Ralph Steadman was born on 15th May, 1936 in Wallesey, Liverpool.
R.I am born...
Ralph Steadman was born
The first 5 years of Ralph life were spent in Wallasey. When the war began in 1939 and the horror or the Blitz began, Ralph remembers being woken by his mother to the keening of the air-raid siren. He would be carried down to the Anderson shelter and laid on a bunk in his bedding. All the while his mother would knit and he would be lulled back to sleep by the steady click-click of her knitting needles.
To avoid the Blitz in 1940 he was bundled into his fathers Old Rover with his older sister, Barbara and off they went to the rolling hills of North Wales. His father, a salesman in women's Coats and Costumes had a customer who lived in Abergele and helped them find a new home away from the terrors of the city.
At the outbreak of war, the government issued statements to discourage discourse in Welsh, afraid that its use could be perverted somehow by German spies wanting to send information back to the Fuhrer. Ralph's mother, believing fully in the infallibility of the government in all things stopped speaking her native tongue, and Ralph to his constant frustration was therefore prevented from becoming truly proficient in it.
His favourite Welsh phrase remains:
"Y tipyn bach y bo'peth" - a little bit of everything.
To avoid the Blitz in 1940 he was bundled into his fathers Old Rover
Between 1947 and 1952 he attended Abergele Grammer School. He was initially very happy there and an excellent student but a year into his time there the headmaster was replaced by a man who Ralph began to fear and revile and his studies suffered accordingly.
One student in the school photo shows complete defeat through his demeanour - that is Ralph. Spot him if you can.
Between 1947 and 1952
One of his favorite pastimes as a boy was model aircraft making which influenced the choice of one of his first jobs with the De Havilland Aircraft Company Chester as an Apprentice Aircraft Engineer in Broughton, Cheshire. Factory life was not something the young Steadman could settle to.
His cousin who worked for the local employment office then found him a position at the Woolworths in Colwyn Bay stocking shelves but a clash with the Under Manager in the stock room led to him leaving within 6 months.
Finally he was placed in McConnells Avertising as a tea-boy. Although he was shortly to fulfill his National Service he had found a direction in which to steer.
Many years later, with some of his own children, he constructed a model aircraft with a small diesel motor attached. A day for its maiden voyage was set and the family eagerly skipped off to Wimbledon Common to witness the event. Unfortunately, once successfully air-born there was no way to bring it back so they watched it fly off into the distance, destination unknown, until it disappeared from view. Ralph still wonders where it might have finally returned to the ground and in what state.
Between 1954 and 1956 he completed his national service in the Royal Air Force. It was here that he worked as a radar operator and learnt technical drawing and draughting. which continues to feature in his work
It was also at this time that he spotted the Percy V Bradshaw Press Arts School Correspondence Course in Forrest Hill. “You too can Learn to Draw and Earn £££’s” it boasted and for a mere 17 pounds. HIs mother, glad to see her unconventional son had finally found something of his own, paid the fees, crossed her fingers and waited.
Drawing whenever he could, doing life studies of his boots on his army bunk, and the other lads stationed with him he was also sending cartoons to Newspapers, desperate to avoid returning to Abergele.
National service and some basic skills
National Service and the Percy Bradshaw Press Arts Correspondence Course.
Finally selling his first cartoon in 1956 to the Manchester Evening Chronicle he moved to London when his National Service ended intent on making his fortune.
A clipping of the cartoon was recently unearthed in a scrapbook hidden under a pile of early works in Ralph's studio. The scrapbook, presumably assembled by his mother, held several other early clippings too.
Early drawings he only signed "stead" in an attempt at humility.
Ralph Steadman's First Published Cartoon
Mr Stead - or is it Steadman - I presume?
After he had completed his National Service, Ralph tried several more conventional methods of earning an honest living - a factory worker (but he hated factory life), a shop assistant in Woolworths (but he had a punch-up with the manager) before finally packing his bags and leaving for London. His mother, his most loyal believer in his latent talents watched him go with a tear in her eye and a dab of her hanky!
Ralph's dream, after unpacking his bags at 77 Herring-gate Road ( a boarding house run by a Mrs Clinch and her husband, who she only ever addressed as "Darl'") was to see his worked published in Punch Magazine. At that time it was to London what the New Yorker is and has been to New York.
For 3 years he scribbled and sent off work, and was rejected, scribbled, sent off work, and was rejected. Doomed to the cold and heartless welcome of boarding house after boarding house he moved so often he actually began to consider a book on Landladies - what he eventually produced was the Book of Dogs!
But finally his dream cam true and Punch finally said yes. He work would eventually feature regularly in it's pages and on its cover. He had arrived!
Landladies, Landladies everywhere!
Not PUNCHING above his weight after all - and I doubt that woolworths manager thought so either!
