Arriving at his grand passion in middle age, the Larnaca man producing paintings to fall in love with is small and fast with a business mind, finds THEO PANAYIDES

There are many tales of people emigrating to the UK in childhood, ferried by parents who were seeking a better life and so forth; even here, however, Theo Michael’s story is a bit more dramatic. “My father got into trouble,” he recalls, sitting in his open studio and permanent gallery (Art by Theo Michael) in the centre of Larnaca, explaining why the entire Michael family left for England in 1960. What kind of trouble? “Oh, I can’t say…” he replies coyly – then gives a little shrug, leaning forward in conspiratorial intimacy. “They won at gambling, and they shouldn’t have won? That’s the story, anyway… The rumours are that a severed head was thrown into my dad’s courtyard, and [a note] said ‘You’re next’.”

That’s how six-year-old Theo (plus his three sisters and one brother, with two sisters still to come) found himself in London – where things didn’t really stop being dramatic. “I got run over, in the first week I think, by a car.” Not on purpose, he just wasn’t used to traffic after six years in Kalo Chorio: “I had never seen so many cars. I used to walk into doors, I’d never seen glass doors… Oh, and the television. I’d never seen a television. We used to say goodnight to all the people living in this little box, at 10pm”. He was fresh meat, an obvious rube, and didn’t speak a word of English – so instead “I’d draw a lot. There you go, that’s why I drew at an early age”. How about school? How did he avoid getting bullied? Oddly enough, he replies, a couple of his old classmates from the UK came to visit recently – having found his work online – “and they said to me I was very fast. Yeah, I was small, but I was very fast!”. He shrugs again: “I don’t remember anything about school”.

He’s still small and fast even now, at a grey-stubbled 68, sitting in the studio surrounded by his paintings and flanked by his German wife Anja (they’ve been married since 1988). He’s chatty, effusive, marvelling at my old-fashioned tape recorder and asking about my hobbies: “I play chess, do you play chess at all?”. He talks fast, his low voice skittering and dipping, he thinks fast – and he certainly moves fast. Name a card, he says at one point, when the subject of his “52 mates” comes up. The Jack of Spades, I reply. Theo nods, gets up, walks a couple of steps to a low table, picks up an unopened deck of cards and brings it to where we’re sitting. He holds up the deck to show that it is indeed unopened (albeit not sealed) – then takes out the cards and rests them in the palm of his hand. Turn the top card over, he instructs; I do – and there, lo and behold, is the Jack of Spades. (Magic!) The hand is faster than the eye, I presume.

Art is his middle-aged passion – or, more accurately, a lifelong passion that became a fully-fledged career in middle age. It’s all explained in Romance Isn’t Dead, a kind of primer on his life and work, co-written with Anja some years ago: “In 2005, Theo Michael found himself at a loose end – not old enough to retire, but too old to consider seeking further employment,” it begins. “He decided to become an artist, something he was particularly good at. The alternative was to become a cardsharp – something else that he was talented at… but the arts seemed to be a safer option. With the money saved on quitting a forty-a-day habit, he bought himself some brushes, paints and many how-to-paint books, and embarked on his new career,” meanwhile also relocating from the UK to Cyprus.

profile3The art, like the life, is dramatic, feeding off his childhood love of comics – that’s how he was as a boy, “my packet of playing cards in one pocket and a rolled-up Marvel comic in the other” – his reverence for Edward Hopper’s stark urban images (‘Nighthawks’, glimpsed in the window of a framing shop in Swiss Cottage, was life-changing) and his love of 1940s film noir, Humphrey Bogart, Casablanca: “I fell in love with that era… That style, that romantic style”. Anja recalls how they met, in 1983, when she was a German teenager on a six-month sojourn in London; she knocked on his door (she’d found the place through a friend; he was taking in lodgers) and “he opened the door with two little kittens in his hands,” she exclaims, smiling at the memory – and not only were they kittens, but their names were Bogie and Bacall! Romance, as they say, isn’t dead.

The art is romantic, with more than its fair share of elegant couples, rain-slicked streets, men in fedoras, stylish alcoves, not to mention a strong (though not ubiquitous) Cyprus element. It isn’t really ‘fine art’, however, whatever that means. His website ( calls them ‘Paintings to fall in love with’, quoting testimonials by emotional customers – but art critics seldom get emotional, nor do they really care about falling in love. His plan when he started out was to be a traditional painter, says Theo: “I wanted to hang in galleries, like one does. But our focus has changed now. I realised I was never going to be a fine-art painter… I learned that this style is not fine art.”

Some would call it kitsch, I suggest. What does he say to that?

“I grew up loving posters,” he replies, looking a little pained. “I grew up loving the paperback, and I grew up loving the graphic novel – and now it’s worth millions, that industry. So I don’t think that’s relevant. I think it’s equal to fine art, possibly better. I mean, people like Andy Warhol – I’m sure he had that same argument, and look at him now!” One might also mention Jack Vettriano, the Scottish artist with a similar ‘illustrative’ style, and indeed Theo does mention him, joking that his customers are the folks who can’t afford a Vettriano – which is not to say his own work comes cheap. An original Theo Michael oil painting is priced at around €4,000, though of course a print is much less (usually €75).

