Ralph Steadman

Ralph Steadman started this interview by singing a song about a sheep he had called Zeno… “I had a sheep called Zeno,” he said, “because she had a square pupil. I called her Zeno after the philosopher; I’d consult her for knowledge.”


A square eyed sheep? That’s a bit weird.
It’s very weird. It was a square pupil. Then somebody said to me “all sheep have got square pupils.” And I didn’t know that.

Is that true? I’ve never looked a sheep dead in the eye.
I’ve never thought to look it up. We should start looking them in the eye.

Maybe that’s what looking sheepish looks like…
Yes! Maybe you get square pupils. [laughs]. Anyway, what was the question again?

How are you? Nice weekend? 
It was very nice, quite warm and good weather with a suitable amount of rain at the beginning and then it got really nice.
I’ve been trying to get that song transferred to play on a computer. Hang on! I’ve got a shopping list here! What is it you needed to know – something deep and philosophical?

What are you up to?
I’m trying to do a book at the moment called the Book of Clever Bastards. Maybe I should call it the Journal of Clever Bastards, that gives it some gravitas, I dunno. Or The Diary of Clever Bastards.

Or the Gospel of Clever Bastards?
The Gospel According to Clever Bastards! One of them’s called Mark, another called Matthew and there’s Luke and John. They’re all clever bastards. There should be 12 of them really though shouldn’t there?

Only four of them signed a publishing deal…

Have you got signing your autograph down to a fine art now?
It’s rather a crude art I’m afraid.

Didn’t you get William S. Burroughs to shoot your prints?
Oh yes! I was with him and he used to carry a little revolver in a holster. We put a silk screen picture I’d done of Hunter S. Thompson up and I told him it had three places on the print which were the target. One was Hunter’s sheriff badge, the second was his Rolex watch and the third one between the eyes. So WIlliam only went a few yards back and he went BAMBAMBAMBAMBAMBAM and shot off all six bullets all at once. They went all the way through the print but they didn’t hit anywhere near where I told him. I said “I think you’ve missed, William.” He replied “Well he’s dead isn’t he?”

Can you remember the feeling when you first got a piece accepted by Punch Magazine?
Oh that took three years! Getting into Punch was really something. I tried and tried and tried for three years before they finally accepted one. I’d just done a correspondence course, while I was doing my military service. It was called “You too could learn to draw and earn pounds”. It kept me busy during my National Service, when the lads would sit around the table playing cards I would put my boots on the bed and draw them or I would draw the guys at the table. Then I started selling my drawings to the Aberdeen Press and Journal, the Leicester Mercury and the Manchester Evening Chronicle. The first picture I got accepted was by the Manchester Evening Chronicle and was of President Nasser during the Suez Canal crisis and it was a picture of a lock keeper sitting in a deck chair somewhere in the North and he’s looking at the paper saying “Nasser? Who’s he?” It was my first printed cartoon. You kind of remember that. Somebody recently sent me three pictures they have of mine. One of them was based on Giles, who was wonderful, a picture of a banker with their mouth open and somebody hill-climbing to get into the guys mouth and there’s an altar at the back of his throat with a pound sign instead of a cross. Which still works today! If you hang around long enough you get to see things repeated!

What goes through your head when you wallop your first ink splodge on the paper? Is it a journey and you don’t know what’s going to happen? You seem like you’re discovering your work as it goes along. 
There’s a usually a little quiet hope that something good will come out of it!

Have you seen that the Bank Of England is thinking of putting a contemporary artist on the £20 note? Who would you like?
One of my big heroes is Francis Bacon. I was actually reading in the Radio Times recently a piece about who would we put on a bank note, I think Francis Bacon would be a terrific choice. I do hope they don’t choose Tracy Emin. Maybe Antony Gormley would be alright. He’s quite interesting.

Do you get exhausted by your work?
Ermm, probably – I’m trying to think what. I do care a lot about what I’m doing, so I think it’s more emotional exhaustion. I’ve still got energy – I still swim every day, so that’s something! The blot symphony exhausted me – I filled a book with blots as notes and I performed it once in France. That exhausted me!

What do you think of political cartoon nowadays?
I find cartoonists now a bit static because they really work in a computer. That’s where they go to and they make it in a computer. For me there’s not enough freedom in that. I like wet ink. I want cartoonists to reinvent the wet ink drawing and send that. Then they could always do a copy of it. If you do something through a program then it looks like the programme. I don’t see anything interesting in that at all.  I got so sick of drawing politicians I just started drawing their legs. I love using bits of anatomy from books. I liked that series – and they were published.

Have you changed the world enough with your art? You said that’s what you want to do.
I’ve succeeded. It’s worse now than it ever was. Definitely worse. I think it’s become terribly repetitive and rather idiotic people believing silly religious ideas that are being put into practice. I wanted people to have fights with custard pies and get rid of their anger just through that. That would be terrific – you just get a huge square somewhere like Times Square and take it over for an hour and really go to town and slap custard pies around.

Photo: Rikard Osterlund

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