Ralph Steadman is a British artist and cartoonist whose style is defined by energetic ink splatters and grotesque, natty figures, known for his collaboration with American author and journalist Hunter S. Thompson. Steadman works with pen and brush in ink, also using acrylic and oil paint, etching, silk screen, and collage. Distinctive visual language along with his political and social caricatures, cartoons and picture books made Steadman one of the most popular artists of the 20th century.
Ralph Steadman was born in 1936 in Wallasey. One of his earliest memories is hiding in an Anderson Shelter during an air raid in WWII while his mother knitted. Before the end of the war the family moved to North Wales and ended up staying once the war ended in the North Wales town of Abergele. Ralph attended Abergele Grammar School but was terrorised by the headmaster who routinely caned boys and it lead him to believe that “Authority is the mask of violence.” Ralph is in the photograph below – spot him if you can!School Photograph of Abergele Grammar School while Ralph Steadman was there.
One of Ralph’s favourite pastimes growing up was to make model aeroplanes. He would rush home from school and would always complete any outstanding homework before allowing himself to indulge in his hobby. This work ethic has remained with him and later, when he began working with Hunter S Thompson, would lead to no end of irritation to his tall, trans-Atlantic friend when Ralph would often have completed his drawings before Hunter had written a word.
Model Aeroplane making likely lead him to his first job at de Havilland Aircraft Factory as a radar operator. It was here that he picked up the skill of technical drawing, a skill that has featured in his artwork throughout his career. He left de Havilland after a few months however, unable to bear the monotony of factory life.A model aeroplane made by Ralph Steadman as boy.
Having completed his National Service in 1954, during which time he completed the Percy V. Bradshaw Press Art School correspondence course, he moved to London and started work as a cartoonist. He went to meet Percy V Bradshaw once and commented that the course was a little old-fashioned. Bradshaw sagely responded “The principles of drawing will always remain the same, dear boy.”
His first cartoon was published in the Manchester Evening Chronicle in 1956.Ralph Steadman's first ever published cartoon for the Manchester Evening Chronicle
In 1959, frustrated by the limits of his skills, he enrolled at East Ham Technical College to learn the ‘discipline of drawing’. It was here he met his mentor, Leslie Richardson, who taught life drawing. 1960 saw his first appearance in Punch magazine, where he eventually progressed to cover design. In 1961, encouraged by Richardson, he enrolled at the London College of Printing. By this point he was beginning to find the demands of newspaper cartooning too restrictive:
‘Cartooning wasn’t just making a little picture and putting a caption underneath. It’s also something else – a vehicle for expression of some sort, protest, or it’s actually a way of saying something which you cannot necessarily say in words.’
An Illustration from Fly Away Peter by Ralph Steadman, written by Frank Dickens.In 1961 he wrote to the editor of newly founded Private Eye and began to explore a new, more provocative style, drawing on influences like George Grosz and John Heartfield. During the 1960s he illustrated several children’s books, including Fly Away Peter (1964 featured right), The Big Squirrel and the Little Rhinoceros (1965), The False Flamingos (1967), and The Jelly Book (1967), which he also wrote. His work was regularly appearing in New Society, Radio Times, Town, New Musical Express and the Daily Telegraph.
The White Rabbit illustration from Ralph Steadman's version of Alice in Wonderland, by Lewis CarrolIn 1967 he began work on his illustrated Alice in Wonderland, which won the Frances Williams Award in 1972. Steadman updated the classic Tenniel illustrations for the 1960’s turning the White Rabbit into a commuter, perpetually late for work, the Mad Hatter became a union leader and the Caterpillar suddenly began to resemble John Lennon enshrouded in a fog of smoke.
His big break really came in 1970. Having published his first collected book of cartoons, Still Life with Raspberry, with it under his arm, he set off to America to cover the Kentucky Derby for Scanlan’s Monthly, where everything would change on his meeting Hunter S. Thompson. Described as “a Hell’s Angel who had shaved his head,” Steadman set off to meet this maverick journalist at the Kentucky Derby. Legend has it that it took them 3 days to find each other. Ralph often recalls that Hunter commented when they finally met, “Well they said you were weird, but I did not think you would be that weird!”. Warned not to do any of his “Filthy scribbling” Ralph almost caused a fight at the Pendennis Club in Lousiville before being maced by Hunter to help him escape.
