It’s not every day you get to see a letter from Johnny Depp, but that’s exactly the kind of thing Ralph Steadman has sitting around his studio in Kent. Having got to know Depp through the film Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, which depicted the life of Steadman’s good friend and colleague Hunter S. Thomson, the two are still in contact.
But how did a student of the then London School of Printing and Graphic Arts (LSPGA) go on to become one of Britain’s greatest artists and occasional writers, let alone mix in such circles?
“I started off as an engineer. That’s where the straight lines and circles came from,” he recalls. Steadman honed his craft at the early London School of Printing and Graphic Arts when it was at Back Hill in Clerkenwell. Already studying at East Ham Technical College under mentor and art teacher Leslie Richardson, it was Richardson who enticed him to LSPGA, telling him he had to come for at least a couple of days a week. Ironically Steadman claims he wasn’t even keen on cartoons at that stage: “I was interested in the idea of being a proper artist, like Goya. I wasn’t the slightest bit interested in cartoonists.”
Fortunately Richardson had other ideas, telling his students to “forget all that. Don’t draw as if you’re going to be a fine artist.” Many years later, Steadman acknowledges that Richardson was “kind of right in a way… I’m so glad I had that time with Leslie.” Richardson used to encourage Steadman and his contemporaries to go to the Kensington museums every Friday, where they would draw “all the daft disciplines you can pick up at these places.”
Given that during the years he was at LSPGA (1961–65) Steadman also published cartoons in Punch, Private Eye, Rolling Stone, the Daily Telegraph and The New York Times, such comments are an insight into this comic genius. Just don’t call him a cartoonist or an illustrator and all will be well.
Steadman actually started drawing when he was in the National Service in the RAF from 1954–56, where he got bored enough to do Percy V. Bradshaw’s cartoon correspondence course. Cutting his teeth sketching bags of blankets, he now jokes that it was an easy jump to sketching advertising catalogues. As he says: “I was never interested in a career. No-one in my family apart from my great-grandfather was even interested in art.”
Yet his first cartoon was accepted by the Manchester Evening Chronicle in 1956, portraying Nasser and the Suez crisis. Six years later in May 1962 he had his work published in Private Eye for the first time For this he was rewarded with a note saying “More power to your elbow” and £5. Since then he’s gone on to write and/or illustrate over 50 books.
Looking back he is still suitably self-effacing: “I never could draw! That was the point!” His advice for prospective art students is uncharacteristically positive however: “Whether good, bad or indifferent, it doesn’t matter when you’re starting. There’s no such thing as a mistake in art. A mistake is an excuse to do something else!”
It is his work with Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson that Steadman is probably the most famous for. Steadman adopted the term ‘Gonzo’ and used the concept to fuel and describe the fatalistic missions he and Thompson would embark on, where they would end up as the main characters of the story rather than whatever they where covering. Phrases like “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro” epitomise Steadman’s philosophy.
More recently, Steadman has worked on projects like the eco-oratorio ‘Plague and the Moonflower’, originally commissioned for the Exeter Festival by Richard Gregson-Williams in 1989 (where Steadman was artist in residence). The current work is now dedicated to his memory, and has a strong environmental message, with lines like:
CO2 is CO2
CO2 is CO2
Let’s go out in style
Steadman continues to be a prolific artist and strong political commentator. Check out www.ralphsteadman.com for his latest blogs. Awarded a Doctorate in Literature in 1995 for his great work, his acceptance speech is a suitable conclusion.
“So that’s it guys, in a nut. We are all graduates now — all buddies together, feeding from the same trough. So, if no one person hogs all the tomato ketchup, we may just get by. Bless your hearts and thank you most kindly.”