RALPH STEADMAN | INTERVIEW
Best known for his artwork for Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, Ralph Steadman remains creative in his ninth decade. New retrospective book A Life In Ink tackles politics, celebrity and storytelling, and James Ellis finds Ralph facing lockdown with a zeal that never vanished.
What have you worked on today?
I’ve had a swim. I haven’t even had my breakfast yet!
You spent your childhood in north Wales. Do you miss it?
Not really, no. Better off down here. We’re in 4.8 acres of land. So we don’t get people getting too near to us. We’ve been out a couple of times with masks on and I always feel like a bandit with one of those on.
Your new book contains highlights from you career, with artwork for novels such as Alice In Wonderland [below], Animal Farm and Treasure Island. Is there a book you wish you could illustrate?
[Ralph’s daughter Sadie, who is sitting in on the call] The Bible?
Ralph: The Bible! I’ve done The Big I Am, which is God. I’ve done a book about him… I don’t know if he’s read it. There is Dickens of course. I haven’t done Dickens. I’ve drawn Fagin, but I don’t know where it is. Maybe it’s in one of the drawers.
I’m a pictorial polluter. There’s too many bloody drawings by me. I’ll draw backwards in the future. I’ll draw everyone standing on their heads or on their hands. I’ve done poetry but I’m not allowed to say any of it.
[Ralph instead reads to me the opening of The Lion And Albert by Stanley Holloway]
That was one when Woolworths was open. It’s funny.
You use ink a great deal in your craft. What makes it so special?
It’s positive. It’s absolute positive. If you do crosshatching and whatever like that, you bring in like a half-tone – shading. I tell people I go straight in with the ink. Somebody said, “Do you pencil it in first?” I said, “No, I don’t do that. I start straight in.” They said, “Don’t you make a mistake?” I say, “There’s no such thing as a mistake. A mistake is an opportunity to do something else.”
Your final words in your new book touch upon the seriousness of this year. How have you found lockdown?
It’s a bit like being trapped… we’re kidnapped. We’re held in bondage and if you feel claustrophobic, it’s not at all surprising. I mean, I feel like that. It’s hideous. This is the most hideous time I can remember – worse than the Blitz in the last war. Which I saw. I used to go every morning looking for shrapnel. It’s lovely stuff. I wished I had kept it. But [COVID-19] is the worst thing that has happened to mankind since the Black Death.
Who was your biggest inspiration starting out?
André François and Picasso, of course. George Grosz. Oh, and Marcel Duchamp. They don’t go out of fashion, if you know what I mean. They become kind of permanent gods… of your thought.
How do you know when your artwork is done?
When I’m bored with it [laughs]. I think that’s the best way of putting it. I tell you what else I do – dirty water drawings. The water I wash my brushes out with. The smellier and dirtier it goes, the more interesting it dries – the pollution of it is full of design. Little patterns. Decay. Decayed drawings.
Have you ever seen a piece of art and had a reaction like: “that’s so good, I wish I had thought of that”?
Only my own!
I’ve done a drawing of Michelangelo’s ceiling. Things of that kind. I think the thing I really enjoyed doing was the life of Da Vinci, called I, Leonardo. [Ralph says he’ll send me a copy of it during our conversation, adding, “and I’ll get Leonardo to sign it!” He was as good as his word with the first part at least, and tucked a new drawing inside too.]
I did a book on Sigmund Freud and went to the 9th District of Vienna, to Freud’s house. I went down the stairs to his basement consulting room, lay down on the floor exactly where the couch had been and took a photograph of the ceiling, which is still as it was. It was quite an interesting thing to do. There was a period where I worked quite extensively if I was doing a book – I wanted to do it properly, in a way that had to be authentic. I wasn’t showing off – I wanted it to be right.
Of course there was Private Eye, and then a man called Don Goddard. He worked for the New York Times as foreign editor, and then became the editor of the magazine I was asked to work for, Scanlans. It was the name of a little-known Nottingham pig farmer. It was quite something working for them. Interesting.
I went to a book fair with Dimitri Sidjanski. He used to do children’s books, which I illustrated, for a company called NordSüd Verlag. Cherrywood Canon is one of them, quite interesting. Then there was another one called Again! You think of a trick or something and people say “Again! Again!”
What was your favourite part of working with Hunter S. Thompson and what was one of the craziest things you did while collaborating together?