Cover of Scanlan's Magazine which contains the feature The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.by Hunter S Thompson, Illustrated by Ralph SteadmanTogether Ralph and Hunter would develop ‘Gonzo’ journalism, where you do not simply cover the story but become the story. So began a lifelong collaboration, including the iconic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which was originally serialised in Rolling Stone Magazine. Another lifelong association was begun, and Steadman is still listed as Gardening Correspondent for the legendary publication.
Between projects with Hunter, including Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trial ‘72, The Curse of Lono (1983) and Polo is My Life (1994), and numerous pieces for Rolling Stone, Steadman continued to produce his own books, including Sigmund Freud (1979), I Leonardo (1983), The Big I Am (1998), as well as children’s books such as That’s My Dad (1986), No Room to Swing a Cat (1989) and Teddy! Where Are You? (1994).
In 1987 Steadman was approached by Gordon Kerr at Oddbins to travel the vineyards of the world and produce artwork for their catalogues. Gordon remains a friend and now writes condensed history books.A portrait of Roland Gessler in his 1945 Hussein-Dey Grape Crusher from the Oddbins drawings by Ralph Steadman
Between 1987 and 2000 he did just that, producing hundreds of artworks, many of which would eventually appear in his two award- winning books on wine, The Grapes of Ralph and Untrodden Grapes, and his book about whisky, Still Life with Bottle.
He has always diversified in his career, producing theatre sets for a ballet of The Crucible (2000) performed at the Royal Opera House; a production of Gulliver’s Travels (1995) for Clwyd Theatr Cymru; and an oratorio and images for an eco-opera, The Plague and the Moonflower, with music composed by Richard Harvey.
More recently he has illustrated three books about extinct and endangered birds and animals with Documentary film-maker and co-Gonzovationist Ceri Levy, Extinct Boids (2012), Nextinction (2015) and Critical Critters (2017).
Levy approached him tentatively through another acquaintance, Lady Catherine St German’s whose husband, Peregrin started the charming Port Eliot Festival. He was putting together a show of artworks, The Ghost of Gone Birds, to feature extinct birds by a variety of artists and he asked if Steadman might submit a drawing of an extinct bird of his choice. Illustrations of extinct birds by Ralph Steadman for his his first collaboration with Gonzovationist, Ceri LevyLevy often muses that he had no response for several weeks and suddenly 4 extinct birds appeared in his inbox and lo, the Gonzovation Movement was born. Steadman ended up producing over 100 images of extinct birds, and imagined boids, which Bloomsbury then published. Steadman’s artworks were all hung, side by side in rows in one room and binoculars were provided for the viewers to view them through. Following on from Extinct Boids they naturally decided to collaborate on a book about critically endangered birds, entitled Nextinction, and then on their third book together which focussed on endangered animals, Critical Critters.
Portrait of the character, Hank from Breaking Bad by Ralph SteadmanIn between all these Gonzovation projects, Ralph was asked by Vince Gilligan to create the collectors DVD Box Set artwork for his hit series, Breaking Bad. He produced portraits of 7 of the cast members, 6 of which appeared as the DVD box covers. Only one was unused as the artist would not grant permission for its use and so the image sits in a drawer, destined to be unused and unseen. The image featured right is an unused portrait of the character, Hank.
At the end of 2018 he also worked on visuals for the poster art for a brand new Broadway show, Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus starring Nathan Lane.
In 2012 a film of his life and influences, 15 years in the making, called For No Good Reason premiered at the Toronto Film Festival to critical acclaim.
Ralph is still drawing and producing art today, working regularly for the New Statesman, The Independent and the New York Observer, as well as working on his own projects. He is a maverick and trail blazer whose art inspires and influences artists today.
Ralph Steadman Wants to Change the World
e were sitting in a bar in Aspen, Colorado, almost 20 years ago, I remind Ralph Steadman, when he first told me that he'd become a cartoonist because he wanted to change the world. It wasn't the first time he'd made this declaration and it wouldn't be the last. But it's a mission statement that seems horribly apposite this afternoon, as we sit in the living room of his house near Maidstone, Kent, watching live news coverage from the print warehouse where Said and Cherif Kouachi, the killers of the Charlie Hebdo artists, are making their last stand.
"It is interesting that you should mention that remark today," says Steadman, "because, looking at what has been happening in Paris, I now feel that I have succeeded. I did manage to change the world, and it is a worse place than it was when I started. Far worse – an achievement I had always assumed would be impossible."
