodore,
inappropriately dressed for the Mediterranean climate in his waistcoat
and suit. He not only shares Gerry's enthusiasm for zoology but
impresses him with revelations of the trapdoor spiders and delights him
with the gift of a pocket microscope.
The totally different, bird-loving
Mr. Kralefsky succeeds
him and Tony paints both tutor and student amidst the colourful, caged
birds which fill Kralefsky's attic and balcony. Gerry enjoys lessons
with him because they are dominated by feeding and watering the numerous
During his island travels, Gerry meets an array of the 'most weird and
fascinating Greek characters', including the pedlar,
Rose-beetle Man. Tony has interpreted him so accurately with his
pockets and bamboo cages stuffed with all manner of items and the
extraordinary, string tied, rose-beetles swirling around his head. Kralefsky's mother is another almost fairytale figure painted by Tony to
dramatic effect with her 'whispering court of flowers' in
Kralefsky and the Talking Flowers. Her minute, bedridden figure
is virtually engulfed by her almost magical mane of long, auburn hair
leaving us just as mesmerised by the sight of her as Gerry was.
The book is packed with amusing moments which appealed to Tony's sense
of humour and he has worked wonders in transforming them from print into
paint. They range from the launch of the ridiculously shaped and named,
built by Leslie with a twenty foot mast which promptly causes it to turn
turtle! In the painting of the same name, we see Tony's recreation of
the 'tapestry of sea life' which so enchanted Gerry and Roger the dog.
Another scene which Tony relished was the
the Daffodil Yellow Villa that began during Larry's
convalescence. It develops into a farce of people screaming conflicting
instructions, mother clutching her corsets as she rushes into the
flaming bedroom and Gerry wielding a hatchet, all brilliantly depicted
in this picture of swirling chaos and smoke.
Through these interpretations of life on a paradise island, Tony Todd
has given us a visual delight but he has left us with plenty to think
about too. His paintings shine a fresh spotlight on what many would see
as an idyllic childhood where the wonders of the natural world were
enjoyed and appreciated to the full. In turn, that raises many questions
about conservation, a subject that was to influence Gerald Durrell for
the rest of his life.
Carol Cordrey - Art critic