The craziest thing we did was the boat. We went to the Americas Cup in, where the hell was it? Rhode Island. I was going to sign on the side of a boat – Hunter dared me to. He said, “What will you write?” I said, “How about ‘fuck the Pope’?” and then Hunter said, “Are you religious, Ralph?!” You’d be anything but if you said that! I don’t think I would have left America if I’d been caught doing it – I didn’t actually do it, thank god. We were caught; somebody said “What are you doing down there?” “Oh, just looking at the boats!”
We were in between in a boat and Hunter was rowing. “We must flee, Ralph… we must flee!” and he pulled on the oars. Next thing I saw were his legs up in the air. The oars have come out of the rowlocks. It’s a funny thing, the things like that you remember. That was in the early 70s.
When I first met him, we were looking for each for three days in Kentucky. Looking in the press room all the time and finally I asked and somebody said “Oh you wouldn’t miss him, he’s tall and he’s shaved his head.” I had hair at the time, quite a lot and a little goatee beard. Hunter said, “Excuse me, are you Ralph Steadman, the artist from England?… my god, you look like a matted haired geek, with string warts!” I don’t know what string warts are! They said I was weird, apparently. At the time I was in Kentucky, people weren’t wearing beards, but I think a lot of people have beards now.
Dr. Hunter S. Thompson? I’m not sure if he was a real doctor. Doctor Hunter Stockton Thompson. Met his mother. She greeted me whilst we were there, with a tray of drinks. She was quite a nice lady. I did a drawing of her – she was in a care home at the time, we went to see her there. She had a zimmer frame. Hunter also used to be the milkman’s bill collector – the one who nips off the trolley to the door, knock and collect the bill for the milk. I think he was quite good at doing things like that.
Is there a lost piece of yours you wished you could have back?
Quite a few, actually. I had an agent once, in the 70s. He said it would be a good career move to sell my originals to Jann Wenner, the owner of Rolling Stone magazine. He has a lot of them on the walls there. [Sadie informs us he’s sold them all now, and that Brian Chambers acquired most of them]
Mario Martinez and I did a dual picture together: his art is under the name MARS-1, lots of geometric, amorphous shapes. Check him out.
Who’s been the most offended by your depiction of them?
Sarah Greene was upset when did a sketch of her. She was a TV presenter in the 80s – it was a kids’ show, to promote a new book.
There’s a club in Kentucky for gentlemen – the race crowd. I was quite commonly drawing all the time with a sketch book, and somebody was there with their wife. I did a drawing of her – I can’t remember her name now – and she said “That’s not me! That ain’t me! Gimme that!!” She started to scratch my image – really almost ripped up the book. She was being daft. I said, “It’s only a drawing, I haven’t hit you!”
It’s a funny thing. It was Wittgenstein who said, “The thing of real value is the thing you cannot say” – but if you see it, it has a bigger effect. Perhaps I should do a drawing of Wittgenstein. There’s a thought!
Your proudest moment and biggest regret?
My proudest moment is my having a daughter like I have. Biggest regret was… you know, I wanted to be an aircraft engineer. I went to de Havilland Aircraft company, stayed nine months and couldn’t stand it. Factory life. I don’t regret it.
The death of my art teacher, Lesley Richardson, was really a sad thing. You can’t do much about that. But we’re going on, aren’t we? We’re going on forever. It’s not fair. Just when life’s getting good.
Lastly, what truly makes something Gonzo?
A good question. I think it’s actually something illogical. Because you know the word ‘gonzo’? It’s Portuguese – it means hinge. Which I think suggests unhinged. I wanted to find what where it came from – Hunter didn’t know. He was told it by Bill Cardoso. He was from Sausalito [in California] and came up with the word ‘gonzo’.
There was this use of women’s makeup for my colours, because I left my stuff in a taxi on the way with the first meeting with Hunter. I had dinner with Don Goddard and his wife – she used to work for Revlon. She gave me a whole load of colour samples, which I used to draw the pictures with.
And with that, we’re done, but not before Ralph signs off with an amusing verse that his father taught him…
One day in last September
As far as I remember
I was walking down the street with manly pride
My heart was all a-flutter
When I fell into the gutter
And I found a pig lying by my side.
My heart was all a-flutter
as I laid there in the gutter
And a lady passing by was heard to say,
“You can tell the man who boozes
by the company he chooses”
And the blooming pig got up and walked away!
words JAMES ELLIS
photo RIKARD ÖSTERLUND
images (Wool And Water, Alice Through The Looking Glass / Donald Trump – Porky Pie / Boris Johnson) © RALPH STEADMAN ART COLLECTION /
Ralph Steadman: A Life In Ink is published by Chronicle Chroma on Tue 10 Nov. Price: £45.