With the exception of a brief radio interview on the day of the shootings, Steadman had declined to join the throng of commentators jostling to share their opinions on the tragedy. Just as I arrived, he had spurned an invitation from a radio station in Lincoln, Nebraska. "As soon as this thing happened," he says, "the phone started ringing. I don't know why."
"Probably," I tell him, "because people perceive you as precisely the sort of . . ."
". . . bastard who might draw something that would severely displease somebody because they could not see the joke?" the 78-year-old interrupts.
It's more likely that, given his reputation for images of grotesque irreverence, typified by his illustrations for his friend Hunter S Thompson's demented novella Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, people see him as eminently qualified to assess the splenetic defiance in the work of revered cartoonists like Cabu and Wolinski, who died in the assault. I was with Steadman when he last saw Thompson, a few months before the writer's suicide, which occurred 10 years ago next month and, as I tell the artist, I can remember the intense emotional impact that particular death inflicted on him.
"What was your first reaction when you heard about the attack in Paris?"
"I thought, 'Oh, bloody hell, this cannot possibly be true.' Disbelief. After that, I think I was in shock." Steadman explains that he heard the news from his wife, Anna, when he came in from his daily swim in the outdoor pool behind his house. "And then, as I say, the phone calls started. And I just said to myself, 'I am not going to respond to this now. I've got to let some time pass. I can't start handing down judgment on this yet.' We put the television on, as I guess most people did. We saw the hideous sight of that wounded policeman on the floor."
"Ahmed Merabet: a Muslim."
"Yes. There are so many terrible and perverted dimensions to this affair. Can you imagine if the killers were to walk in here right now? We say, 'Right. Explain why you did this thing.' And they say, 'We felt that we were being ridiculed in France.' When you think about it in rational terms, the whole thing is surreal."
"You would like to imagine that they [the cartoonists] looked in to their faces and laughed," he says. "You would like to think that they died laughing." FRENCH DISASTER Steadman's original piece for Newsweek in reaction to the Charlie Hebdo Murders. Ralph Steadman
Steadman, as I remind him, is hardly unfamiliar with the power of gross and offensive imagery created with subversive intent. But the caricatures of Allah and Muhammad, I suggest, take any moral debate into rather more complex territory than do, say, his merciless depictions of Richard Nixon, George W Bush, or Tony Blair.
"Obviously there's a long tradition of work in which satire and vulgarity collide," I suggest. "But is it always legitimate to cause offence?" The Charlie Hebdo artist I've had most contact with over the years, I explain, is the 86-year-old anarchist Maurice Sinet, known as Siné, who was fired from the magazine after contributing, in 2008, a column and drawings which had him accused of inciting hatred against Jews; the kind of editorial sanction the paper has not always extended to artists satirising Islam. You hardly need a degree in religious studies to know that depicting the prophet Muhammad as a dog (as the Swedish artist Lars Vilks did, in 2007) will cause most Muslims to take offence and, most would agree, with good reason. Does Steadman ever find himself looking at such images and thinking: what's the point?
"There can come a stage where what you are producing is just irresponsible graffiti. For which – yes – there is no point. But working as . . . I don't often find myself using the phrase 'a responsible satirist' . . . you would seek to produce something that is very funny in some way."
"Which Charlie Hebdo could be."
"Yes," Steadman replies. "It is quite reasonable for a reader to be offended. It's slightly less reasonable to enter an office armed with two Kalashnikovs and a grenade. Most people would regard that as something of an overreaction."
Steadman has an apartment in Paris, not too far from that address. He knew Georges Wolinski, Cabu, and several others of the victims. "It does bring a peculiar focus to these events," I suggest, "when you realise that there is a real, if very remote, possibility that you could have been a guest in the building that day."
"And when you imagine that," Steadman says, in a remark that curiously anticipates an interview which will later be broadcast with Michel Catalano, the owner of the print warehouse who offered the Kouachi brothers coffee, "you find yourself wondering how you would have reacted in those circumstances. What could you possibly say? 'How can I help you? Can I get you a drink? Milk and sugar? Or would you prefer that I served as a target?'"
One of the stranger aspects of the tragedy is the way in which solidarity with Charlie Hebdo, a publication not known for its conservatism or subtlety, has been effusively expressed by the kind of people with whom its staff would have struggled to empathise, among them David Cameron, headline writers for The Sun, and Marine Le Pen, who was once represented by the paper as a pile of faeces.
