Whilst in conversation with the irrepressible Sophie Parkin, owner, with Jan Vink of Vout-O-Reenee’s: the private members club for the surrealistically distinguished in London, she let slip that Tony Common was due to be exhibiting in their The Stash Gallery from 9th November to 3rd December. This was rather exciting news as Tony was well known to me as the mural painter who has transformed the façade of the infamous Chelsea Arts Club on numerous occasions, however I was not familiar with his other artwork.
Sophie kindly put me in touch with Tony so I could find out more. Tony always knew that he wanted to be an artist. He himself admits that he wasn’t an academic and with also being dyslexic he spent all his time drawing during school. His schooldays were spent in Plymouth, Devon. With dyslexia being a virtually unknown condition at the time he was lucky to have a headmaster who was very keen on developing the art programme within the school and therefore helped path the way for Tony to go to art college.
In the late 50’s, Plymouth was a vibrant place to be an artist and produced many important designers such as Ray Hawkey, designer of the now iconic ‘The IPCRESS File’ 1st edition cover, the children’s illustrator David McKee and the Head of Graphics at the BBC Tom Taylor who would end up giving Tony his first break there. You could apparently rent studios on the Barbican area in Plymouth in an Elizabethan house for just £1.00 per month. Tony remembers sharing a house with another artist, an illustrator and a wood engraver. This all led to him believing that there is more to attending art college than just learning to draw:
“Although many believe you don't need formal training any more, as you don't need to draw as an artist. I disagree. You go to art schools for many other reasons; to share ideas, to choose a craft. Though it’s true that there are many great artists who are self-taught.”
Tony was influenced mainly by illustration as this was the path he had chosen himself. He liked pen and ink drawings as these were the main artworks featured in the Radio Times at the time – epitomised by the illustrator and graphic artist Eric Frazer. Graphic designers and illustrators Ben Shann and David Stone-Martin were also hugely influential. On a more traditional note, Tony was also inspired by Rembrandt, Turner, Samuel Palmer, Edward Hopper and at a later time Maxwell Parish, Andrew Wyeth and Francis Bacon. Interestingly though, the cinema was Tony’s main inspiration and films were his first passion. Well that and bird watching, he believed he would be a bird painter!
When Tony left Plymouth Art College he attended the Royal College of Art in London but only stayed for one term as he was in demand as a designer of book jackets and began freelancing at the BBC as a graphic designer – with thanks, as mentioned before, to Tom Taylor. He also worked for the Evening Standard who at that time published a student edition on a Friday, Tony did the drawings on the front page. Tony has spent all his working life in TV, film, commercials and music videos as either a scenic artist or art director, and quite often both at the same time. And it was during this career that Dudley Winterbottom, of the Chelsea Arts Club asked Tony to first paint the exterior of the club for the CAC Ball. The beginning of a beautiful relationship – Tony has painted the façade eighteen times over the years. So far!
So from massive murals to Tony’s new works ‘Lost In Space’ that are soon to be seen at The Stash Gallery. There are similarities in that Tony is still playing with familiar and well known objects in a surreal setting. However, this series of 35 paintings have a nostalgia and personal exploration that entices the audience to delve below the immediate. This is enhanced by the constant night sky that is featured in all the works. The fascination as a child of spacemen and the void of stars and planets is most definitely evoked when looking at the Lost In Space series. Tony himself has always loved the night sky, a passion that was allowed to flourish when he was creating the artwork for films such as Alien and Highlander. This cinematic fascination leant itself to other influences such as Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks and O.Winston Links night time trains which made a huge impression on Tony’s own artistic exploration.
The mixture of night sky, ‘lost’ astronaut and the everyday occurrences and items depicted within the paintings create a glorious visual experience. You feel that everything has meant something to Tony and are yet familiar within our own worlds. I went back to Sophie to get her thoughts on Tony’s work and the exhibition. Unsurprisingly she is:
“Very excited to be showing Tony Common’s work, his art direction on Angela Carter’s Company of Wolves was hugely influential. He has a fluidity ease and confidence with paint that others strive their whole life for, and miss. He’s quirky, funny, surreal and charming just like his work. He is like his spacemen connected to the work but looking down upon it. A total original; Tony deserves to be richly rewarded and universally recognised, unlike his name he is not at all Common.”