Friday, 15 May 2020

Britain, besieged by coronavirus, says "Happy Birthday" to an old political cartoonist called Ralph Steadman

Ralph, who is renowned for his 20th century political and social caricatures, cartoons and picture books, is 84 years old today. Five years ago, he made his last public appearance, in connection with a limited, 75 disc release of  a 7-inch vinyl single record, by Philthy Phonograph Records, entitled 'The Man Who Woke Up in the Dark.' With the sleeve designed and the lyrics written as an homage to Leonardo da Vinci, its title and subject matter seem strangely appropriate to an old artist, self-isolating in a Britain besieged by coronavirus today.

""Do not take away the things I know.
I cannot live inside a shell,"
Said the Man who woke up in the dark."

"In Tuscany where a little boy sits drawing for 
All the world to know :
"What brings the rain ?
What cools the sun ?
What pumps the life through everyone ?"
Says the Man who woke up in the dark."

* * * * * * * 
Back in the 1950s, without either a university or college of art education, Ralph left school and got a job with the aircraft company, De Havilland, but finding factory life unbearable, moved to Woolworth's as a trainee manager. Then at the age of 18 in 1954, worked in an advertising agency in Colwyn Bay, where he recalled that "I learned to make trademarks and tea."

Between 1954 and 1956, he did National Service in the Royal Air Force while continuing to take 'Percy V. Bradshaw's Correspondence Course in Cartooning', which his parents had paid for. From 1955 on he sent a drawing to 'Punch' magazine every week and had his first cartoon in print in 1956 dealing with 'Nasser and the Suez Crisis' in the Manchester Evening Chronicle.

He joined the Kemsley Newspaper Group and worked as a cartoonist from 1959 to 1961, producing editorial cartoons and a weekly panel about a teenage girl named 'Teeny' and at that time met Gerald Scarfe at a meeting of the Cartoonists' Club of Great Britain. He spent time with Gerald in the Victoria and Albert Museum, sketching statues and suits of armour and spent hours pacing the streets long into the night, talking about art and the future and discussing ways of putting the world right.
Ralph started to freelance in 1961 selling cartoons to 'Punch', the 'Daily Sketch', and the 'Daily Telegraph' and later recalled : "I got involved firstly with Punch, but they weren't really interested in social comment, they wanted jokes." Then in 1962, he decided to submit a drawing entitled 'Plastic People' 'to the newly-launched magazine, 'Private Eye', for which Richard Ingrams sent him £5 and a note saying : 'More power to your elbow' and published it with a double page spread in issue number 11.

In 1967 became 'Artist-in-Residence' at Sussex University where, at the time, I was a second year undergraduate student and have a dim recollection of some of his cartoons in frames on the walls of the JCR. 
Three years later he made a short visit to the USA and later said : "For me, art had to be about freedom. England at the end of the 1960s was parochial. I started drawing Nixon and I wanted to work in America." He teamed him up with Hunter S. Thompson, in what became a lasting partnership and illustrated his book, 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas'.
In June 1970, returned to London to cover the forthcoming General Election for 'The Times', as the second political cartoonist the paper had ever employed, worked for 6 months before he was told that the editor, William Rees-Mogg, had begun to : "feel your cartoons are a little seditious and I don't think we need them in the pages of the Times, so I'll have to ask you to leave." 

He was now changing his style and recalled that : “I developed this approach to drawing which became far more visceral, It was a kind of anger, really. I mean, it was partly induced by Hunter, but also the screaming lifestyle of America.” This was demonstrated from 1976 to 1980, when drew political cartoons for the 'New Statesman', and contributed to 'Rolling Stone', 'Radio Times', 'Black Dwarf', 'New York Times', 'Times Higher Education Supplement', 'New Scientist', 'Independent', 'Guardian', 'Observer' and 'Sunday Times'. 

In 1979, perhaps at the peak of his popularity, he was filmed working in 1979 on the 'Innes Book of Records' :

He was dismayed, in 1987, by the success of ITV's 'Spitting Image', which seemed to turn political caricature into entertainment and stopped drawing politicians, "leaving them to their latex lookalikes which rendered their latex antics a cosy entertainment in every living room throughout the land. You will never see a politician's face in my drawings again." He later relented to the extent of drawing politicians' legs, particularly in a series of 'Election '97' drawings for 'New Statesman'.
In 1985, he designed a set of four British postage stamps to commemorate the appearance of Halley's Comet and from 1987, catalogues for the wine merchant Oddbins, which inspired Hunter S. Thompson to write to him that 'politics was below you, so you stooped to worship grapes.'

Four years later he said : “Somehow in people’s minds you associate a cartoonist with someone who either does it in his spare time or didn’t get a very good education and therefore scribbles and does a few gags. I think newspapers...prefer it that way; keep the newspaper cartoonist under wraps. They use them to sell newspapers, but they...don’t give them that kind of dignified importance that they might give to their lead political writers.” 

He still retained the power to offend and in 1992 London Transport banned a poster he had designed for a cartoon exhibition at the Barbican Art Gallery, a photomontage with guns and a headless man spattered with blood because, as a spokesman explained, "they said it was a poster which showed blood and that the white areas around it would invite graffiti. They also said the guns could incite violence."
In 2002, he said : "Political satire is so boring now. Why the hell would I want to draw Tony Blair? The only politicians I've ever liked were Dennis Healey, Michael Foot and Tony Benn. Really nice people, good folk. The rest of them, I mean this whole crowd, this spun crowd of degenerate politicians are just not worth drawing."

In 2012, a documentary about his career, 'For No Good Reason', reportedly 15 years in the making and directed by Charlie Paul, played at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival in the 'Mavericks' programme, in New York City and Los Angeles in 2013 and was given US domestic release in 2014.

In 2015 Ralph said, referring to his earlier work :
"When I did them I thought I would change the world. In fact, all these years later, I have changed the world. It's worse than it was before I started."

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