He simultaneously took courses at London College Printing and Graphic Arts College from 1961 – 1965 and East Ham Technical College 1959-1966. It was at the latter that he met his mentor Leslie Richardson who was teaching life drawing. Wary of Steadman’s continual bombardment with his cartoons, he finally took him under his wing, and the two men remain friends and still correspond today.
Art College and Leslie Richardson
College Training and a Lifelong friend
Throughout the 1960’s his work continued to appear in various publications including Private Eye and Punch. He took his inspiration from George Grosz and John Heartfield. He was learning his trade. Making his way, making friends and learning, always learning.
Often considered his “big break” in 1969 Steadman was asked to cover the Kentucky Derby. It would put his drawings with maverick journalist, Hunter S Thompson’s writing in Scanlan’s Weekly for the first time. As Steadman and Thompson could not even see the race from their vantage point, the article became more about the decadence and depravity of the event and those who attended it.
From this first encounter between the two men, Gonzo journalism was born. Their 40 year friendship included collaborations on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Curse of Lono, coverage of the Watergate Scandals and numerous articles in Rolling Stone magazine for which Steadman still holds the position of Gardening Correspondent.
Scanlan's and the Kentucky Derby
Gonzo is born, and I ain't talking Muppets!
Hunter S. Thompson and Ralph Steadman, in Kinshasa to cover the fight of the century..what could go wrong?..nothing. That ain't how Gonzo rolls
This is a collection of its time. The vision of a young man, a stranger to the almost alien atmosphere of 1970's Zaire. Ralph arrived 2 days late to the latest collaborative adventure with Hunter. As he checked in he saw Hunter dash past in pursuit of Bill Cordoza who having read and seen the duo's coverage of the Kentucky Derby felt their vision was an essential point of view to cover The Rumble in the Jungle.
"Ralph, you're late!", Hunter drawled chasing down his latest drug stash. Their hotel room was a constant flow of strange and unusual characters seeking "medicine".
Creating legend in his wake, Hunter missed the fight having sold their tickets for a load of weed, allegedly.
Hunter spent the fight in the pool watching the final stash of drugs disappearing down the pool filter.
Ralph spent it in the hotel room, in front of the TV sketching what he saw. What he drew was an incredible narrative of the ultimate in weird. His perceptions, as a young man from North Wales are those of a man experiencing a fantastic circus, a bizarre parade of outlandish characters who are lost in their own world of theatre are naive but perfectly capture his bewilderment that such scenes can exist beyond the confines of Bedlam .
Looking at some of the images from a 2012 perspective one could feel shock at the apparently primitive aspect Ralph drew out in the African faces around him. What he was seeing hover for the first time, was the African face and its features in its indigenous environment. It was an exploration of a different facial form, nothing more and nothing less. He revelled in the new and different forms he saw and remembers reacting as an artist, not a commentator.
The Rumble in the Jungle
Ralph, you're late!
His children’s books have entralled children for years. In 1978 he collaborated with his good friend, Bernard Stone, who ran the legendary Turret Books (legendary for its book launch parties and unquenchable host, Bernard himself, not to mention the dusty towers of books that threatened to topple on unsuspecting book-lovers). Together Ralph and Bernard created the classic Emergency Mouse in 1978 and then Inspector Mouse in 1980. Finally the triptic was completed in 1985 with Quasimodo Mouse.
Ralph often takes inspiration from the people and things around him. Teddy, Where are you? was inspired by his wife’s own one-eyed teddy bear, Christopher, and the central characters of Grace and Rebecca Scarlett are actually his two eldest grand-children.
His children's books have always kept that slightly anarchic edge and No Room to Swing a Cat(1989) wonderfully captures how vividly a child's mind can bring things to life. It is still available, signed, at www.ralphsteadmanshop.com.
Fly Away Peter and The Big Red Squirrel and the Little Rhinocerous have both recently been reprinted by Pavilllion books.
He has illustrated classics such as Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland (for which he won the Francis Williams Book Illustration Award), Robert Lewis Stevenson’s Treasure Island in which he forever immortalized his own local pub as the Admiral Benbow Inn and more recently Fahrenheit 451.
The classics inspire
In the 1980's Ralph was approached by the wine merchants, Oddbins, to produce their wine catalogues. Over 12 years he travelled the vineyards of the world for them including France, Portugal, USA, Australia, and Chile capturing the scenes and characters he encountered.
It inspired him to establish his own vineyard in his garden in Kent and he remains convinced to this day that the Loose Valley near his home is the sight of a lost Roman Vineyard, although no proof of this theory exists.
Only one palatable wine was ever to come out of Chateau Steadman (the grapes were crushed in a large bin by the artist's feet) but it did fuel a very memorable party!
Many of the drawings Ralph produced for Oddbins were included in his own wine books, The Grapes of Ralph and Untrodden Grapes and Still Life with Bottle about whiskey making across the world (signed copies available at www.ralphsteadmanshop.com).
Wine all over the World
Steadman has written and illustrated many books of his own. Including Sigmund Freud, The Big I Am about God, and Doodaa a semi-autobographical work about his alter ego, Gavin Twinge.
