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Interview: Southampton cartoonist Toni Goffe

PUBLISHED: 16:32 31 July 2015 | UPDATED: 16:32 31 July 2015

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Former cartoonist and Southampton man Toni Goffe doesn’t take life too seriously, but there are as many layers to his work as there are on his canvasses says Sandra Smith

Yellow SunsetYellow Sunset

“I’m fascinated by looks from animals; they give you that stare. You have to get the eyes right.”

Whether it’s domestic cats, a herd of sheep or a lone donkey, Toni Goffe’s creatures are as mesmerising as they are colourful.

What makes them so hypnotic is momentarily tricky to deduce. At first glance the facial features appear to showcase a masterclass in simplicity. Yet such apparent effortlessness should not denigrate either the subject or the artist. For the minimalism in the animals’ expressions in no way weakens their gaze. Indeed, that moods can be insinuated via fictional body language is a measure of the artist’s ability to encapsulate eye contact and simultaneously convey sentiments which the viewer can swiftly pinpoint.

The resulting humour infusing Toni’s animal paintings kindles a feel-good glow, so I’m not surprised to discover either his priorities (“sleep, eat, paint and laugh”) or that he grew up in a household where cats and dogs were the norm.

“At school,” he recalls, “I was a bit dyslexic before that was a word. I didn’t get on that well but art was the one thing I could do. I painted mainly animals, and then humour came at art school. Southampton College of Art was a good experience - four years of mostly fun, learning to play the double 
bass - and some drawing as well! I did illustration, commercial art and painting. I went to London afterwards and started doing cartoons.”

The late fifties and early sixties were boom times for the cartoon market, enabling him to enjoy a considerable amount of success. Punch frequently published his work whilst commissions flowed from national newspapers.

He chuckles when recalling an example: “In one cartoon two bishops on a chessboard walked across a square - one said, ‘I feel I should do this diagonally’.”

Three's a CrowdThree's a Crowd

Alongside his success as an illustrator, Toni indulged his love of music as a professional double bass player. He also illustrated children’s books in what felt like a natural progression from cartooning.

But it is the spark which initiated his curious animal images I’m keen to uncover.

“I couldn’t believe the price of food for our cats. I decided they had better start working for me, so they became my models. It was great fun because they were always up to so much mischief. Once, one of our kittens sat in the middle of the dog’s bed and the dog was too timid to move it. This became a painting. My work sold incredibly well so I did prints and cards.”

Nominal as their facial expressions may be, an intricateness of clothing, which adorns many of his subjects, provides a lively counterbalance.

“We were going to the pub one lunchtime when it was really cold. A group of sheep stood huddled in a corner of a field. My wife said she should knit them little jumpers and I thought that would make a nice painting. So I added jumpers and hats to the sheep, the patterns giving interest. Then I moved on to cows and then pigs.”

Toni’s animal images are irresistibly quirky. It isn’t just an air of innocence which gives them a universal appeal, for the clarity of their body language creates a measure of merriment.

“I use mainly acrylics as they dry quickly and don’t get messy,” he explains. “My studio is so dark that when I’m painting I think it looks fine, but actually they are bright. But it fits the mood. I like bright colours. When I have a good idea, I’ll draw it out - not too much detail - then just get into it and let the painting make its way which is more fun. If I stick too closely to an idea, it’s diminished in creativity and excitement.”

Summer WaveSummer Wave

Along with a fondness for animals, Toni’s artistic interests have long included ships and boats. So it was fortuitous when he met maritime artist, John Stobart. The two hit it off immediately, striking up a friendship which continued after John moved to the US. “When John emigrated I used to go out and stay with him. Together we ran a gallery on the wharf in Boston.”

Taking on the role of mentor, John advised that the fastest way to become a good painter is to paint outside and whatever is about. “It’s the best lesson I’ve had,” Toni insists.

Their kinship played a crucial part in developing skills and John remains generous in his praise.

“Toni’s natural talent for observation and execution is rewarding because of his passion to express himself, aided by his cartoonist proficiencies. The pleasure he has given people is immeasurable.”

Landscapes, too, are a popular subject for this Southampton born artist, a genre in which his style ranges from vivid to muted. Traditional imagery mixes with contemporary tones, taking the viewer from misty dawn mornings to the sunniest of days. In his converted garage studio where roof windows encourage daylight, he details the appeal of such differing topics.

“What I paint is usually determined by how I’m feeling. About half my paintings are landscapes. If I’m sketching outside I use pastels, watercolour or gouache. Pastels are a bit messy but you can add watercolour as it’s made of the same stuff. Then I might add acrylic on top. I discovered this by trial and error.”

Watercolours, Toni advises, are best used directly onto a white background. He not only favours brushes and palette knives, 
“If I want to mush into another colour it’s quicker to rub it in with my fingers. When you’re in a rhythm it’s important to keep that going.”

Picasso's PetPicasso's Pet

These landscapes vary not so much in composition as approach. The subdued Lakeside Sunrise, for instance, exudes a softness in which tones melt into each other. Similarly, Misty Stare and Yellow Sunset project a romantic aura dominated by a gentle sensitivity seemingly evoking a slower pace of life.

Summer Moon and Summer Wave, in contrast, radiate effervescence. Their dynamic layers of vibrant hues stimulate energy providing the oomph element in a portfolio that is intriguingly varied.

Toni describes his method: “Early morning or late evening, when there are long shadows, is the best time to paint. If I’m doing a sunset or sunrise my colours range from orange at the bottom which goes to yellow then blue, but in between there’s a subtle duck egg blue, a difficult colour to capture precisely.”

The 78 year old, who appraises his images by displaying them in his lounge during the evenings (“After a few hours, you realise what you’ve got to do to them the next day”) was a founder member of the Hampshire Artists Cooperative based at the Selborne Gallery, where he regularly exhibits. Between now and July his work can also be viewed in Beaulieu Fine Art Gallery.

On one level Toni Goffe doesn’t appear to take himself too seriously, confessing a rivalry with his artist son and jokingly admitting a rare satisfaction with his own work. But there are as many layers to this artist as there are on his canvasses, and the quality of his images reveals fundamental talent - the result of dedication and an eye for detail, not to mention a passion for his environment and, of course, an appreciation of animals.

Find out more about Toni’s work at www.tonigoffe.com

***

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