There are three good reasons to visit the Cartoon Museum, apart from the fact that it has been closed for months, and that they have moved premises, and that they have re-hung their brilliant collection of pictures, ranging from Gilray and Rowlandson, to Bill Tidy and John Glasham, via Phil May and H M Bateman. Three other reasons are a chance to see a trio of never-seen-before artworks, two of which are from Ralph’s own bathroom, and the third donated by the son of his nib supplier. Ralph Steadman is a legend, and not just in his own lunchtime. He is in his mid-eighties and is still producing his trademark splish, splash, splosh, splatter-gun illustrations, full of fire, bite and madness. He had a retrospective exhibition at the Cartoon Museum back in 2013, when a mere seventy-seven, displaying cartoons, paintings, book illustrations and caricatures, both satirical and political. His style is inimitable, and only he and Ronald Searle could wrangle a pen travelling over a patch of paper like they do. It’s not so much Paul Klee’s old description about ‘taking a line for a walk’, as dragging it off for a forced march, said Martin Rowson, and giving it a damn good kicking. Ralph and the owner of His Nibs in Drury Lane, Philip Poole, became great friends, although Rowson reported that he told him that Steadman ‘Treats them lovely nibs like bloody chisels!’ The pictures on display in a small, intimate cubicle, all have a smattering of nibs stuck to the paper and framed, and are brimming with dynamism, colour and wit.
He came to prominence in the 1960s in Private Eye, where there were three great pen and ink artists, the other two being Gerald Scarfe, and Willie Rushton, who was altogether more gentle than the other two hooligans. Steadman and Scarfe had ‘edge’, and the ability to shake one’s sensibilties, and one got the feeling that they were vying to out-do each other on the shockabilty front. Yet, Ralph was, and is, capable of some truly beautiful landscapes, witty work he did for Oddbins, and also for a book on whisky entitled Still Life with Bottle. His illustrations for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island are masterpieces of mood and evocative characterisation. Michelangelo and Leonardo from I, Leonardo, published in 1983, is a triumph of line, dynamics and, above all, humour. Although Ralph did not accompany Hunter S Thompson and Dr Gonzo on their alcohol-fuelled and chemically-assisted journey to the Heart of the American Dream in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, his post-rationalised drawings of the trip are stark, raw, striking and totally evocative. On the strength of them, Rolling Stone magazine sent Ralph and Hunter to Kinshasa to cover the Mohammad Ali-George Foreman ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ fight in 1974, but they never actually got to see the fight. Thompson sold their tickets and went on a massive binge. Steadman drew some pictures, but Thompson never wrote up the story. As he remarked later, ‘the biggest fucked-up story in the history of journalism.’
Ralph Steadman: Hidden Treasures
The Cartoon Museum
Wells Street, London W1A 3AE
Until 30 September 2021