Letter from Hunter S Thompson to Ralph Steadman
Ralph Steadman is one of Britain’s most mischievous, gifted cartoonists, illustrators and artists. An explosive combination that has kept him sketching for almost five decades and culminated in an exceptional body of work . His spunky scribblings have provoked challenged and electrified. With the founding of Private Eye magazine in the 60s a new era of caricature was born and Steadman was one of the pioneering, ink slinging rebels leading that insurrection. Famous for his scabrous collaborations with Gonzo king, Hunter S Thompson, and his gloriously irreverent work for Private Eye, Steadman was a pivotal force for change. Now years later his masterful draughtsmanship continues to provide sharp eloquent commentary on the state of the world and his ingenious lampooning of society and political figures continue to influence and inspire.
Rebel ink scribe Saira Viola is charmed and enchanted by the maverick genius that is Ralph Steadman. Get ready to fall head over heels:
S.V. From Welsh choirboy to Gonzo originator and counter culture icon – as a young man growing up in Wales did you ever imagine that one day you’d be traversing the political campaign trail with an ex Hell’s angel soon to become ‘the founding father of Gonzo journalism?’ And that you yourself would be revered and admired the world over for your gloriously irreverent caricatures and eye popping art that in many ways defined Gonzo?
R.S. No. Initially, I wanted to be an aero nautical engineer but got bored with my apprenticeship and factory life. I was even a stock room boy in Woolworths Colwyn Bay, North Wales. My old headmaster, who shall remain nameless, saw me sweeping the floors there and said: ‘Look at you sweeping the floors, you could have been someone,’ he dismissed me as if I was a nobody and was a real bully. It’s funny how things work out. None of this was planned. It just happened. Even meeting Hunter, the first time, was a twist of fate. Hunter had wanted another cartoonist but he was on a trip to London and I got a call from Dan Rattiner who ran Dan’s Papers in the Hamptons. I was working for Private Eye magazine at the time. And he suggested I go to the States. This was in 1970. While I was there I was rung up by a man called J.C. Suares who was art directing the new magazine called Scanlans which was committed to getting Nixon impeached and to take on the ‘dirty kitchens of New York,’ the editor was Don Goddard (previously Cuban cigar smoking New York Times Foreign Editor) and he asked if I’d like to go to Kentucky with a shaved headed, ex Hell’s Angel. And that ‘s how it started.
S.V. Is it true that you used a Revlon eyebrow pencil and lipstick for the pictures of that now infamous Kentucky Derby piece for Scanlan’s magazine exposing the Louisville hoi polloi as ‘decadent and depraved,’ and that you kept your camera lens on your navel to get a perfect view of the Kentucky blue bloods boozed up and running amok?
R.S. Ha! Yeah. Don Goddard’s wife Natalie was a Revlon representative and she kindly gave me some of her sample make up like eye shadows and lipstick which I used because I had left my own inks in the back of a cab when I went over to their place for dinner before proceeding to get my plane to Kentucky, to meet Hunter. I think it was Wittgenstein who said ‘A picture is a fact,’ and the whole essence of gonzo is not to cover the story but to become the story. In fact, it was Bill Cordoza who coined the phrase. He said to me ‘Oh man that’s pure gonzo,’ and he was a reporter from The Boston Globe. I remember looking up the word ‘gonzo,’ and it’s Portuguese for ‘hinged’, so that really captures the spirit of being ‘gonzo,’ being unhinged.
S.V. Whether you’re skewering global icons, pop idols, or political goons with your grotesquely funny caricatures or illustrating classic lit’ your signature scribble is quintessentially ‘Ralph,’ instantly recognisable – how did you develop this unique kinetic style?
R.S. Well I never use pencil, just acrylics when I splat the page and it’s really a dialogue a conversation with the page and the ink. I never know where that journey might lead and I just go with the flow of the ink.
S.V. There is a real mood of dissension all over the world with some suitably nasty types providing ample grist for your potent mix of acerbic ink splats. Do you think art can change society? (Particularly following the seismic victory of Trump now President Elect of the USA?)
R.S. I don’t know whether art can change society but art can be used to satirise and comment upon the ills of society as a lethal weapon rather than guns and violence. We need to custard pie society.
S.V. Yeah, like Aron Kay, rebel rouser and Pie Thrower Supreme.
R.S. Yes exactly.
S.V. This year saw you collaborate with one of the lions of English literature, committed activist, magician, and counter culture hero: Heathcote Williams. Your magnificent sketch of Boris Johnson appears alongside those of other notable cartoonists in his latest book: Brexit Boris: From Mayor to Nightmare and notably ‘the beast of Brexit ,’ is pictured with his trademark blond locks. Why did you decide to go back to caricaturing the political class? A while ago didn’t you initiate a campaign where only a politician’s legs and derrieres should be drawn via The New Statesman?
