When the Welsh artist Ralph Steadman picks up the phone, he sounds a bit paranoid.
“It’s Friday the 13th, you know,” he says with a doomsday tone.
“I’m terribly superstitious,” he adds. “It’s not only that, but the year itself. And everything that has happened this year. We’ve gotta get out of this year. Like that song by the Animals, We Gotta Get Out of This Place.”
His new picture book Ralph Steadman: A Life in Ink, tracing over half a century of artwork, reflects as much. From his political satire – depicting Boris Johnson as the devil and Donald Trump as a dwarf – to his trademark Gonzo journalism work created alongside the American writer Hunter S Thompson for the novel-turned-filmFear and Loathing in Las Vegas, it’s a testament to one of the most unfettered artists of our time.
“All I wanted to do when I started was change the world, and now, 60 years on, I’ve succeeded,” says the 84-year-old artist. “But it’s worse now than when I started, we’re really living in a hell of a year, aren’t we?”
The book is a chronological romp through his “flick of the wrist” artwork, using cartooning as a weapon for settling the score with evil in the world, giving a voice to the voiceless. It starts with his early sketchbook drawings from the 1950s, his 1960s illustrations for newspapers and magazines, his chaotic collaborations with Thompson throughout the 1970s and pages from his other books throughout the 1980s up until the present day.
It’s the very last image in the book that sums up 2020. It’s a drawing called Viral Menace, a portrait of Covid-19. It looks like an ink-splatted demon over a sea of blood. A walking nightmare, if there ever was one.
“This is worse than sitting in an underground shelter during the German blitz of 1939,” says Steadman. “We used to sit there, my mother would knit, trying to keep her calm. I’d go looking for shrapnel in the morning, molten metal that went hard. I wish I’d kept a piece.”
Looking back on his 60-year career, Steadman can’t remember making half of the drawings he has created.
“I’m amazed how many things I’ve done that I don’t remember; I’m going through the book and wondering how on earth I did them,” says Steadman from his home in Kent. “I’ve become a pictorial polluter. Too many drawings, really.”
He is featured in the new documentary Freak Power: The Ballot or the Bomb, which follows Thompson around as he runs for sheriff in Aspen, Colorado, back in 1970 (Steadman created the imagery for Thompson’s campaign at the time). He also animated parts of Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds With Shane MacGowan, a film about the singer of the Pogues, coming in December.
“People are always asking about my style,” says Steadman. “’Where did you get this style?’ I say, it’s not a style, it’s just a sequence of elements that I work with.” This sometimes includes his “dirty water technique”, where the artist recycles the dirty water from the pot he cleans his paintbrushes in, splats it on to paper, and allows it to dry for several days before using it as a base to draw images.
There are artworks from Steadman’s other books, which range from portraits of Sigmund Freud to Leonardo da Vinci, as well as pictures of the pope, taken from a book about religion called The Big I Am. His artwork has graced the cover of album art for Travis Scott, and in episodes of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown.
His political cartoons, which date back to the 1970s, couldn’t be more relevant today. “I used to think Nixon was horrible, I think Trump is worse,” says Steadman. “It’s the same issues, only worse now.”
In one piece called Democracy Maze from 1972, it depicts an endless maze of words, including “democracy, equality, freedom”, where civilians get lost. In another, a drawing of police brutality depicts what Steadman calls, “the LA police banging someone in the head for dropping a candy wrapper on the sidewalk”.
“I don’t think we’ve ever seen a time like this,” he says. “The last time was 1348. The Black Plague.”
He takes a jab at royalty in the book too, with one drawing defacing the British bank note in 1976. “I quite like this pound note that loses its value, with a moustache on the queen,” he says.
“I’ve drawn her in a photo booth drawing with a corgi on the stool, shots of her making funny faces and the dog standing up to do a wee,” he adds. “The queen whacks the dog off the stool. Completely out of character drawing I did.”
He has drawn portraits of everyone from Shakespeare to Gay Talese to Slash from Guns N’ Roses. He also drew Rupert Murdoch with a rosy red nose, looking like a clown. “I prefer him to Trump, actually,” says Steadman. “Trump is a hideous man. I could never draw him as bad as he’s become. I think the worst person in our known history is Donald Trump. He really is – I can’t think of anything worse.”
Steadman also got to know the writer William Burroughs in his lifetime. “That was interesting,” says Steadman. “I did a shooting competition with William in his garden, where he had a little gun and we put up a picture of Hunter on a board, which we would shoot. He went up to it, a few feet away from the portrait of Hunter and shot it. I said, ‘I think you’ve missed, William.’ He said: ‘Well he’s dead, isn’t he?’”
Steadman drew furiously through the UK’s 1997 general election, where John Major was defeated by the Labour party’s Tony Blair. “I just wanted to get Tories out, I just hoped I helped,” he recalls.
He flips the page. “I drew Sarah Palin, remember her? Ugh. Hopeless idea.
“I didn’t think much of Bush either,” he adds. “I’m beginning to repeat myself, oh dear.”
Steadman also drew Brexit as an artwork with socks bearing the UK flag. “Put a sock in it, stop this Brexit thing,” he says. “Brexit, it was a stupid idea.”
Next up, the artist plans on writing a book, as there’s nothing else to do. “It should start twice upon a time,” he says. “There lived a wizard. A fantastical, silly story. See how silly I can be?”
Suddenly, the doorbell rings. “Someone’s at the door,” says Steadman, sounding worried. He jokes: “It’s probably someone here to evict us.”
The most memorable artwork in the book is a self-portrait of the artist wearing a face mask. He has a paranoid look in his eye. It’s a reflection of 2020.
“I suddenly saw all these masks everywhere,” says Steadman. “I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be interesting if Rembrandt had to wear a mask in a self-portrait?’ Suddenly the idea of a self-portrait became an interesting idea, with a mask on. It defeats the art of the object of it, really.”
We’re living in Gonzo times, as Thompson would say.
“Things have got weird, absolutely weird,” says Steadman. “It’s strange. I wonder if it will ever get back to normal.”