First Published in World Art, 1995
Ralph Steadman... sorry, Doctor Ralph Steadman, doesn't like being called an illustrator. It's a technical term demeaning and disparaging of his work and usually comes fully equipped with its own modifier - such as "just an illustrator" or "only an illustrator", meaning definitely not an artist of any merit and certainly not a "real artist".
But Leonardo da Vinci was also an illustrator and they say he did a couple of half-decent pictures in his time.
There are more parallels between the two. A true Renaissance- person, Steadman may be well-known as an illustrator of the off-the-wall, drug-crazed, gonzo-journalism of the great Dr Hunter S Thompson, but the English cartoonist is also a painter, writer, sculptor, humourist and technology-nut. He has written and illustrated I, Leonardo, a book on da Vinci - one of Steadman's many obsessions.
His Doctorate of Literature was conferred by Kent University at a ceremony at Canterbury Cathedral in July last year (1995), and in his acceptance speech, Steadman said he was concerned with the impact the award might have on his character.
"I hope it doesn't knock off any of the jagged corners of my personality and I suddenly become a rounded person. I have probably been anti-establishment all my life. If I think of something and it makes me laugh, then I'll do it regardless of the ramifications."
This honest approach to life has won him devoted fans across the globe - and nearly had him lynched (see below).
While Steadman may be best known for his dog-mess cartoons, the studio at the back of his Georgian mansion, set in the green rolling hills of tranquil leafy Kent, is packed with a myriad of fully-developed styles in a most diverse (and perverse) range of media, from paper to Polaroid, video and agricultural machinery.
His manic energy and off-the-frame talent are balanced with an obsessive focus. He has wild ideas and the energy and determination to execute them. He has illustrated more than 30 books and written and illustrated two dozen of his own.
This year Secker and Warburg unleashed Steadman on George Orwell's Animal Farm with devastating effect. Five of the A3- sized illustrations are so stunning that this writer had no alternative than to photocopy the page proofs. It was better than stealing the originals. Steadman's Animal Farm is worth buying just for the expression on Farmer Jones's face as he shoots at Snowball in a downpour of birdshit.
Born on the day the Spanish Civil War began, May 15, 1936, Steadman has long had an affinity with Orwell and when invited to create an illustrated version of the anti-totalitarian classic, had no hesitation.
The fact that he was in the middle of a series of ethings of great writers, a coproduction with his (tor)mentor and friend of 25 years, Dr Thompson (tentatively called Polo is My Life), and several other projects including catalogues for U.K. liquor merchants, Oddbins, which pay much of his rent, was really neither here nor there.
Steadman is steadfast. No project too big or small. You want pictures? He's your man. But you'd better like his pictures. He doesn't come in beige and it won't match your furniture.
Dr Thompson took Steadman to the Kentucky Derby where the enthusiastic Welshman (on his mother's side, he was actually born in Cheshire, England) threw himself into sketching the strange new characters he met hanging around the bars of the bible belt Southern racetack. Apart from whatever drugs Dr Thompson was administering at the time, Steadman does not see precisely what others might - and he boldly draws precisely what he sees.
In redneck Kentucky, it was just too much. Steadman thought he was doing realistic likenesses, but most other people would agree that his work was dangerously surreal - particularly sketches of armed and dangerous owners sharing penis size and shape with their horses, which, seeking approval, he then showed the subjects. Thompson had to escort the protesting Steadman off the track before they were lynched.
And 1995 was the 25th anniversary of the artist who put canine crap back on the canvas where it belongs, teaming up with the drug-crazed, gun-toting, hippie, Hells Angels-molester, Doctor Thompson, for their first venture into bad craziness. The Kentucky Derby. To celebrate, Thompson held a bomb-doll-on-a- tractor-shooting-party at his Colorado farm. A true exploding plastic inevitable.
"It was a wonderful party. We had a shooting match all day. Shooting guns and shooting old silkscreen prints of mine - we signed a lot. An edition of shot prints," says Steadman.
"At the end of the day when darkness came, [Thompson] got a blow- up sex doll and stuck it in this huge John Deere big green tractor with a bulldozer blade on the front. He sat her there with the engine going with her boobs bouncing up and down in the spotlight and set up a propane gas bottle on a log and put an exploding target on it. We set a video camera going and he took aim and shot and the whole thing went BWAHH - a fireball up in the air - the most fantastic thing - and it looked like a small version of an H-bomb - the shape and the way it went up. It was just a magnificent thing."
