Ralph Steadman was born in Wallasey, Cheshire, on 15 May 1936, the son of Lionel Raphael Steadman, a commercial traveller selling women's clothes. He was educated at Abergele Grammar School, but left in 1952 aged sixteen, unable to bear the strict authority of the headmaster, who gave him "fear and hatred of authority." "I couldn't take it any longer," he recalled, "I just had to get out": "I went to De Havilland, the aircraft company. I stayed there nine months, but I found factory life unbearable, so then I got a job at Woolworth's as a trainee manager." In 1954 the local employment office got him a job in McConnell's Advertising Agency, Colwyn Bay, where he recalled that "I learned to make trademarks and tea."
From 1954 to 1956 Steadman spent his National Service in the RAF in Britain, meanwhile continuing to take Percy V. Bradshaw's correspondence course in cartooning, which his parents had paid for. He had started cartooning while at the advertising agency, and from 1955 sent a drawing to Punch every week, but his first cartoon to appear in print - dealing with Nasser and the Suez crisis - was in the Manchester Evening Chronicle in 1956. "Giles held me in his thrall", he remembered, "and his annuals were in my stocking every Christmas because my Dad liked him too": "My first published work in the Manchester Evening Chronicle was a Giles in all but name."
Steadman then joined the Kemsley Newspaper Group, where he worked as a cartoonist from 1959 to 1961, producing editorial cartoons and a weekly panel about a teenage girl named "Teeny." As he recalled, "I would go in at 10 o'clock in the morning and finish by three": "I'd do six roughs and show the features editor; he'd say, 'They're not very good, but if you must - that one'." From 1959 Steadman also studied art part-time with Leslie Richardson at East Ham Technical College, noting later that "because I was knocking off at three o'clock in the afternoon, I'd go up to the art school": "I'd be out five nights a week at art school. And Saturday mornings, Wednesday afternoons, and sometimes Tuesday afternoons, all day Thursday, I'd be at the Victoria and Albert Museum drawing from the antique. For seven years. That's a lot of time drawing."
While working for the Kemsley Newspaper Group, Steadman became involved with Gerald Scarfe. The two men first met at an early meeting of the Cartoonists' Club of Great Britain, which was founded in 1960. “He said, ‘I like your line; I’d like to come see you’”, Steadman recalled: “So he came up one day in his car and he brought his drawings with him and they were awful...commercial art drawings...he showed me these things and said, ‘Can you help?’ I said, ‘I’ll introduce you to my teacher Leslie Richardson.’”
Steadman and Scarfe worked very closely together. As one interviewer noted soon afterwards, Richardson "used to send them to the Victoria and Albert Museum where they would sit sketching statues and suits of armour": "They spent hours together, pacing the streets long into the night, talking about art and the future, and discussing ways of putting the world right." Soon, as Steadman later acknowledged, they had developed “an interchangeability about our styles”: “I know where lots of things came from and he knows where lots of things came from...Neither of us liked to accuse the other that we were copying each other, but you can’t help it when your styles are somehow similar.”
Steadman's job for the Kemsley Newspaper Group finally ended in 1961, after Steadman took some drawings to Leslie Illingworth for his opinion, and was told "The best thing you could do, my boy, is to get the sack." Steadman then freelanced, providing cartoons for Punch (including covers), the Daily Sketch, and the Daily Telegraph - where he signed himself "STEAD" until his mother asked if he was ashamed of his name, and he "half-heartedly added the 'man'." He recalled "flogging cartoons in Fleet Street, and everybody was saying 'You'll have to tone this down'." As he remembered, "I got involved firstly with Punch, but they weren't really interested in social comment, they wanted jokes."
Steadman and Scarfe had a tacit agreement that they would submit drawings to publications together, and Steadman recalled that "we went to Punch together with our cartoons”. Then, in 1962, Steadman decided to submit a drawing to the newly-launched Private Eye, although Scarfe didn’t have anything ready. “Gerry sort of got upset”, Steadman recalled, “and said, ‘I don’t see why; we said we weren’t going to do anything unless we did it together.’ So I said, ‘Do something.’ He said, ‘No, I can’t.’” Steadman submitted a drawing to Private Eye entitled "Plastic People", for which Richard Ingrams sent him £5 and a note saying "More power to your elbow." "I was the first outsider to get in it", Steadman recalled: "they published it with a double page spread in issue number 11."
“I was thrilled to get into this new weird paper”, Steadman admitted, but the episode caused problems with Scarfe. “I’m really fed up with you”, he reportedly told Steadman, before secretly submitting his own work to Private Eye. It was accepted, and it became clear, as Steadman later acknowledged, that “something had started”. The eventual break came when Steadman’s wife sent Scarfe a letter, accusing him, in Steadman’s words, “of copying and faking everything from me, and now preventing me from submitting my own work”. “I wish she hadn’t sent it”, he remembered: “She asked me, ‘Should I send it?’ I said, ‘I wouldn’t send it, but it’s your letter.’” Scarfe was deply hurt, and the two men “fell out.”
