My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell

The Arrival  
Sally in the Orange Groves  
Mr Kralefsky  

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 easel.

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 on Corfu.

'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', reflected Tony.

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 commission.

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 The Arrival 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 species.

During his island travels, Gerry meets an array of the 'most weird and fascinating Greek characters', including the pedlar, The 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 Mrs 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, Bootle-Bumtrinket, 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 Fire at 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




The Rose Beetle Man
Mrs Kralefsky
Bootle Bumtrinket
Fire at the Daffodil Yellow Villa

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Copyright 2010 'Tony Todd'