Tony Walton, Designs on Paper

Mark Segal, East Hampton Star, December 9, 2021

When Tony Walton was still a boy in London, his parents took him and his sister to the theater for a Christmas pantomime. Told they would be sitting in a box, “we were wondering how on earth we could all squeeze into this little crate,” he told Mervyn Rothstein in a 2008 interview for Playbill.

Led into a “grand velvet-festooned, Cupid-decorated ‘box,’ it was love at first sight,” he said. “I knew I was doomed to be part of this world.” Later, while studying Classics at Oxford, he started doing marionette shows. One day a well-known English artist who was in the audience said he should take up stage design. A slew of Tony, Oscar, and Emmy awards and nominations followed.

While theater and moviegoers have admired Mr. Walton's set designs for 60 years, his original artwork has been less often visible -- until now. “Tony Walton: Retrospective” will open Friday at Mark Borghi Gallery in Sag Harbor with a reception from 5 to 8 p.m. 

The exhibition includes approximately 100 hand-drawn sketches, paintings, and murals from his work on Broadway’s “Guys and Dolls,” “Pippin,” “Company,” “Annie Get Your Gun,” and others, as well as from the film versions of “Mary Poppins” and “All That Jazz,” and the American Ballet Theater production of “The Sleeping Beauty.” 

Among the works in the show, which was organized by Marisa Borghi, are costume sketches for Whoopi Goldberg in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” and pen-and-ink wardrobe drawings of Sean Connery, Vanessa Redgrave, Lauren Bacall, Michael York, Jacqueline Bisset, and Ingrid Bergman for “Murder on the Orient Express.” 

Also on view are watercolors of Lillian Gish, Julie Christie, and George C. Scott for “Uncle Vanya” and original preliminary sketches for “Mary Poppins.” Mr. Walton told The New York Times in a 1991 interview that the visual style of "Mary Poppins" was “rooted in an English theatrical tradition . . . There is a definite attempt to heighten reality, to fantasticate it, and try to make it a matter of delight.”

Eschewing a signature style, Mr. Walton told the Times that “I begin each project as though I’ve never done one before.” He characterized each new design as “a high dive into something yet unexplained.”

While Mr. Walton lives in Manhattan with his wife, Gen LeRoy-Walton, he has deep connections to the East End. His first marriage was to Julie Andrews, and he is the father of Emma Walton Hamilton, the actor, children’s book author, and co-founder of Bay Street Theater.

The exhibition will remain on view through Feb. 3. A portion of the proceeds from sales will benefit Bay Street Theater.