R.S. I did go back to caricaturing the political class, mainly out of boredom and ‘For No Good Reason,’ the documentary I was involved in. But Boris, Trump and Farage are all cunningly devious and ripe for satire. I very much enjoyed working with Heathcote and the book is very good.
S.V. Ah, yes For No Good Reason – the documentary that gives us a startling and hypnotic insight into your artistic process, explores your relationship with Hunter, features rare 70s footage, clippings, interviews and of course Hollywood royalty, but the real star of the film is your incredible art. How did the documentary come about? And could you tell us how your perceptive eye creates a piece of incendiary magic from a ‘splat’, and often ends up being very different to when it began? Francis Bacon spoke of ‘happy accidents,’ and you discussed the journey of developing your work and being surprised often by what you come up with. Could you expand a little on this?
R.S. Yes, the director, Charlie Paul approached me I thought why not? Charlie spent around ten years visiting me with all kinds of camera equipment and the documentary unfolds just like one of my drawings. As I said I don’t really know how or what will happen with the ink splat, that’s half the fun not knowing where the journey will go. I make a mark on the paper and then engage with the paper, a real conversation and I keep going back and forth, so the ink and the paper keep talking. It’s like jazz, you know, riffing from sound to sound. It’s a lyrical dialogue between paper and ink. You’re responding to the sounds you hear. I was taught guitar by the great Allan Hodgkin, who famously played with Django Reinhardt and Stefan Grapelli when they came to play in England as The Hot Club of France. Allan played 2nd guitar, the process is very musical, Allan and I would talk art all the time as we played.
S.V. “The mean face of Gonzo,” a way of creating a theatre of the absurd – you collaborated closely with Hunter on this, Do you think it’s time to resurrect the ugly face of Gonzo again?
R.S. Well, I definitely think it’s time now for the artistic community to start sketching their filthiest pictures. It’s important to take a creative stand against bullying and nastiness. Take Trump’s wall for example. It should be designed as a bouncy castle so people can bounce across the border.
S.V. Ha! Yeah, the Trumpian bounce wall that might actually encourage more people to try and settle in the states! I think the wall has been demoted to fencing now, it’s all so abstract. Hate rhetoric, relies more on populist themes and not much substance.
R.S. Yeah hate is evil and divisive. There was Hitler and Mussolini and these kinds of dictators don’t bode well for society at all.
S.V. On a less sombre note, turning to you and Hunter, why do you think your creative partnership with Hunter lasted so long and was so successful?
R.S. Simple really, Hunter and I are like chalk and cheese. We were so different from each other the collaboration worked.
S.V. You have spoken of your admiration and deference for the great masters of Art: Picasso, Da Vinci, Bacon, who else inspires you?
R.S. Well Picasso is my favourite. Cezanne, and I did like Caravaggio but since discovering he was a child molester I’m not keen on his stuff anymore. No Picasso is my greatest inspiration.
S.V. Many people might be unaware you have illustrated biographies for Da Vinci and Freud. What motivated these mammoth artistic projects?
R.S. I went to Vienna and was shown around Freud’s original consultation rooms. I asked the curator of the museum where his couch was and lay down as if I was being analysed. I very much wanted to illustrate Freud’s work and like most of the stuff I end up doing it just happened. It was Freud who said of Leonardo Da Vinci that “Leonardo da Vinci was like a man who awoke too early in the darkness, while the others were all still asleep.”- Sigmund Freud. So then of course I was inspired to do Da Vinci , and after that the only other person to do was God so I tackled that with the book The Big I Am.
S.V. Wow! So that’s Freud, Da Vinci and God. From the sublime to the ridiculous: Donald Trump has defied pollsters political pundits and the Washington elite by winning the race to the White House. If you could choose any cartoon character to be President who would get your vote?
R.S. Charlie Brown. Snoopy. They were wholesome, good and kind. Charlie Brown and Snoopy were wise.
S.V. What’s the character trait you admire most in others?
R.S. Kindness. I don’t like cruelty. ‘ Life is no way to treat an animal .’ That’s what Kurt Vonnegut said and he was a kind man. I met him, liked him and I still believe kindness is one of the best character traits in someone.
S.V. After decades of railing against the system fighting against those who oppress and destroy and bully, at this point do you find yourself being optimistic or blue about the future?
R.S. Sadly, it’s looking a little blue, there are so many vicious incidents – usually teenagers with too much testosterone and nothing better to do.
S.V. Finally, for those who want to ink the consciousness of the world and tread in your mighty footsteps what words of wisdom might you offer them?
R.S. This amazing story of a 3 year old who saved her mum’s life by knowing how to ring 999 Emergency services and chatting to the person on the line – and giving the address where they were. Such a funny chat as well the little girl was so amusing in a most responsible way!!
This interview originally appeared in Gonzo Today
STEADMANS COVER FOR ANTHONY BOURDAIN’S NEW COOKBOOK