The very last drawing in Ralph Steadman’s new book, A Life in Ink, is a self-portrait showing him wild-haired and red-eyed, that first appeared on the cover of Between the Eyes, a collection of his satirical cartoons and drawings published in the 1980s. Earlier this year, Steadman produced a hand-coloured, limited edition print of the image – to which he has now added a mask.
“Covid,” he says, pronouncing it to rhyme with the Roman poet. He laughs. “It sounds Welsh, doesn’t it?”
Steadman, who is 84, was born in Wallasey, near Liverpool, but grew up in Abergele in north Wales, and you can still hear the burr in his voice. He is speaking from his home in Maidstone, Kent, looming up on FaceTime, unmasked – “But I’ll put one on for you if you prefer” – in the Georgian house, set on five acres of land, where he lives with his wife Anna. Their daughter Sadie, her husband and two sons also live there – two households, in the one large home. There is an indoor pool, where Steadman swims each morning. Today, it was only after plunging in that he realised that he had forgotten to turn on the heating. “It was breathtaking.”
He has, he says, been “fairly well isolated from everything”, but hardly a day goes by when he is not at work – most recently producing drawings inspired by the pandemic, one called Viral Menace, another The Virus Collector. “And just now on my board, I’ve started doing teeth… I’m not sure what it’s going to be. I tend to do that. You make a mark… Or dirty water is good. Pour dirty water on to a piece of paper, and you let it dry – it takes three or four days. And the smellier it is, the more interesting the dried textures are. It’s like you’ve harnessed an experience of life, and it shows.
“A lot of people say to me, but you’re not really an artist, are you? You’re only a cartoonist.” He laughs. “People have said that. I don’t know what I am. No, I’ll tell you what I am: a pictorial polluter.”
A Life in Ink traces Steadman’s career over more than 60 years, from his early sketches of London street scenes and museum exhibits, through his work for newspapers and magazines, his travels in America – most notably with Hunter S Thompson – to his various books on subjects as diverse as Leonardo da Vinci and Sigmund Freud. It is a riotous journey through his favoured bêtes-noires over the years – politicians, of course, from Harold Wilson to Donald Trump, bankers, the judiciary, priests, Palm Beach society ladies, Republicans, people who just seem to rub him up the wrong way – all rendered in Steadman’s frenzied, ink-spattered signature style.
Anyone unfamiliar with Steadman might imagine his drawings to be the product of a tormented and often furious imagination. In fact, he is most genial, almost jolly. Ask what has driven his work and he ponders for a moment. “I wanted to change the world,” he says. “And 60 years on I’ve succeeded; it’s worse now than it was when I started.” He laughs. “What I was always aiming for was criticism that would come in the form of a joke. I wanted sharpness in what I was doing. I wanted edge. As a cartoonist I was never really a joker. I was more interested in capturing the personification of a subject, in a way that makes them look a bit of a fool – ridiculous, but not an unkind ridiculousness. That was the reason for it really. But I never believed it would be a proper career.”
His father was a commercial traveller; his mother worked as a shop assistant. As a boy he was most interested in building model aircraft, and his first job was working as a trainee aircraft engineer for De Havilland. It lasted nine months. “I couldn’t stand factory life.” His brother-in-law, a careers adviser, secured him a job at Woolworths in Colwyn Bay. “The idea was you could build up from sweeping the floors. I remember my headmaster from Abergele Grammar School meeting me in the street outside Woolworths. He said, ‘You could have made something of yourself if you’d stayed at De Havilland, and what are you doing? Sweeping the floors in Colwyn Bay.’ ”
While doing his National Service in the RAF as a radar operator – “It’s where I learned to watch television” – he saw a newspaper advertisement: you too can learn to draw and earn pounds. He was soon sketching pictures of barrack-room life, “finding my direction.” He went on to work as a cartoonist for regional newspapers, then The Times, and periodicals such as Punch. But it was his work with Hunter S Thompson for Rolling Stone magazine that would truly make his reputation. Together their words and pictures were the embodiment of what became known as gonzo journalism – in Thompson’s case, a stream-of-conscious reportage, fuelled by copious drugs and alcohol. “Gonzo,” Steadman explains, “is the Portuguese word for ‘hinge’. The idea, I thought, was that they must use it for anything that’s a little bit unhinged.” He pauses. “No other explanation has come forward.”