Ralph Steadman, by contrast, says he struggles to find the kind of language appropriate to describe the events in Paris. "In the case of the killers," he tells me, "it's far easier to find adjectives that are inappropriate. Like 'anodyne'. And 'atheistic'. 'Apathetic'. And 'Anglican'. I'm still on the As. We could go through the whole dictionary'."
I should probably say that I have never met a more compassionate person than Steadman before mentioning that this last remark, dark as it is, strikes us both as extremely funny. We've been talking for an hour or so and this is not the first time we've found ourselves laughing. I don't know, I tell the artist, what that says about us as people.
"Tragedy provokes different offshoots of thought," he replies. "Even at a wake, you can't keep sitting there saying, 'Oh, it's terrible you know. I feel terrible. Do you feel terrible? You must do, I know, but I can tell that you don't feel anything like as terrible as I do'. As humans we just can't do that."
Some years ago, when we were travelling in Utah, Steadman told me that he feels interviews sometimes risk sounding like posthumous tributes. What adjectives, I asked him, would he like to see in his own obituary?
"Distasteful," he said. "Unhygienic. Truculent. Moody. Provocative towards bastards."
"How about long-lived?"
"Oh, yes. I'd like my obituary to say: 'He was very long-lived. Endlessly. We thought he'd never go away'. A pause. "And we were right: he didn't."
Since then, his painting has continued to resonate with a new, younger audience. He recently completed the artwork for a limited edition Blu-ray release of Vince Gilligan's Breaking Bad, which goes on sale next month. His distinctive labels for Jim Caruso's Flying Dog Brewery have helped turned beers such as "Raging Bitch" into globally recognised brands. And Steadman's longstanding friendship with Johnny Depp was the focal point of Charlie and Lucy Paul's acclaimed 2012 film about Steadman, For No Good Reason. "In many ways," Depp told me, "I look upon Ralph as a kind of miracle. It is just a gas to go down and see him in Kent; an incredible privilege. He really is just so gentle and so nice. And yet at the same time he is, as you know, a psychopath."
Ralph Idris Steadman was born in Wallasey and grew up in Abergele, North Wales, from the age of five. He dropped out of an engineering apprenticeship at aircraft manufacturer De Havilland after less than a year, "because I couldn't stand factory life" and went to work at Woolworths supermarket in Colwyn Bay. He began drawing seriously while completing his military service.
"I enrolled in a correspondence course," he says, "taught by Percy V Bradshaw, called 'You Too Can Learn To Draw And Earn £££s'."
His principal mentor was a highly-gifted art teacher at East Ham Technical College, Leslie Richardson, who died last month. People often struggle to reconcile the benevolence of Steadman's character with the extreme viciousness of the work. If there's one crucial impulse that drives him, I suggest, it's his ferocious detestation of the bully.
"My parents were kind people," says Steadman, "with a strong sense of the need to defend the defenceless. I was brought up to be honest by my mother and father. They were very concerned about that. They believed that honesty should be the foundation of anyone's life. That ideal was ingrained in me."
"I can't imagine you having ever been involved in a fight."
"No. I can't do it, which naturally risks putting you at the mercy of bullies. At school I can remember flapping my arms around, in some attempt at defence."
"Of course part of that awkwardness relates to physique. Had you been built like – I don't know, Johnny Weissmuller [the best known Tarzan] – you would have had a very different experience of the world."
"Undoubtedly. The thing is that, temperamentally, I'm less like Tarzan, more like Jane."
His international reputation was established in 1971 by his illustrations for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, in which Thompson took the Wodehousian bachelor's blithe and incautious attitude to alcohol and extended it to LSD and munitions. Thompson brought the hubris of a delinquent rock guitarist to the normally sedate world of American letters.
The two men's relationship was a curious one to say the least. The softly-spoken Englishman contributed generosity, patience and good-humour. Thompson responded with theatrical abuse that sometimes crossed over into real meanness. I saw him reduce Steadman to tears on two occasions, and that was just while Thompson was still alive. And yet if, like Steadman, you appear to produce your best work when anguished, Thompson's was a useful number to have in your contacts list.