While Thompson may be environmentally thoroughly unsound, Steadman cares about the planet. His Red Alert series; a striking series of sculptings - somewhat ignored by the timid London art market - recycled disused farm implements into art. The Sentence (pictured... ) began with a pair of industrial hooks for the judge's beak and chains were Unibonded to create the legal eagle's wig - a three dimensional cartoon. A very heavy metal spitting image.
Steadman's palette ranges from paranoids on Polaroid to full metal racket via pencil, pen and dog mess to paint, silkscreen, steel-plate etching and video.
His drawing career began as a cartoonist for local newspapers in London in 1959 and he hates being called an "illustrator".
"I can't stand that. It's like somebody doing diagrams for a Highway Code. It's a derogatory term. It's a virulent form of snobbery the art world suffers from constantly. It's just plagued by it. It never gets rid of it and never will."
He doesn't mind keeping company with da Vinci and Picasso in the cartoonist's pigeonhole.
A keen enthusiast of the new, he pioneered the smearing use of SX-70 Polaroids to create his Paranoids series - simply keeping the emulsion warm "close to your heart, under your armpit and I forget the third place - it's a moist heat" and carefully smudging and stretching the surface to create the effect of startled twisted faces.
He was the first to use a spray of ink across his page as part of his motif and remains miffed that another English painter who copied him is thought to have created the idea.
Asked to explain it, Steadman says he has a friend who is a dog psychiatrist and believes that the mess on the page is his equivalent to a dog spraying a lamp-post or a fence. It's a territorial thing. Ralph didn't say how long he had been seeing the canine therapist.
In his living room Steadman shows his latest gadget, capturing television on video and transferring it to a still camera and then taking that image or collage of images to a flat surface.
"Partly it is the intention to make every image I do with a Polaroid camera wilder than the person can ever be. It's partly an expression of me as much as the person I'm drawing. My erratic stabbing approach is suited perfectly to moving the emulsion around. It's like covering an enormous amount of ground in a small area."
In August Steadman returned to his home town of Abergele in North Wales to do a series of 20 portraits for an instant exhibition at an Eisteddfod. There is a Ralph Steadman Creative Suite at the Abergele Grammar School.
For the Cheltenham Literary Festival he created portraits of former Labour Party leader Michael Foot and writers Stephen Spender, Alan Bennett, Beryl Bainbridge and Iris Murdoch.
Steadman takes the developing Polaroid and twists, coaxes and scores the image.
"It's like paint and for awhile you can manipulate it as gooey as you like. The important thing is to retain something of the photography but then to change it into a combination of wildness and intense reality."
The 10cm x 10cm polaroids are then blown up to A3 colour copies which expands the manipulation of the paint "and it's really painterly then."
A series called Watergate Cha Cha Cha took images from a television program on disgraced and now deceased ex-president Richard Nixon and using a second hand Cannon video still camera produced a staccato movie to make a "teevee paranoid".
"I believe that all machinery is there for our creative use. It's a tool - so use the bloody thing. If it had been around in Leonardo's time, he would have used everything. Not only used everything, he would probably have invented half of it, too."
Steadman says he loves gadgets and playing with technology. It began with model aeroplanes and Meccano and bloomed in his years of national service in the Royal Air Force, where the British Government entrusted him with the care and happiness of aeroplane engines as did the De Havilland Aircraft Company, where he trained as an apprentice aircraft engineer. (He was also a trainee manager with FW Woolworth of Colwyn Bay, North Wales and a swimming pool attendant.)
Steadman says the creative process begins with the artist playing in the studio and then becomes engaged in a particular direction, without necessarily knowing why. Like original research in science, the exploration defines "fine art" from "commissioned art" which has to be done in a particular form.
"Fine art begins in a studio, playing games, playing mud pies and not sure what it is you're doing. And suddenly it engages your interest and you go down a path that you would never have thought of going and you start to create something that you never would have thought of when you got up that morning - or got up that night, depending on when you work.
"That really does nail the motivation in fine art - that it is a mystery tour. And with the other it is trying to achieve something with a foregone conclusion."
Steadman says that Paranoids is a good example. When the technology was first developed in the 1970s people tried playing with them, with little direction. The fact that the emulsion squidged allowed the creation of "impressionist" paintings.
Steadman bought his Polaroid for £100 in Harrods in 1972 and took it to Zaire with Hunter S Thompson to cover the 1973 Rumble in the Jungle Muhammed Ali versus George Foreman fight, using it as a reference tool for when he returned to the studio.
"But it was only when I was in Turkey in '82, one of them melted on me in the sun. I did a photograph of some passing Turkish ladies and I was able to squeeze it with my thumbnail. It looked as if the heat haze was growing. I thought, 'If I can do that I could probably do caricatures.' They were very crude at first. From then on I used them a lot. It was very expensive."