Scarfe’s commercial career took off, whilst Steadman recalled that, in his own career, he “kind of took a side track and started doing my own serious work in a little more esoteric way”. From 1961 to 1965, with Richardson's encouragement, he studied at the London School of Printing and Graphic Arts. "I don't make a lot of money", he told an interviewer in 1965: "But I don't mind, I think I'm doing the right thing." He left East Ham Technical College in 1966.
In 1966 Scarfe was recruited by the Daily Mail for a large salary and an E-type Jaguar, and he and Steadman were further estranged. Asked to draw his friend for an article later that year, Steadman produced an image that was half saint and half Superman, but with a disconnected heart. "Scarfe owes his success to me and me to him", he explained, but he refused to say more, adding bitterly that "everything I have to say was in my original drawing of Scarfe being crucified": "Unfortunately that drawing has been censored and replaced with the one you see here." In 1967 Steadman became Artist-in-residence at Sussex University.
In April 1970, with his marriage breaking up, Steadman made a short visit to the USA. "For me, art had to be about freedom", he later recalled: "England at the end of the 1960s was parochial. I started drawing Nixon and I wanted to work in America." He worked for Rolling Stone, and then, on returning to the USA in September 1970, the short-lived radical magazine Scanlan's Monthly teamed him up with Hunter S. Thompson to write about the Kentucky Derby, in what became a memorable and lasting partnership. Steadman subsequently illustrated Thompson's 1971 book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but contrary to popular belief he was not the unnamed passenger in the car. Thompson had made the trip with another artist, whose work was later rejected and Steadman called in.
In June 1970 Steadman had returned to London to cover the forthcoming General Election for The Times, as only the second political cartoonist the paper had ever employed - the first being Kenneth Mahood. After a couple of weeks of daily cartoons, Steadman was asked if he wanted to work regularly for the paper, and was given a three-month contract. That was afterwards renewed for another three months, but in December 1970 the paper's features editor, Charles Douglas-Home, called Steadman into his office and told him that the editor, William Rees-Mogg, had begun to "feel your cartoons are a little seditious and I don't think we need them in the pages of the Times, so I'll have to ask you to leave." He left in January 1971.
By 1972 Steadman’s style was changing, and he recalled that “I developed this approach to drawing which became far more visceral”: “It was a kind of anger, really. I mean, it was partly induced by Hunter, but also the screaming lifestyle of America.” From 1976 to 1980 Steadman drew political cartoons for the New Statesman, recalling that despite the routine "I enjoyed it": "I used to like going in there Thursday, taking the cartoon in; I'd get a nice reception." In 1977 Steadman also did work for the National Theatre, and also contributed cartoons to numerous publications including Rolling Stone, Radio Times, Black Dwarf, New York Times, Times Higher Education Supplement, New Scientist, Independent, Guardian, Observer, and Sunday Times. In 1978 Sir Charles Forte issued a writ for libel after Steadman caricatured him in the Sunday Times Magazine.
Steadman was now losing his faith in "the honesty of socialism, or at least in the practitioners of socialism", and also his interest in political cartooning. He was dismayed by the success of ITV's Spitting Image, which seemed to turn political caricature into entertainment. By 1986 Spitting Image had an audience of over 12 million, and Spitting Image Productions had an annual turnover of £2 million, so in 1987 Steadman stopped drawing politicians, "leaving them to their latex lookalikes which rendered their latex antics a cosy entertainment in every living room throughout the land." "You will never see a politician's face in my drawings again", he declared angrily, although later admitting that he had in fact "laid off cartoons for a while and invented this whole idea that I only want to lay off it because I want to ignore them". He later relented to the extent of drawing politicians' legs, particularly in a series of "Election '97" drawings for New Statesman.
In 1989 Steadman admitted to an interviewer that part of his problem with political cartooning was his dislike of "editorial work in the bloody newspapers", which "works for a while, and then it gets awkward because I get restless and want change": "I don't want to stay there; I don't want to fill the space up like this; there must be another way." But another significant element was the change in political style. "Political satire is so boring now", Steadman told an interviewer in 2002: "Why the hell would I want to draw Tony Blair? The only politicians I've ever liked were Dennis Healey, Michael Foot and Tony Benn. Really nice people, good folk. The rest of them, I mean this whole crowd, this spun crowd of degenerate politicians are just not worth drawing."
