The word ‘illustrator’ doesn’t begin to do justice to the creative output of Ralph Steadman over the last few decades. Steadman himself doesn’t like the word: ‘It always suggests diagrams or something technical to me,’ he tells me as I am given a tour of the studio buildings in the grounds of his home in Kent. Having managed to announce my arrival by accidentally setting the car alarm off, my anxieties at the prospect of meeting the great man have reached fever pitch. This is an artist whose work continues to exert a profound influence on the graphic arts and who has recently returned from collecting a coveted Saatchi and Saatchi ‘Cleo’ award in New York, an award reserved for ‘creative heroes’. Many years ago, as a young art student myself, I recall being interviewed for a place on an illustration degree course and responding to the stock interview question, ‘who are your heroes?’ The words ‘Ralph’ and ‘Steadman’ quickly issued from my lips. Now, as I frequently find myself on the other side of the interview table many years later, it is astonishing to observe how often the question elicits the same answer. I mention this to my host and he modestly observes that perhaps the younger generation identify with the rebellion in his work.
But Steadman has also been ahead of his time in his disinclination to see the graphic artist’s role as one of mere subservience to the written word. Many of his projects are self-initiated. A current collaboration with Will Self in the pages of the Independent newspaper frequently involves Self ‘illustrating’ Steadman’s pictures with words. There has been a growing ‘authorial’ tendency in illustrators in recent years but Steadman has long been his own man, creatively and entrepreneurially.
And a stroll around the studio quickly reminds the visitor of the extraordinary breadth of this artist’s oeuvre. This is not so much a studio, more a Communication Design Department, a warren of rooms accommodating various work-spaces, printmaking equipment, photography, computers and storage. And boy, does he need storage. It is difficult to concentrate on conducting an interview with so much visual distraction. The fruits of and inspirations for years of invention surround us, in two and three dimensions: large scale screen prints, drawings, collages, metal sculptures, a mummified rat, an assortment of hats and of course inks, pens, paints and other media in vast quantities. Sunshine pours into the studio on this pleasant July morning as Ralph shows me some of the projects he is currently working on, the most evident of which is a huge ink drawing for a screen print which is laid out across several plan chests. This is called ‘Gonzo Guernica’, a playful synthesis of Picasso’s famous painting and Ralph’s long-standing collaboration with Hunter S Thompson. Steadman talks a lot about his friendship with Thompson and its influence on his career. ‘It was one of those million to one chance meetings,’ he says. ‘I got a call from J C Saurez asking me if I wanted to meet an “ex Hell’s Angel”.’ The meeting was the beginning of a personal and professional connection full of fun, creative tension and banter. ‘Hunter was always intrigued by my compulsion to draw wherever we went. He was worried that people didn’t like it (being drawn). And he used to discourage me from writing my own material. He’d say “you’ll bring shame on your family”. He was insecure and could be very cruel as well as kind.’ Thompson’s suicide was clearly a great shock. Steadman’s memories of the writer are graphically articulated through his book The Joke’s Over (2007, Random House) with a foreword by Kurt Vonnegut.
But my visit coincides with the publication of the artist’s latest children’s picture book, Garibaldi’s Biscuits (Andersen Press). The book began life ten years ago in the form of a letter written to a granddaughter. Like many projects from this creative powerhouse, it had to remain on the backburner and await its turn. Inspired by regular holidays in Italy, at the Puglia castello of friends, Barbara and Marcello, the book grew gradually through ‘little scribbles, here and there’ and evolved into a riotous version of the story of Garibaldi and his army. ‘I wanted to keep it true to the original drawings’ says Steadman. ‘I tried to abide by the limitations of the sketchbook. I always say that there’s no such thing as a mistake in art.’ Indeed there is a freshness to these drawings, the use of water-soluble pens allowing the line to be dispersed here and there by loosely applied washes. Freely drawn borders barely contain the rampant action that often spills over the boundaries. This is not so easy to get away with these days with junior designers reared on Photoshop so eager to set about ‘cleaning up’ the ‘accidents’. The raw aesthetic is maintained through the use of Steadman’s hand-printed letterpress type with its broken, distressed textures. Trays of wooden letterpress type are to be seen all around the studio, reassuring vindication of the ‘it’s bound to come in useful one day’ philosophy of most illustrators.
