Toni del Renzio

TONI del Renzio, the last of the pre-war Surrealists, ended his days with a connection to Leeds that will go down in art history.

On his deathbed he was still signing copies of his last manifesto, Alter Ego & Doppelganger, which was published in Leeds by Dr Jeffrey Sherwin, a leading authority on British surrealism, and honorary alderman of the city.

Toni del Renzio was born in 1915 in Russia. He was barely two when the 1917 Russian Revolution forced his aristocratic family to flee for their lives. After a schooling split between Switzerland and Britain, he went to universities in the United States and Italy, graduating in philosophy and mathematics.

As a student, he had mingled in artistic circles, but creativity came to an abrupt end in 1935 when he was conscripted into Mussolini's cavalry and packed off to fight in Abyssinia. He discovered that the Abyssinians castrated prisoners and he decided to abscond disguised as a Bedouin Arab.

He reached Morocco, and then Spain just as the Civil War was breaking out in 1936. Sympathising with the Republican cause, he took up arms against Franco but then, war weary, he set off again and reached Paris in 1937.

There he worked as a designer and painter, mainly for theatres and ballet companies, and soon became immersed in a vibrant European avant-garde, meeting Picasso and major Surrealist artists.

He began painting in earnest, producing delicately-coloured theatrical illusions inspired by the stage and dance. But the creative idyll was short-lived and in 1939 del Renzio took flight across the English Channel.

During the Second World War he was enlisted in "reserved" work connected with the Allies.

As everywhere else in Europe, the Surrealist movement in Britain was in tatters. The intellectual leader of the movement, ELT Mesens, had gone to work for the BBC, broadcasting Allied propaganda.

Del Renzio took it upon himself to revive the ailing movement. "War or no war, there was nothing being done about Surrealism. Hitler had to be defeated, yes, but Surrealism also had to carry on" he declared.

His efforts – he produced a single-issue magazine and staged a major Surrealist exhibition – provoked the fury of Mesens who viciously attacked del Renzio in the Press. By 1944, all the Surrealists, other than Ithell Colquhoun, to whom he was, by then married, had abandoned him. They even sabotaged a recitation of his poetry by showering the stage with rotten eggs.

After the war, del Renzio resumed freelance design activities, taught at Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts and became involved with the English Constructivist scene.

For the 1951 Festival of Britain he was asked to design a series of panels on the evolution of domestic kitchen machinery, a boom area at the time. But del Renzio yearned for more involvement in the finer arts and set off to Italy to study architecture.

On his return he joined the Institute of Contemporary Arts as director's assistant and founded the Independent Group. Its celebrated achievement was the This Is Tomorrow exhibition, opened in 1956 by a 12-foot tall Hollywood celebrity, Robbie the Robot, who was starring in MGM's Forbidden Planet.

By 1965 del Renzio was designing titles and credits and making advertisements for film and television. He also wrote scripts, directed films and acted. From 1975 to 1980, he was head of Art History at Canterbury College of Art. Then, as well as fathering quads at the age of 70, he concentrated on his painting.

He died on January 7 this year at the age of 91 and is survived by his wife Doris and his children Lydia, Pier-Luigi, Ivan and Tamara.