March 25, 2011 10:00 pm

Political drawing-room

Gerald Scarfe is the nearest a cartoonist can get to being a rock’n’roll star. Over the past 50 years he has satirised some of the most powerful people in the world, worked in Hollywood and staged a string of one-man exhibitions. He also, famously, collaborated with the rock group Pink Floyd on its animated film and tour, The Wall.

Scarfe is deeply private and rarely invites journalists to visit the large terraced Victorian house he shares with his actress wife, Jane Asher. It sits in a fashionable Chelsea street where, coincidentally, Mick Jagger once lived. The River Thames is just a stone’s throw away.

After being let in through the wrought iron gate and front door by a housemaid, I am led up several flights of stairs, past the living quarters, to the airy, open-plan top-floor studio where he works. A waist-high white table, piled high with sheets of blank A3 paper, stands at the centre of the room. Half-finished cartoons hang from the walls. Pens, pencils and paints are scattered around. “It might look like it’s in a bit of a pickle but I kind of know where everything is,” says the 74-year-old, who’s dressed in an open-necked shirt and slacks. “This is tidy – you should see it sometimes.”

The son of a banker, Scarfe grew up in Hampstead, London. He was a sickly, asthmatic child and started drawing to entertain himself during lengthy forced absences from school. After developing a passion for drawing and cartoons he briefly worked as a commercial artist, before beginning to draw caricatures of politicians for the satirical magazine Private Eye. How he came to move to Chelsea in the 1960s was fortuitous. “I was renting the top-floor studio in this very house when the owner, a widow, told me, ‘This house is too big for me. I want to go and live in Bognor’,” Scarfe recalls. “So I bought it off her for a very reasonable price – a five-figure sum. I couldn’t possibly afford it today.”

 
Gerald Scarfe in his London studio

Gerald Scarfe in his London studio

He adds: “I’ve never regretted making the move – the only things I miss about Hampstead are the trees on the heath.”

In the 40-odd years that he’s lived at the imposing period property – once owned by the Liberal prime minister David Lloyd George – he and Asher, whom he met in 1971 and married in 1981, have raised a family and restored the house. “My wife is brilliant at computers and words, and that kind of thing,” Scarfe says, leaning back in a leather chair. “But, being the designer in the family, I’ve always been the one ‘responsible’ for the interior decor. It’s funny, the moment I check into a hotel I start to redesign the room, not just in my mind but physically. I’ll move the armchair, put a table somewhere else. I just can’t seem to help myself.

“The same goes for our house. When I bought the place it was a bit of a mess, frankly. It had been turned into a billet for Allied soldiers during the second world war and had been split up into bits and pieces. I’ve taken care to make sure that any restoration work has been done sympathetically. All the furniture and fittings we’ve had put in are Victorian rather than modern in style. Similarly, any new interior doors we’ve had installed have had to blend in with the house’s period feel. That said, I wouldn’t say the house has had a makeover – it’s been more a case of just tidying it up a bit.”

The money he made from working on the 1997 Disney film Hercules – he designed most of the characters and supervised the 900-odd artists charged with adapting his creations for the big screen – undoubtedly helped pay for the restoration work.

But for all the care he’s lavished on getting it right, he’s probably spent most of his waking hours in the top-floor studio. In contrast to the rest of the house, it has a decidedly contemporary feel, with its modern fittings, sense of space and use of light.

“I’ve always worked here – it’s my domain,” he says. “It’s mostly glass, though, so it’s freezing in the winter and baking hot in the summer: sometimes almost too hot to work after midday.” Not that that’s a problem, he observes. “I’ve always been quite an early-riser. This morning I was in the studio by 5am.

“If I can’t sleep, I’ll come up at 3 o’clock in the morning and finish something off. That’s the beauty of having my workplace in my home. Conversely, if I want to knock off early, I can – I’m not going to have the boss going, ‘Oi, get back to work, Scarfe!’.”

He starts each day by reading newspapers in the hope of getting inspiration. “I don’t pretend to know all the ins and outs of the political process – but it’s important to have an understanding of the broad brush strokes,” he says.

Unlike “some cartoonists”, he draws in ink or felt-tip pen, which he believes gives his work “an energy it might otherwise lack”. Sometimes he’ll discard dozens of drawings until hitting on the personality quirk or physical trait essential to a caricature. Despite “people often assuming that today’s politicians are less larger-than-life than in the past”, Scarfe insists that is no obstacle to creating a memorable cartoon. “When people first come into power, the David Camerons and Nick Cleggs of the world seem a bit bland but things soon happen – as poor old Clegg, in particular, has discovered – which help define their public image, and the cartoonist can pick up on those things. There have been periods in history when I’ve had a particular beef with someone – for instance Enoch Powell, Richard Nixon, or more recently Bush and Blair but, in a curious way, those sorts of people often bring out the best in my work.”

Even victims of Scarfe’s unflattering attentions ask for the artwork. “Most politicians would rather be portrayed as a warthog than be ignored,” he chuckles.

He thinks the cartoonist performs just as valuable a function in today’s 24-hour news environment as in the past. “I’ve spent my whole life being rude to people and attacking the establishment and I still see my job as being to prick pomposity and point out the foibles of politicians and others,” he says, taking the top off a felt-tip pen as he prepares to finish his latest cartoon.

“Whatever the appeal of television and the internet, people will always enjoy seeing the high and mighty cut down to size in a good, old-fashioned cartoon.”

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