Art by Theo Michael is a business, from the open-studio concept – the door is open all day, which has led to the occasional nutter wandering in and having to be coaxed out – to the online ordering system, luring fans from all over the world; the testimonials on the site range from Pennsylvania to Perth, Australia. Theo’s mind is as much entrepreneurial – a business mind – as strictly artistic, and it may or may not be relevant that the one thing he can never do is imagine from scratch; he’ll always use visual references, taken from movies or life, Photoshopping the pieces together and holding the reference in his left hand as he paints with his right.

He’s always liked to draw, as already mentioned. “I’ve always been a bit artistic. My cousin said to me” – this was a long-lost cousin who recently came by the shop – “he said, ‘You were always weird’. I hadn’t seen him for 50 years, so even then I must’ve been a little bit weird!”. He and a teenage mate would “go to Pizza Hut and write poetry”, which is not standard adolescent-male behaviour. (Actually the mate wrote poetry; Theo would do the illustrations.) Yet he’s never been ‘artistic’ in the sense of being a dreamer, the languid bohemian sense of sitting around spouting theories and contemplating his navel. That’s too slow – not to mention impractical in a working-class family; and he, above all, is fast.

He’s a doer; you have to be. Take the cards, his “52 mates”. The only way to learn these amazing tricks is to practise and practise. “I remember us driving to work,” recalls Anja (this was back in the UK), “and he was doing – it’s called a ‘top change’, some kind of move, in the car. Forever! Forever! This one move, just to get it.” (“Only 10 people in the world can do it well,” he offers mildly. “I wanted to be one of those 10.”) It’s not just card tricks; the life has always been full, forever planning and doing. Admittedly, it started slowly: a careers officer, hearing that he was interested in figures, directed him to accountancy (a story so daft it can only be true) – but then he ended up working for Richard Branson at the very birth of Virgin, when the company HQ was a dingy office above a taxi rank. “I was involved with the nightclub side of his business, so I’d collect the money from his venues, pay the stars – like Tina Turner.”

That was fun, but he wanted to start his own business. He thought about a bookshop, then a hypnotherapy course on how to give up smoking (that one was all set to go, falling through at the last minute). He and Anja later ran a greeting-card shop called Card Magic, when they first moved to Cyprus. (“Total disaster!” she laughs.) By then, they had form – because back in the 80s, taking advantage of the home-video boom, they’d opened Terminal 5 Video, a thriving operation which grew to six shops in the Heathrow area and kept going till the mid-00s. “We made serious money,” he recalls. “We were ‘The best in family viewing’, that was our motto!” They have no kids, so just focused on business – indeed “we got caught up in it, we bought a really big house”. Theo bought a Range Rover, plunking down cash before the startled salesman. I can just imagine him in those days, with his cardsharp skills and 40 cigs a day, a canny little Cypriot living large in west London.

profile2It’s different now, naturally. He’s at the studio every day (he and Anja live in the back), seven hours, seven days a week; he has to be, it’s an open studio – though he’s also developed a skin condition called rosacea in the past few years, so he can’t stay outside for very long anyway. It’s fair to say he doesn’t entirely fit in, in the country of his birth. It pains him to see how few locals come in (almost none, actually), even as he’s selling art all over the world; just recently, one of his ‘chess paintings’ was bought by a Japanese aficionado searching for chess art (!) on Google. That too, in its way, is quite dramatic.

What’s he like, this card-carrying artist? His voice catches occasionally, and I wonder if (like Richard Branson) he’s ever had, or has, a serious stammer – but no, says Theo, it’s just that “I’ve always been shy. And I don’t like talking to people… I like to draw a lot, I work alone a lot – and I am a loner. So it’s not a stammer, it’s just that I’m not used to people.” That said, women in particular have always been attracted to him – not necessarily sexually, but to his energy. “I’ve always had lady friends, all my life… I’ll give you a story – I was getting a haircut, and I talked to the girl cutting my hair. Next day, she moves in with me!” He even went to Canada once, in pursuit of a girl, Anja reminds him (before her time, I presume). Theo nods, rethinking his loner credentials: “I suppose I was never alone for very long”.

Both can be true, of course. Women may be drawn by his easy candour and romantic streak, the lure of kittens named Bogie and Bacall – but romance is a kind of escape too, like the comics and card tricks and indeed the art. I suspect he’s always had one foot in a better, faster world than our own dull reality. He’s “Larnaca’s best-kept secret” according to a recent Time Out write-up – yet many of his paintings are indeed of Larnaca (like ‘Café at Night’, inspired by Art Café 1900), just a more dramatic, film-noir-inflected version of Larnaca.

Does he get depressed? (People with his restless, somewhat manic energy often do.) But no, says Theo, he’s too busy for that – always planning and doing – and besides “I’m a bit of a joker too”. No surprise that an expert in card tricks would enjoy tricking people – and his April Fool’s pranks are indeed legendary, the best one being perhaps the time when he stuffed a bunch of (unwanted) canvases in a bin outside his house and showed himself walking dejectedly away from the camera. “Time to put my toys away. Time to grow up… Artist no more!” declared the caption, prompting an international flurry of phone calls and worried comments – maybe because he is such an impish, high-energy figure, and could plausibly decide to scrap the art tomorrow and do something even more dramatic. He’s a card, that Theo Michael.