For his homage to Leonardo da Vinci (which won the WHSmith Award for best book for 5 years in 1987) he even constructed a flying machine from lengths of bamboo and an old tent, which he launched from the roof of his house and which can be seen in the BBC documentary I Leonardo
Books and Flying Machines
In 1986 while on holiday in Turkey a photograph from his new Polaroid camera melted in the sun and the images became malleable. Ralph realised that with a blunt pencil (it has to be blunt) or biro (only bic will do) he could manipulate the image before it had set. It was a new form of caricature and it lead to a new book in this heretofore unexplored medium - Paranoids.
Paranoids became a prescient exploration into the cult of celebrity as Ralph took photos of the famous and fabulous on his TV screen and then manipulated the unset images to reveal the true nature of the personalities.
I'm melting! I'm melting!
As well as illustrating and writing books in 1989 Steadman penned an oratoria for an Eco –opera with friend, the composer, Richard Harvey. The Plague and the Moonflower explores the pollution of the planet through the allegorical love story of the plague demon and the moonflower.
It was performed in Canterbury, Exeter and Salisbury Cathedrals during which illustrations by Steadman were projected onto a screen 30 foot above the audience’s heads.
The Moonflower was represented by 100's of
pearlescent helium balloons which rose and fell to the swells of the music. In Canterbury Cathedrale, Ralph himself operated the balloons, hidden conspicuously behind one of the columns that line the aisle if the incredible structure. It was a religious experince for him, which he had not had since being a choir boy. It made no difference however and his only idol is nature.
The performance at Canterbury was also filmed by the BBC2 and aired on New Years Eve 1991
The Plague and the Moonflower
3 Cathedrals and 100's of helium balloons
A humanitarian at heart and always concerned for his fellow man and his rights he has donated countless images to charity and provided the art for may campaigns including Save the Children, The Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture and the Campaign which eventually led to the freedom of the hostage John McCarthy.
Himself raised by two very gentle parents, Ralph has never been able to comprehend the hideous acts which man can inflict on fellow man. His continual inspiration has always been the desire to change the world, his continual disappointment is that he has not changed it enough.
Ralph, the Humanitarian
Charities and changing the world
In 1999 Ralph was approached by The Royal Opera House to design their new ballet based on Arther Miller's. The Crucible.
Steadman sought to underline the hypocrisy and swarming, writhing hatreds hidden beneath the surface of the small, claustrophobic society. A reflective black back drop distorted the dancers to hideous, malformed demons as they leapt across a red floorcloth decorated with a huge black typically Steadman splattered cross. In fact Ralph travelled to the huge scenic workshops himself to paint the cross.
The costumes had oily inks pored, thrown and splatted over them by Ralph himself and Danforth, the self important judge who drives forward the frenzy of revenge, was given a large golden, pimply codpiece!
The Crucible at The Royal Opera House
Sometimes it seems incredible events are lie buses - you wait ages for one and then two come along at once. 2012 has been a bonanza year for Ralph.
The documentary of his life, For No Good Reason was released just weeks before the launch of his collaborative work, the Book of Boids.
For No Good Reason was 15 years in the making - a true labour of love for husband and wife team director, Charlie Paul and producer Lucy Paul It is a visually stunning ouevre which show that behind the incredible art is an even more incredible and unexpectedly most and gentle man.
Charlie Paul started with a germ of an idea asking his hero tentatively if he would be interested in having a camera erected above his desk to ultimately make a film about his life and work. Ralph agreed and gradually the Paul's realised that what they were capturing was the essence of genius and creation. Johnny Depp came on board to add a thread of narrative through a landscape where Steadman's work explodes onscreen between expletives shared in some of the more painful moments between Hunter and Ralph, and the joy of watching Ralph's art come to life in animation and freeze-frame photography. Images are literally born before your very eyes.
Behind the scenes a friendship was born with Charlie and Lucy and their family and Ralph's. Charlie and Ralph would hole up to film in the studio, while Lucy and Ralph's wife, Anna, would cheerily chop salads and wait for the menfolk to return.
The Book of Boids, on the other hand took only 18 months to create - but what an 18 months. Originally asked for only 1 drawing to feature in an exhibition to raise awareness for the plight of endangered and already lost birds across the world and Ralph could not seem to stop once he had started and found a fascination with these winged creatures. Perhaps we should not be surprised that he found himself seduced by the these feathered beasts - had not his own hero, Leonardo da Vinci also found much to ponder and use in his owns quests and queries about the world?
Ceri Levy, who had dared in the first place to ask Ralph for a mere one image trembled in delight and expectation as more and more extinct birds pored through his Inbox and once again, a friendship began. A pattern you might notice, as Ralph has never collaborated on anything so successfully as he does when in the company of friends.
With 2 such incredible projects just completed, what on earth will 2013 bring and for that we can only wait and wonder.