“Authority is The Mask of Violence”: Ralph Steadman

Letter from Hunter S Thompson to Ralph Steadman
Dr. Thompson at Work
Quit yr. infernal bitching, Ralph. I finally got us a Job. I single-handedly got you off the BLACKLIST FOREVER & onto the goddamn cover of Rolling Stone – – but only if the “portrait” (of me) that you’re supposed to be doing for the cover is properly respectful. Keep that in mind. I have power & will use it if you send in another one of yr. grotesque mockeries of me … No. That would be a tragic mistake, and if it happens you are finished on this side of the water. You will never again be published in this country: Not even for free in the Letters to the Editor column of any small-town newspaper.
  I am the Editor, Ralph & you’re not … I have worked feverishly to get you this One Last Chance, & I will want my 15% agent’s fee/commission/etc. Before you get paid. Right. I deserve nothing less, & Jann agrees. He will send yr. check to me for de-commissioning at 15% down the line…
  Indeed. We are talking about two (2) more RS covers, Ralph, and two (2) more serialized instalments  of MY BOOK in RS – – along with the possibility of ART, (if any) for the hard & soft-cover versions … so don’t get weird on this one. I will not hesitate to have you banished, Busted & Jailed.
  OK. More coming. We are on the Jan 10 cover. You’re welcome. I love you, Ralph. But you’re a Hard Case. Hunter. 


ralph_steadmanRalph 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?

rs7R.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.

rs8S.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.

rs4S.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









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3 Responses to “Authority is The Mask of Violence”: Ralph Steadman

    1. Brilliant interview on the real deal. A British genius. His pictures and sketches are so visceral and in your face yet he is so dignified humble and KIND.

      Comment by Jess on 8 December, 2016 at 12:57 pm
    2. Love this conversation!!

      When i first experienced Ralph Steadman’s work it sprung of the page like a bloody scream and a revelation! It’s vibrance and shear brute force spoke volumes to me. It’s so alive! So twisted at times. Almost like a naughty secret one holds to them-self, the way he skewered authority..It was for me anyway, as i was brought up in a strict religious setting where questioning authority figures was not even considered. Blasphemy is what it was called, and here was this artist with ink and paper shredding bullies and leaving their viscera on the page! It was often horrifying even, and I absolutely loved it and couldn’t get enough. His work is personally freeing and protective of the downtrodden. That is not dramatizing or overstating his effect one bit.
      We’re talking about a legit icon here! A true original. An actual. Fucking. Genius! Not the watered down variety where that word is thrown around all to much these days for folks who, with all due respect, ain’t done sheit! Ralphs’ influence can be seen throughout art and modern design. Since the day he burst onto the scene bringing HST’s work to life, all over the place today, and on into the future. It’s almost too much to hold in your head all-at-once the wide ranging effect Mr. Steadman has had on our world. And for that Ralph, we thank you.


      Comment by Unitas Quick on 8 December, 2016 at 7:13 pm
    3. This visionary gonzo hero is iconic and leaves us all humbled by his simplicity . He wants to ‘custard pie’, the world use art as a way of examining what’s wrong with society and appears not to suffer from that celebrity disease VANITY . His interview sheds a light on what can be achieved though art and how we can question the moral bankruptcy of a fucked up world . Big love to a true artist . Fantastic interview

      Comment by Black Betty on 9 December, 2016 at 10:59 am

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