Steadman's work retained the power to offend, sometimes in ironic ways. In 1992 London Transport banned a poster he had designed for a cartoon exhibition at the Barbican Art Gallery - a photomontage with guns and a headless man spattered with blood. As a spokesman for the Barbican explained, "they said it was a poster which showed blood and that the white areas around it would invite graffiti": "They also said the guns could incite violence."
Steadman has won numerous awards for his work including the V&A's Francis Williams Book Illustration Award in 1973, the Designers' & Art Directors' Association Gold Award in 1977, the American Institute of Graphic Arts Illustrator of the Year award in 1979, W. H. Smith Illustration Award in 1987, BBC Design Award in 1987, CAT Advertising Cartoonist of the Year Award in 1995, 1996, and 1998. He also received an Honorary D.Litt. from the University of Kent in 1995. In addition, he has directed a film for TVS in 1992, designed for the stage, written libretti, designed stamps for the GPO in 1986, given lectures, and, from 1987, designed catalogues for the wine merchant Oddbins. As Hunter S. Thompson wrote to Steadman in 1998, "politics was below you, so you stooped to worship grapes."
Steadman acknowledges the early influence of cartoonists such as Saul Steinberg, Andre Francois, and Ronald Searle. He uses pens, brushes, inks, acrylics, oils, etching, silkscreen and collage, and has also produced sculptures in iron and steel. He works on a large scale, with an often brutal, savage style. "The thing I never did is draw for reproduction", he told an interviewer in 1988: "I was always drawing just for the drawing, and its always been a problem. We always have this thing about my work never looking right in reproduction."
“Somehow in people’s minds you associate a cartoonist with someone who either does it in his spare time or didn’t get a very good education and therefore scribbles and does a few gags”, Steadman explained in 1989: “I think newspapers...prefer it that way; keep the newspaper cartoonist under wraps. They use them to sell newspapers, but they...don’t give them that kind of dignified importance that they might give to their lead political writers.” "When I began", Steadman once told an interviewer resignedly, "I thought I could change the world": "It's much worse now than when I started, so I haven't done much of a job."
In 2013 Steadman explained to one interviewer: "People have said, 'I thought you’d be a nasty piece of work because you’re so dark and trenchant', and I’ve said, 'No I’m not, I’ve got rid of it - it’s all on paper.'"
Ralph Steadman's website is at http://ralphsteadman.com/
- CSCC Archive, unidentified cutting of Rodney Burbeck "Scarfe: The Paradox of a man who wishes to shock and yet to be liked", 7 July 1966, pp.16-17.
- Michael Bateman Funny Way to Earn a Living: A Book of Cartoons and Cartoonists (Leslie Frewin, London, 1966), pp.106-8.
- CSCC Archive, cutting of Ena Kendall "A Room of My Own: Ralph Steadman", from Observer Magazine, 1984, p.33.
- Chris Caldwell "Ralph Steadman: Reflections from the Lunatic Fringe", London's Alternative Magazine, 27 November 1984, pp.4-5.
- Gary Groth "Interview: Ralph Steadman - Into the Gentle Darkness...", Comics Journal, no.131, September 1989, pp.40-91 [interviewed September 1988/July 1989].
- Danny Danziger "The Worst of Times: The Sadist Who Destroyed Me", Independent, 21 October 1991.
- Ian Katz "Art Gallery's Poster Banned from London Underground", Guardian, 31 July 1992, p.5.
- Margaret Rooke and Ruby Millington "Ralph Steadman", Telegraph Magazine, 24 September 1994.
- Andrew Marr "Catch Them by the Hind Legs", Independent, 24 February 1997, p.4.
- Ralph Steadman Gonzo: The Art (London, 1998)
- Ralph Steadman "The pen is mightier than the word", Observer, 27 February 2000, p.6.
- Caroline Wingfield "How Do I Look? Ralph Steadman", Independent, 14 September 2002, p.7.
- Craig Johnson "Ralph Steadman: Gonzo: The Art", Spike Magazine, 1 September 2005 - www.spikemagazine.com/0905-ralph-steadman-hunter-thompson.php
- London College of Communication "Alumni Profiles: Ralph Steadman", 2011 www.lcc.arts.ac.uk/people-and-profiles/alumni-profiles/ralph-steadman-profile
- A tour of Ralph Steadman’s studio in 2013 - www.youtube.com/watch?v=i6omL2ukk9c
3 uncatalogued originals [PU2009 - 2011]
RS0001 - 0301), inc:
4 postcards feat. commemorative. stamp designs (Halley's Comet, 1986)
3 Treasure Island posters
4 I Leonardo posters
Archive of periodicals collected by the artist containing his cartoons.
113 photographs of artwork
Audio cassette and 2 audio reels labelled "Consort of Musicke Lute & choral
6 large, signed artist's proofs of Cabinet ministers
3CDs of cartoons after Picasso
2 posters and a badge for the News on Sunday