Invited by The Observer to cover a Conservative Party annual conference at the Blackpool seaside resort, Steadman agreed on the condition that it was through his newly developed paranoids technique.
"There were all these guys with Cannons and Nikons hanging around their necks and I was there with this little Polaroid camera - taking photos like an accredited photojournalist. People were just in hoots about it. And if I couldn't get near the stand, I'd go to one of the monitors, which had perfect lineless pictures and just shoot it off there."
It was the beginning of the end of the Thatcher-madness. Once paranoid by Steadman, the truth was shown to all and the Iron Lady began to rust. Within two years, Thatcher was thrown from office. Steadman has no regrets over his part in her downfall.
Asked about the difference between his pencil and ink and more painterly images as compared to the Polaroids, Steadman rejects the adjective.
"I still think a Polaroid is a very painterly activity, because you're manipulating emulsion. It doesn't matter about the size. You could say I was a miniature painter. That's what I'm doing at that size, being a miniaturist, but I can move the stuff so much more expressively. Because it's such a small surface you don't have to move much.
"But I love using an old fashioned pen with a split nib. I like it because of its expressive qualities. I quite like an old Bic black Biro. I use a red, a green and a black. You can get quite a nice picture."
Steadman is very fast and on one occasion was presented with a white cardboard cover for an unbound copy of his book on Sigmund Freud. Minutes later, the front cover had an original portrait in Bic Biro of Uncle Sigmund and the back boasted a portrait of a very proud but somewhat miffed book-owner. It included - in bright red ink - a blemish the book-owner sought to have omitted. Naturally Steadman could do little other than focus on it.
Similarly, he was assailed by Jones of Colorado,- a cat that strayed into the free-fire zone that Dr Hunter S Thompson calls home.
"I struck up this relationship with this quite weird cat. Very self-possessed, like a selfish god. Just like Hunter. Very like Hunter in many ways - it didn't suffer fools gladly.
"So I went down to the art shop in Aspen and bought myself a handsome little sketchbook and started drawing. I'd written a piece about him, which I polished up and changed and added to and it's a really nice little book." Jones of Colorado was published in October.
Also out in 1995 was his illustrated Animal Farm, published August 17 for the 50th anniversary of George Orwell's original. Five of the illustrations, Battle of the Cowshed, Dogs Chasing Snowball, Napoleon and His Dogs, Death of Boxer and Pigs And Men are each significant works in their own right.
Steadman said he tried to imagine what the animals were going through and incorporate "humour, colour and blood." The work is ink on heavyweight A1 cartridge and hand-made paper.
Steadman nominates Death of Boxer as his own favourite.
"Boxer the carthorse portraying the people, the power strength and soul of the revolution. The trust, the mass of Russia, the hard labor that was put into the revolution and betrayed by Stalin. The Death of Boxer is the dying soul of the revolution."
Steadman said he might do an illustrated 1984 for its anniversary in 1998. He normally chooses his own subjects but says Animal Farm was a request from Secker and Warburg editor Max Eilenberg, who said that if Steadman didn't do it, the job would not be offered elsewhere.
But Steadman is an Orwell fan and couldn't resist the offer, despite the crush of other commitments.
Apart from an ongoing series of etchings and the illustrations for Oddbins catalogues, he is also designing the sets and costumes for a new production of Gulliver's Travels for Theatre Clwyd in North Wales.
"I've never been so busy in all my life. It's kind of... good. Humphrey Carpenter has written an interesting version of [Gulliver] using computers and I said that if it's Lilliput, the computers are worked by clockwork. So everything must be clockwork. Accessing in clockwork... I've designed a backdrop with clockwork innards so that everytime anything turns - we've got a revolving stage - cogs move and stuff. It's very tangible."
"I've got a collage of clockwork parts here, which is called Wasting Time. I was wasting time doing it really, because it's still here. It's all clockwork parts. I love clockwork pieces going into solid mass that couldn't possibly move. I make these constant attempts to escape doing day-to-day work - drawings to make a living - and do what I like to do which is more like playing around and inventing things.
"Thank god for Oddbins. It gives me time and space. If I had to advertise creosote I don't think I'd have the same enthusiasm. But since I'm advertising wine, I find that's an excellent combination. I've been doing it since 1987 and I'm given complete freedom."
Steadman has been sent around the world on a drinking... er... wine tasting... expedition, which resulted in The Grapes of Ralph and a deep knowledge of the world's wine.
"It's like having a patron. Somebody that says: 'Go and enjoy yourself. Do paintings. Just so we profit from it in a very soft sell way.' We don't do a hard-nosed catalogue."