Steadman was born in 1936 in Wallasey, the son of Lionel, a commercial traveller, and Gwendoline. He grew up in North Wales and at school in Abergele he was a keen model maker. His beautifully constructed model aeroplanes hang from the studio ceiling today, the browned paper now peeling away from the balsa wood, somehow appropriately reflecting the drawings of one of his most influential books, I Leonardo (Picador, 1983). This engineering interest led to what Steadman describes as a false start as an apprentice aircraft engineer at De Havilland Aircraft Company. He then worked as a trainee manager at Woolworths in Colwyn Bay. ‘One day, I happened to be sweeping the floor and my old headmaster came into the shop. I said, “Hello Sir”. He said, “Look at you – sweeping floors! You’ve ruined your life” or something of the sort. I was only seventeen. So my mum and dad contacted the youth employment officer. He handed me a careers encyclopaedia. I only got as far as the letter “A” where I saw “Advertising Art”. I had done a lot of drawing at school, mostly decorative pictures of leaves and things. The employment officer said, “I’m playing golf with Mr McConnell who runs an advertising agency. You’ll be making the tea.” They offered me a job at thirty shillings a week.’ It was at about this time that he also discovered that doyen of the ‘How to Draw’ book and cartoonists’ correspondence courses, Percy Bradshaw: ‘I saw an advert in the paper saying, “You too can learn to draw and earn pounds”.’ So now he was drawing full-time and beginning to send cartoons to newspapers.
So began this prolific and richly varied career of graphic commentary. The creative drive is as strong as ever and as we continue to tour the studio I ask about some of Steadman’s own creative heroes. These tend, perhaps unsurprisingly, to be fellow iconoclasts and include Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, Marcel Duchamp, Goya, George Grosz and Pablo Picasso. The latter is a particular preoccupation and I am treated to a viewing of a drawer full of drawings that again reflect the artist’s insatiable curiosity and sometimes obsessive research. The Picasso project involved the making of around four hundred drawings in the manner of the great artist. ‘I did nothing else for around three months,’ he tells me. The project allowed him to get under the skin of Picasso, to understand him in a way that only another artist could. Similarly, when working on I Leonardo, Steadman’s research involved building a flying machine (clearly a labour of love) and painting a complete, large-scale version of the Last Supper on his bedroom wall. When researching Sigmund Freud (Paddington Press, 1979) he went further: ‘I went to Freud’s house in Vienna and lay down on the consulting couch to draw.’ Alongside this kind of focused research, the collecting of artefacts, materials and random inspirations continues to inform his work. My eye is caught by a rather portly antique leather-bound book on a shelf groaning under its weight. ‘Oh, that’s just a scrapbook of quotes and random thoughts.’ Flicking through the yellowed pages, Steadman laughs at some of the contents, things that he has found, read or invented, mostly in the form of word play that has obvious visual potential. I glimpse ‘Nietzsche heart out’ and ‘A chateau of its former self’ as the pages crammed with invention flash by.
Much of the studio is filled with collections of different papers and surfaces on which to work. Steadman has never been afraid to experiment with media, traditional, digital or photographic. But the dip pen and ink has remained the fundamental tool for much of his work. Quentin Blake once told me that, as a young aspiring artist many years ago, he briefly met Ronald Searle. Being somewhat overawed, he couldn’t think of anything to ask but ‘what sort of nib do you use?’ I can’t resist the same question, being something of a nib fetishist myself. Mr Steadman very kindly rifles through various boxes of steel pens (as they are properly called) and gives me some to take away to try. Typically, he is still experimenting with all sorts of new pens and papers. But one thing he could never find until recently was a red ink that was truly red, red enough to do justice to the bloody splatterings that are not unheard of in a Steadman creation. This was rectified by an Internet search that located a Mr Stephen Allen at the County Records Office in Northallerton, Yorkshire. Mr Allen realised that somewhere in the office there lurked a substantial, dusty stone bottle of Stephenson’s Scarlet Writing Fluid dating from the 1930s. This now sits close to the right hand of the artist and Mr Allen is the proud owner of an original Ralph Steadman print for his troubles. It is to be hoped that the Stephenson’s Scarlet Writing Fluid will continue to flow from this artist’s pen for many more years to come.
Martin Salisbury is an illustrator and is Course Director for the MA Children’s Book Illustration programme at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge.
Photograph by Martin Salisbury.
Garibaldi’s Biscuits, Andersen, 978 1 84270 860 6, £10.99 hbk (as featured on our front cover)
little.com, Andersen, 978 0 86264 994 4, £9.99 hbk, 978 1 84270 484 4, £5.99 pbk
Fly Away Peter, Frank Dickens, Pavilion, 978 1 84365 122 2, £9.99 hbk
Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll, Firefly Books, 978 1 55407 203 3, £12.95 pbk
The Joke’s Over, Arrow, 978 0 09 950219 7, £8.99pbk
Sigmund Freud, Firefly Books, 978 1 55209 174 6, £12.95 pbk (2006)
I Leonardo, available via Amazon