Ralph Steadman is watching Columbo when I call him at his home in Kent. It's a Thursday in early March, and Robert Vaughn is today's villain, but Steadman is more concerned with defending his honor.
“I'm not idle,” Steadman tells me as he clicks off the telly. “This is really me studying. Columbo, you see, helps me locate facts and unknown things. Quietly, he always reminds you what to look for.”
Steadman has just canceled his trip to Austin, Texas, where he'd been slated to promote For No Good Reason, director Charlie Paul's new documentary about the artist. There are a number of explanations, but the simplest is probably that Kent is hardly adjacent to Texas, and Ralph is old enough to do what Ralph wants. Paul is there as well, enjoying tea and Columbo.
“We were just asking one another,” Paul steps in, “has anyone ever seen Columbo's wife?”
“There's a whole show dedicated to her,” I tell them, and it's hard not to smile here, because their question is so common-sense, so natural and innocent, and yet so pertinent to Steadman's legacy in the art world.
Steadman has his own show, too, but you probably know him best as the invisible artist behind the slashing, expressionist aesthetic of Gonzo. Hunter Thompson was Columbo; Steadman is Mrs. Columbo, ever-present even as no one knows what he looks like. He's just the diffident Brit in the shadows, slashing about with his fountain pen until he cuts through to the nasty, brutish heart of the matter.
Paul has been a recurring character at the house of Steadman for the past 12 years and more, ever since he first knocked on Ralph's door and said, “let's make a film.” The resulting documentary is a pleasant corrective to popular notions that cast Steadman as a sidekick. Without pressing too hard, the film makes a strong and charming case that Steadman isn't anyone's “illustrator”—rather, he's an artist of great invention and resource, an original.
"Oh yes. Picasso convinced me that the thing I can do is simply start a drawing, and it will come out the end somehow, and I don't know how it's gonna come out, but that's the fascination. That's what makes it a worthwhile pursuit."
The most persuasive element of this case, oddly, is Steadman's collection of corrosive humors: a tendency to take the piss out of all parties in the room, himself included. Steadman, it turns out, has no complaints about being Quentin Blake to Hunter's Roald Dahl. He will happily hold forth on Rembrandt (“the most enigmatic and inquiring artist who ever lived, with the most undecorative idea: watching yourself grow old, and giving us an animation of his aging in beautiful paintings”); his fixation on the human ruins of Skid Row (“a museum of misery and deprivation”); and the importance of maniacal humor in his early work (“There was an arrogance missing, a wildness missing, a rawness missing. It lacked that bite, you know, that real, ferocious bite, that thing that would make it noticeable”). Still, he becomes most animated when conversation bends toward Thompson.
A raconteur in the orotund tradition of the Welsh, especially after a bit of booze, Steadman would rather chat about his friends than about his “solo projects,” which include art for Alice in Wonderland and for Sigmund Freud's diaries.
We had a fun morning.
So—what does the film get right about you?
STEADMAN: I thought it was all wrong, actually; the whole film from beginning to end was completely wrong. You could probably sue them for all the mistakes they made. But it seems to me that it was a hell of a thing to take on, Charlie just persisted—he showed up one day, then a fortnight would go by or a summer holiday, but over a period of 12 years or so he kept coming back here. A far better way than saying, “Well, we want to make this over three months,” and it's done. It captures a pretty good impression of a person's working life. And he captures the whole process: learning to draw, wanting to change the world. And look! The world has changed. It is worse than when I started.
Charlie was just telling me something about an important sheep.
STEADMAN: Well I had one, it was a mutant sheep, but a local farmer was taking it to slaughter. I adopted her, named her Zeno, or him perhaps—does it really matter? It's a sheep, after all. I came up with the name “Zeno” because the left pupil of her eye was square. I used to look at Zeno in the eye, and I would gain wisdom. I would go to her in the morning for wisdom, for a philosophic message of what to do with the day. Even wrote a song:
Zeno, you are a sheep of certain wisdom
What I need to know you can provide.
Whether it’s the answer to a problem,
Or a fear that troubles you inside
Zeno, oh Zeno, please listen to me,
Ze-no, oh Ze-no, you’re so wooll-ee!
PAUL: I'm tearing up. This is our next film.
But there are lots of animals here. Charlie, that beautiful black dog that Ralph paints—she is yours, right?
PAUL: That's Beanie, a Border collie—she's my dog, comes down the weekend with me. And she was very much part of the film-making process throughout, like a very important piece of furniture.
Ralph, your early drawings are more straight-figurative, no real chaos necessarily; when did you start spraying the ink about? Was there a happy accident that started it all?
STEADMAN: Well, actually, yes. In this case it was indeed my own clumsiness. Naturally clumsy, spilled ink out of a bottle, and that's how it starts. Rather a revelation: “Hey, I like that.” How do you do blots? You do blots by doing blots.
This was when you worked at Woolworth's?
STEADMAN: Actually when I was an aircraft engineer, and I didn't like factory life, so I would draw when I wasn't supposed to. At same time, I was going through Wrexham Technical College, where I had to learn engineering and drawing, and that's where the straight lines and the circles come from. That's where I started doing little drawings in the side of my engineering drawings. Doing what I should’nt've been doing. If I hadn't been messing about at work, you wouldn't be talking to me today.
PAUL: I've worked with Ralph for 15 years and I've never heard that story.