A longer term and more sober project - in its third year - is a series of etchings on steel plate of great writers: James Joyce, Hemingway, Anais Nin, Edith Sitwell. They are almost classical with a gentle Steadman tilt.
He says world leaders are victims of fate and he has depicted them, in silkscreen prints, as such. "Terrorist, revolutionary dictator, king and queen, president. They are all in a sense, victims of fate. Prince Charles is a victim of fate."
He also created a series of nine limited edition silk screen prints documenting a bullfight. Beginning with the opening paseillo we see the violent conflict between matador and bull until the poignant conclusion - an empty bullring with just the blood of the slaughtered animal staining the ground. The writers, leaders and bullfight sequence have toured the U.K.
While Steadman describes himself as "apolitical" he has lent his name to many causes, including an attempt to save Henry Moore's works from the Henry Moore Foundation. When Moore's daughter Mary called on the British arts world for help in October 1991, she was met with a resounding silence, which she attributed to the lure of grants paid to artists by the Foundation.
"A lot of people have something to lose or some hope of something to lose by expressing themselves publicly, even if they agree with my sentiments," said Mary Moore, who thought that "gutless wonders" was a correct way of describing some of the great and good of the British arts world.
Ralph Steadman had no such fears. Steadman had met Henry Moore on a number of occasions and was appalled by the Foundation's attempt to alter the property.
"It should remain as it is, otherwise it will become a theme park... a Disneyland," said Steadman, who recommends pres erving the famous Moore studios in the same manner as Monet's - clean the grounds, put in a few pathways and forget major building programs that will ruin the property. "They want to make it into something that isn't Henry. They want to build a monument," said Steadman.
When Dr Thompson faced sex, guns and drugs charges for possession of small amounts of marijuana, cocaine and a gattling gun, Steadman led a successful world-wide campaign against the frame up by a Colorado court official.
But despite all of his courting of controversy, the charming rotund laughing Englishman from Wales remains popular even among the establishment he eschews and is ever happy to criticize and challenge.
In accepting the Doctorate of Literature, he told the students undergraduating with him that he thought the invitation was accidentally sent to the wrong person and it should have gone to another Ralph Steadman, the brain transplant surgeon and black hole cosmologist of 32 Acacia Drive...
His speech was a perfect combination of his humility and humour:
"My Lords, Ladies, Gentlemen, Young graduates, Fellow Artists, Fellow Fellows, Men of God, Heretics, Worshipful Mayors, Pedants, Parents, Speculators, Politicians, Tyrants, Dictators, Good People, All...
I have been asked to offer a few words of encouragement to those tender, fresh-faced, tremulous, yet hopeful and aspiring young people on this our collective day of graduation.
I have been asked to speak to you. YOU! The new thrusting breed. The driving force of tomorrow's world. You with your insufferable brightness, notwithstanding, the abrasive majesty of your uncertain poise! You with your lusting enthusiasms! You with your mixture of cretinous bad taste, brilliant colour-blinding pedantry, natural grace and absence of fear!
I have been asked to speak to you of your tomorrow, your virtual tomorrow, for you are now virtual realists. You already know what to access and what to reject, what to log in and what to download. You surf in and out of coded possibilities; you browse over netscapes, disdainfully view worldwide webs in an Internet heaven like streamlined bees buzzing on electronic stamens gathering information, making honey, devouring anything that lives or even moves in the fast lane. You overtake effortlessly in your airless superhighway software machine, waving back carelessly as you pass, and we wonder, was that a thankyou - or a sign of dismissal.
And I have been asked to speak to YOU. Perhaps you should speak to me. Tell ME what I need to know, what WE need to know.
Listen it's tough out there, but you know that already. You too can access the news. We can all access our own worst nightmares, we do, everynight, on the hour, almost to order, and download it if necessary, then surf on. We are lost, terribly lost, so lost in fact, that we have to lie to ourselves every day, creating lotteries of hope and delusion to get by. We have practically privatised our air, given it to the shareholders, made it their responsibility, so that we can pay for it, through the nose. We are so used to it now, that if we didn't pay for every god given miracle on this planet we would be so wracked with guilt, we would rather pay for it - or find a way of making money out of it before somebody else does.
"So that's it guys, in a nut. We are all graduates now - all buddies together, feeding from the same trough. So, if no one person hogs all the tomato ketchup, we may just get by. Bless your hearts and thank you most kindly."
And thank and bless Cheshire, Wales, the RAF and FW Woolworth for giving us Dr Ralph Steadman.
Ralph Steadman's website can be found here.
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