Artist Tony Ladd - Beauty is Egg-shaped
PUBLISHED: 01:15 29 March 2010 | UPDATED: 16:58 20 February 2013
Sussex wildlife artist Tony Ladd really does go to work on an egg. And now his stunningly authentic hand-painted replicas of British birds' eggs are sought by collectors around the world. Angela Wintle meets him at his seaside studio.
THERE is nothing more symbolic of Easter than the egg. Redolent of new birth and fruitful beginnings, it holds an almost mystical appeal.
But that appeal hasnt always been quite so benign. For generations of small boys, taking an egg from a wild birds nest was as traditional as playing conkers or making catapults. Boggy marshes, towering trees and even perilously craggy clifftops were no obstacle to the plucky youth intent on outsmarting his feathered prey and carrying home a prized trophy.
Fortunately, in these enlightened times, the pastime tends to be confined to a small group of obsessive collectors prepared to risk life, limb and even the law to steal rare eggs. As for the rest of us, well, our only chance of getting up close and personal with Britains astonishing variety of birds eggs is by visiting a natural history museum. Or so we thought.
On the West Sussex coast near Bognor Regis, wildlife artist and graphic designer Tony Ladd has hatched a way of rivalling Nature itself. From a charming summerhouse in his back garden, adorned with wooden bird carvings and fishing creels, he produces beautifully detailed hand-painted replicas of British birds eggs which he sells to collectors around the world.
No egg has yet proved too intricate for him. Whether its the delicate pink of the capercaillie, the sky blue of the song thrush, the deep olive of the nightingale or the heavily blotched and scribbled markings of the British waders, Tony can reproduce them all.
Each is an original piece of artwork and no two are alike, he says. Im endlessly fascinated by their diverse colours and patterns, which act as camouflage in the natural world be it in scrubland or thicket, hedgerow or wetland. The only bird that breaks this rule is the wood pigeon, which lays pure white eggs out in the open.
Tonys interest in ornithology stems from his boyhood when he learned to identify hawks, game birds and nightjars on his grandfathers farm on Ditchling Common near Brighton. Later, when the family upped sticks to the coast, he would jump on his bike at weekends and pedal furiously to Pagham nature reserve near Chichester in search of a marsh harrier or other rare bird sighting.
So it was scarcely surprising that when his father retired after a lifetime as foreman stonemason at Chichester Cathedral, Tonys thoughts turned to a retirement present with an ornithological twist.
A pair of peregrine falcons had been nesting in the cathedral tower for ten years and then suddenly disappeared. Dad put up a nesting box and a couple of years later they returned. I knew the birds were special to him, so I decided to paint him a clutch of peregrine eggs as a memento. He loved them to bits and it wasnt long before his friends were requesting replica sets.
Tony recreates the eggs of 58 British birds, divided into four collections: game birds, waders, garden birds and birds of prey, the last of which includes his favourite egg the darkly patterned osprey. He also produces the egg of the great auk which was the last bird in Britain to become extinct as well as individual specimens and clutches of one egg type.
Each set is displayed in a glass-fronted mahogany or beech box that echoes the style of Victorian display cases. He even adds a collectors label on the back, suitably stained to give an antique finish.
His attention to detail is much appreciated by his clientele, who are almost as varied as his bespoke egg wares. My eggs are particularly popular in America with the shooting brigade and my game bird collection goes down particularly well with our own green wellie fraternity. The garden birds eggs tend to be favoured by ladies for their summerhouses and conservatories.
Eager to meet the demand, Tony has now produced a set of limited edition art prints depicting assorted egg collections, divided into 12 families. Based on the wild birds eggs housed at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, they were launched last September and have already attracted worldwide interest with orders from as far afield as Canada, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany.
I brought them out to ease the flow of the eggs, which are immensely time-consuming to make, he says. But a lot of customers wanted the prints and the egg replicas. Such was the demand over Christmas, I actually had to post a note on my website informing customers that I couldnt take any more orders. Thankfully, they were happy to wait.
Today, Tonys work is mainly collected for its pleasing aesthetics, but one day it may prove to be as invaluable a legacy as the eggs donated by the Victorian collectors.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds predicts that global warming will result in around 20 of our British bird species being wiped out by the end of the century. And if that comes to pass then Tonys lovingly crafted collection could be a haunting relic of species that were once common in the countryside.
How Tony recreates the exact look
Tony set up his own business, Eggsact Replicas, determined to produce specimens that lived up to the title, as he was less than impressed with the replica eggs hed seen at country fairs. You could see the brush marks, he tuts. Id seen better Easter eggs.
But he realised that if he was to produce a wide range of British birds eggs, he needed accurate source material, and finding that the faded illustrations in his antiquarian bird books were nowhere near detailed enough, he went in search of the real thing.
His quest took him to the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, which houses Britains largest collection of wild birds eggs, stored in vast floor-to-ceiling mahogany cabinets. The collection, which is not on display to the public, contains thousands of eggs donated by Victorian collectors long before the collecting mania became illegal in Britain in 1954.
Tony set about meticulously photographing the eggs he needed, before returning home to work out the exact dimensions on his computer. Then, having made templates for each egg, he commissioned a pattern-maker to turn the wooden replicas on a lathe no easy matter as every egg was of a different shape and dimension.
The wooden eggs were then primed to seal the grain, finished with sandpaper and dropped in silicone rubber to create individual moulds, which he has since used time and again. Each time Tony produces a new egg, he makes a cast by pouring plaster, mixed with fibreglass particles for added strength, into a mould and leaves it to set.
Its then the turn of Tony, the experienced wildlife artist, to provide the all-important finishing touches and he has painstakingly devised a palette of natural colours, mixing and blending airbrush paints and emulsions with gouaches for their translucency.
He builds up the paint in layers, starting with the base colour, before adding the intricate marbling and mottling effects. He uses small pieces of sea sponge for dimpling and has even replicated fine squiggles and dots using a whisker shed by his daughters Bengal cat.