STEADMAN: Keep up, Charlie! Anyway, I left after nine months, and my mother was very upset, and my sister's husband Ron—a good name for a brother-in-law, that—he got me a job working in Woolworth's, of all places, and I was a stockroom boy, and I had to sweep the floors every night and then oil them. [Unpublishable story about encounter with Ralph's old headmaster.] Anyway, I got the sack from Woolworth's when I got in fight in stockroom. I'm not a fighting person! This was the only time. But the undermanager took a distinct dislike to me for some reason and caused me all sorts of trouble and it was a hideous job. Only stuck it for six months. Finally took a job at an advertising agency, where they asked me to start doing trademarks, and little bibs and bobs around the office.
PAUL: That's a bit modest, Ralph—“bibs and bobs”? Your pen is a weapon of splatter.
STEADMAN: On good days, yes, it is the snake's tail.
PAUL: But it isn't some kind of clumsiness thing. You've turned splatter into a fine art. I've seen you splat with great accuracy.
For your non-Hunter projects, how do you embed?
STEADMAN: Well, an incident that might be of interest is that when I did my book about Sigmund Freud, I went to Vienna, I went to his consulting room in a basement in the ninth district in Vienna, and I lay down on the floor where his couch had been. And then I found out that there was something Freud said, that led me on to my next book: He called Leonardo da Vinci “a man who woke up in the dark.” So, for my Leonardo prints, I decided: Let's pretend I am Leonardo. Even painted the Last Supper on the bedroom wall here in this house. What I didn't get 'round to was cutting up a living body.
And those projects led you somewhat away from the more Gonzo stuff?
STEADMAN: Right. If, say, I set about to do Victorian-style sketching, that's my foundation—for the Alice in Wonderland, for the Freud.
It strikes me that you and Hunter shared something in the process of composition—where he seemed to begin sentences without knowing how they'd end, your own technique seems to be, “Well, let's see where this takes us.”
STEADMAN: Oh yes. Picasso convinced me that the thing I can do is simply start a drawing, and it will come out the end somehow, and I don't know how it's gonna come out, but that's the fascination. That's what makes it a worthwhile pursuit. If I knew what was going to happen, what would be the point in doing it? That's the bite!
Some artists would be miffed if their work had been relegated to a mere function of someone else's. Is it funny to consider how closely so many readers identify HST with your art and aesthetic?
STEADMAN: What helped Hunter and me do what we did was how different we were. We were like chalk and cheese, not in any way the same types. Where he was gentle and kind, I'm cruel and nasty. That should be made clear because that's something he didn't know, the brutal nature of the Welsh.
PAUL: Hunter would use Ralph; Hunter needed Ralph to possibly look at himself, in a way. He'd throw you into places—
STEADMAN: —to see how I'd react. Very early on in our working relationship, he stumbled on the Gonzo thing by accident, because its essence is: What is the story? And there was no story until we started one. We have to become the story. Not part of the story—we were the story. And when we were in Rhode Island for the America's Cup, we walked along the jetty, and along the jetty there were stalls, and Hunter brought a jackknife, and we went to the pub at the end of the afternoon and had a few drinks and Hunter said, “Well, Ralph, we really better do something. We got no story.” He was always “no story.” I said, I don't know about yachts. So we go in amongst the America's Cup yachts on a schooner and fuck up the race by just floating in and out between the boats themselves. And then there were the cans of spray paint; he just brings these and wonders what I might do with them—“I don't know, Ralph, you're the artist.” Well, let's draw something on the side of one of the boats, we figured.
PAUL: A brilliant plan, given your wherewithal for messing up.
STEADMAN: And as Charlie knows, I suggested: “How 'bout 'Fuck the Pope'?” “Marvelous,” Hunter said. “Are you a religious bloke?” But in the pictures, I think it was purely accidental that they expressed what Hunter wanted to convey. I was fractured enough as an artist to be just right for what he had in mind. It's like the blots, really—when I throw a stone, I don't know where it will fall. That is Hunter's way, and mine as well, I suppose.
The Welsh may be “brutal,” but it does seem that Hunter abused you more than a little.
STEADMAN: That was our relationship! He could be an absolute son-of-a-bitch and left me sometimes in a right state. I think of when we went to Hawaii—what Hunter wanted was to catch the biggest marlin that had ever been caught. That was ghastly; I hate boats. We went out fishing for this marlin, and I did this picture of Hunter: “We kill like champions, Ralph,” is what he said. But I couldn't stay on the boat. In some ways, I'm a quitter. He's a quitter too—checked out in 2005. We had different agendas, really. I think his approach to his work, his writing, was the most important thing, and I was just along for the ride, and to him I wasn't really a part of it. “Stick to the art, Ralph,” he would say. “Don't try writing. Otherwise you'll bring shame on your family.”
He came and stayed here in 1990 and he wanted to go to the local pub—we have a place here called the Checkers—so we went down the hill. This was about February, English winter weather, and Hunter wore shorts; he was six-foot-six, the biggest guy in the pub, and I said, “What'll you have?” “Whiskey.” “What kind?” “Chivas Regal.” Martin, the publican, gave us the Chivas Regal. Martin measured out the whiskey, and Hunter glanced at it suspiciously: “What is that, a sample?” After a few I left him down there. He came toddling home many hours later. “Hey, I like Martin,” he said, “he's a good man. I asked him if he had a gun. Hell, he got a single-barrel shotgun, and he lent it to me.” “Lovely, Hunter.” “And he lent me his daughter as well!”
STEADMAN: This is all true.
And Martin's daughter—
STEADMAN: I'm sure she would be proud to see the story in print.