He first met Thompson in 1970 when he was invited by the magazine Scanlan’s Monthly to work with him on a piece about the Kentucky Derby. It was Steadman’s first time in America. The night before leaving New York for Louisville he had dinner with friends, one of whom was a representative for the cosmetics firm Revlon. It was only as he was climbing the stairs to their apartment that Steadman realised he’d left his inks and colours in the taxi. He flew to Kentucky next morning, his bag packed with lipstick and eyeshadow samples to use as a makeshift colouring kit. “I had a little goatee at the time and hair out here. Hunter looked at me and said, ‘Holy God, a matted hair geek with string warts. Where the f--- did they dig you up from?’ He was not apologetic in any way.” The assignment, more a drunken binge, ended with Thompson spraying Steadman with Mace and damning him as “worthless”.
It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship.
“If there was any one person I should have met in America it was him, because we were so different,” he remembers. “I was being polite to him, and he was being rude as hell to me.” Their second assignment was to cover the America’s Cup at Newport, Rhode Island. Thompson had the idea of commandeering a boat and rowing out to the multi-million-dollar craft moored in the harbour where Steadman would write “whatever I felt like” on one of the hulls. “Hunter said, ‘What are you going to write, Ralph?’ I said, ‘How about f--- the pope?’ He said, ‘are you religious, Ralph?’ ” Steadman laughs. “I hardly think you would be if that’s what you’re saying.” Setting off from shore, Steadman began to feel distinctly queasy. “He was taking these pills, and I asked him, are they any good for seasickness? He said, ‘I don’t know Ralph. Try one.’” It was the psychedelic drug, psilocybin. “I knew very little about all that,” Steadman says. “I was an innocent abroad…”
The mission was quickly aborted when a patrol boat attempted to intercept and Thompson rowed furiously back to shore, Steadman hallucinating, and hyperventilating, wildly. He never took drugs again. “I never felt I needed them, really.” He would go on to illustrate Thompson’s work for articles, books and movie posters – an obliging Sancho Panza to Thompson’s deranged Don Quixote. It is hard to imagine anyone could have been better equipped, artistically and emotionally, to tolerate Thompson’s character, and to pin to the printed page the demons and delusions that possessed him.
In 1980 Thompson visited Britain for only the second time, and stayed with Steadman to work on their book, The Curse of Lono. (Thompson’s first visit in 1974, en route from the Ali-Foreman “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire, had resulted in unfortunate scenes at Brown’s Hotel in Mayfair. He was accused of trying to rape one of the maids and of shooting pigeons on the window ledge with a Magnum .44.) On Thompson’s first day in Kent, Steadman took him to his local pub The Chequers Inn, where he introduced him to the landlord, Martin. “I said, he’d like a brandy – make it a triple. I gave it to Hunter and he said, ‘What’s that, a sample?’ Martin took me aside and said, ‘How long is he staying?’ I said, ‘About a week. He’ll be coming in every day.’ He said, ‘Why don’t you go down to the off-licence and buy some bottles of brandy and I’ll just serve them to him,’ so I bought 10 bottles – about £150 worth. And Hunter was in the pub every day, first thing. His tolerance for alcohol was amazing. ‘I like Martin,’ he told me. ‘He’s a nice man, very thoughtful. He’s offered me his gun and his daughter.’”
I get the impression, I say, that while a brilliantly original journalist (and, it might be added, an attention-seeking quasi-sociopathic prankster), Thompson, unlike Martin, was not a particularly nice man. Steadman thinks about this. “He was OK… He wasn’t a bully.” But definitely unhappy? “Well, everything wasn’t right. He wanted it all to fall into place – but it didn’t…” Steadman was at home when, in February 2005, he got the call from a friend in America. “He said, ‘Hunter’s just committed suicide.’ “I knew he’d do it, but I was still a bit shocked. He’d told me he would. He said, ‘I’d feel real trapped in this life, Ralph, if I didn’t know I could commit suicide at any moment.’ He had 23 fully loaded guns in his house. I used to draw him a target and he’d put it up and shoot it.” He pauses. “He just loved shooting things.”
All this talk of death has darkened Steadman’s mood. At heart he’s a cheerful man, if, in some ways, a disappointed one. “I did think the world was unjust. And I wanted to make it safer and fairer. I thought we’d become better, more enlightened, kinder. I’m a bit sad about the way things have gone,” he says. “But I don’t despair.”
Ralph Steadman: A Life in Ink (Chronicle Chroma, £45) is out now