Steadman's artistic range is such that it would be unfair to describe him simply as an illustrator or cartoonist. He is, as his friend Bruce Robinson, director of Withnail and I and The Rum Diary told me, "A supremely talented artist. I feel it is a privilege to know him, because at his best he has the power of fucking Goya. I mean that. There is no one else in his league that I know of."
Steadman's own satirical targets have tended to be men abusing positions of power, and consequently very different people from the Charlie Hebdo assassins, who came from the class commonly described as the urban dispossessed, and who would undoubtedly have experience of scorn and racism.
"I am quite sure that people must have treated them like shit," Steadman says. "But I also think they were bullies, in not so different a way than certain politicians. Think of the mechanics of the killing. They call out the names, perhaps with those terrible pauses you get in reality shows. 'And the contestant leaving us today is . . .' I hope those deaths were quick, but in the minds of the killers it was probably the slower the better. I imagine they would have preferred to use a single shotgun, which required careful reloading each time, or a chainsaw. I think they were seeking to produce a very particular kind of shock."
In many ways, Steadman argues, "I think that terrorists and some political leaders share a similar mindset, in that they consider themselves to be believers. They are devoted to a cause and they'll go to any lengths to uphold their chosen position. They are not completely stable, as the word is usually understood."
"So you can see a kind of similarity between terrorist operations and the rationale that led to the excursions to Vietnam or Afghanistan?"
"I can, and a big part of it is that sense of pride. Once they start the war, or the mission, they feel they can't stop. That would mean losing face. In the Rue Nicolas Appert they tried to give the whole thing a veneer of organisation by calling out the names, the death list, which must have been rehearsed. These are people who obviously have no sense of humour."
"It would be interesting to know what they would have laughed at."
"The helpless, the broken and the lame," Steadman replies. "Bullies. That is what they were."
"There's an odd confluence in all this: what these murderers represented was everything you have opposed all your life, and their victims were working, broadly speaking, in the same trade that you practice."
"And killers express their desires with blood. Very often my ink has the appearance of splattered blood. It's a recurrent theme; I don't know why."
Steadman's thoughts turn to the probable backlash against the wider Islamic community in France, once the prevailing spirit of national unity begins to dissolve, and the extreme right identifies the resulting tension as a commodity.
"Not that these two brothers were religious," Steadman says. "Who could argue that they were devout? My own view of all religion is that, if it brings people comfort, why deprive them of it? But I do think that, with certain people, belief can pervert morality."
"You were close to Kurt Vonnegut – didn't he once say that the only proof he required for the existence of God was music?"
"He also said that life is no way to treat an animal. And I think I know what Kurt Vonnegut would have said about all this, and not in an uncaring way: 'So it goes'. Meaning that, very sadly, these things happen. My father was in the first war and it was a hideous bloody affair. But of course those in that war, broadly speaking, never wanted to shoot. They were ordered. By some poncey bloody general, or Duke."
Would it be absurd to ask whether any good might come out of the events of 7 January?
"The only thing that you could possibly say that has not been entirely negative in this affair is that it hasn't half provoked a lot of discussion. Moral turpitude is high on the agenda. People are questioning their own stance on a whole range of things in a way that they might not have done previously."
"I didn't come here meaning to quote my own work," I tell Steadman, "but there is a psychopathic character in one of my books who is described as dangerous 'because he believed that the pen was mightier than the sword, but didn't always have a pen to hand'. People all over the world, on the streets and on social media, are finding all kinds of visual ways to rework that old proverb. These shootings could place cartoonists at the heart of contemporary conflict rather in the way that poetry became the most important form of artistic expression in the First World War."
"Or in the Spanish Civil War. I think that's very possible. It's also possible that, in some people's minds, becoming a cartoonist might seem like a heroic thing to do. Either heroic or suicidal."
"You'll know that Peter Cook once joked about the way that all of those satirical night clubs in 1930s Berlin 'did so much to prevent the rise of Adolf Hitler'. Can all of these new cartoons have any effect?"
"I think – I know – that satire does frighten fascists. Fascists don't like satire. They don't like it at all. And they especially don't enjoy visual satire. Because of its unique power to communicate. As Wittgenstein [Ludwig] asserted, the only thing of value is the thing you cannot say. Sometimes you can't communicate the idea or the emotion, but a drawing can. You draw something, and people say: 'Oh, I see what you're getting at now'." And that thought, Steadman says, "brings us back to what happened in that room at Charlie Hebdo. Some things," he adds, "there are no words for".
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