From gonzo to dodos

You wouldn’t know it was Ralph Steadman’s house from the outside. There are no trademark paint spatterings across the substantial Victorian frontage or wide Kent lawn.

Steadman’s wife Anna, a quiet protective presence, leads me in. Steadman is in the kitchen, cheery, gnome-like. On the cap he’s wearing, there is a badge with the words “Sheriff’s Department, Pitkin County” (his late friend Hunter S Thompson’s home ground). Prints of reptilian barflies from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and valley vineyards from The Grapes of Ralph decorate the walls.

A prolific cartoonist and illustrator, Steadman has a diverse body of work: visceral gonzo journalism with Thompson; illustrations for works by Lewis Carroll, George Orwell and Flann O’Brien; biographies of da Vinci, Freud and God; political, often acid, cartoons from the 1950s to 1980s; children’s books, wine books.

Now there is Extinct Boids. The book began when the film-maker Ceri Levy asked Steadman for a painting for an exhibition on extinct birds. More than 100 followed: lush real birds and imaginary comic ones, annotated in the book by the emails and calls that flew between Steadman and Levy.

Born in 1936, Steadman was raised in north-west England and north Wales. Hating his first job as an apprentice at De Havilland Aircraft Company, he left and worked at Woolworth’s. But Steadman’s parents encouraged him to find fulfilment. He loved drawing, so they paid £17 for an art correspondence course and, in 1956, Steadman’s first cartoon – on the Suez crisis – was published. By the early 1960s his work was in Punch, Private Eye and the national press. The vintage political cartoons for which he is most famous – Harold Wilson as da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, Edward Heath as Mona Lisa, a frothing Margaret Thatcher – still startle. Why did he stop?

“I began to think drawing politicians was total bullshit. I’d rather draw inanimate objects or birds, there is something more honest about them. I like the idea of a beak, it’s expressive, like putting a big nose on a cartoon face.”

One of Ralph Steadman's illustrations for ‘Extinct Boids’

Why Boids’ invented birds?

“I could have gone on finding extinct birds. But I thought, ‘It’s like telling the same joke over and over. How can I change it slightly? How can I undermine the thing and do silly instead of serious?’”

He rolls cigarettes as he talks, leaving them half-smoked. His Boids paintings, he says, weren’t pencilled or planned beforehand. “That’s the point: I don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s got to surprise me. If I surprise myself, I might surprise someone else.”

It is a benign book: would he have done a harsher Boids 30 years ago?

“You might have something. I’m a gentle person, I’m not a vicious, savage person. I just can’t stand unpleasant people. So I made my drawings unpleasant if they were about unpleasant people.”

Steadman’s jokiness disappears. He ponders his career, the gentle-unpleasant paradox. “I found myself between the devil and the deep blue sea. And I had to find my own way through, and I have, the best way I can. And I don’t like getting older, it’s bloody awful.”

He talks about Thompson’s 2005 suicide. “Hunter could not take [ageing]. He’d had a hip replacement, he could hardly walk. He said to me once, ‘I’d feel real trapped in this life if I didn’t know I could commit suicide at any moment.’ And I feel rather the same.” He brightens up. “Except I haven’t got the 22 fully loaded guns he used to keep. He was a central part of my life, he gave my work a kudos in America.”

The collaboration, he adds, “structured my life. I wasn’t a lone figure.” Even so, Steadman has called himself an outsider. Is that through choice?

“I don’t feel clubby. I don’t like the idea of exclusivity. My exclusivity, if you like, is my way of doing things.”

He flicks through Extinct Boids. “This is what I like, making up little fellahs, the Orange-Beaked Mwit, the Needless Smut. Ceri said, ‘We don’t want any needless smut in this book.’ I thought, ‘Ooo!’”

Steadman is stubbornly modest. For No Good Reason, a documentary of his life narrated by Johnny Depp, is showing at the London Film Festival, he has an honorary doctorate from the University of Kent, he has won awards. Yet even in his book Gonzo: The Art, an overview of some of his most famous images, he writes: “I dedicate this book to failure.” Why? Hasn’t his work nudged consciences, moved people?

“I don’t know, it depends, really.” He changes the subject, has to be drawn back, then says: “I have changed the world, the world is worse than when I started.”

Maybe it would have been even worse without him? “Now you’re trying to catch me out.” He laughs. “So, that’s how I think of failure.” Then, suddenly angry, “It’s not right. There are too many bloody big greedy heads around.”

But if Steadman is indeed a gentle person, why is that often missing from his work? “This desire to interest myself, to be provocative. If you’re not provocative, what’s the point?”

‘Extinct Boids’ is published by Bloomsbury.‘For No Good Reason’ is at the London Film Festival until tomorrow,

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