Introducing Ralph Steadman

Ralph Steadman was born in Cheshire in 1936 and grew up in Abergele in North Wales, where his family had moved before the end of the Second World War. As a child, he found a passion for making model aeroplanes, something which he pinpoints as the foundation of his famously fastidious and strong work ethic. His interest in planes led to his first job as a radar operator in Hertfordshire at age 16 which taught the young Steadman excellent technical drawing skills. Liverpool Pigeon a print made in 2011 documents Steadman’s childhood in Cheshire. The bird, perched in the centre of Liverpool, cries out “on a clear day I can look across the mersey and see where the artist was born at 139 Poulton Road Wallasey - before the war - !”. 

Following the end of his National Service in 1954, during which Steadman undertook the Percy V Bradshaw Press Art School correspondence course and a move to London, Steadman began to work as a professional cartoonist and his first illustration was published in the Manchester Evening Chronicle in 1956. During his first decade as a cartoonist, he contributed illustrations to Punch, Rolling Stone, Private Eye, and the Daily Telegraph. In 1959 he began his studies at the East Ham Technical College, followed by London College of Printing. By this stage his work was regularly included in newspapers across the country. 

Steadman is known for his collaborations with the American journalist and author Hunter S. Thomas. In 1969, Steadman illustrated his first article by Thompson, boosting him to international recognition. The pair met at the Kentucky Derby on which they were contributing coverage for Scanlan’s Monthly, and a riotous friendship arose, including a tale in which Thomas maced Steadman during an attempt to escape a brawl. Hunter S. Thompson, Twisted Meat Artist, made in 2006 shows Thompson in one of his irritated moods - which the Steadman reported was commonplace - smoking surrounded by cans of Budweiser: “if that twisted meat artist draws one line out of place I’ll beat his kidneys into his shoes with a jackhammer”.  

The pair are credited with creating “Gonzo” journalism, a style of writing in which the reporter of the piece is a key participant in the story and does not attempt to remain objective in their retelling of events. It was their debut collaboration ‘The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved’ which marked the dawn of this new journalistic approach. Steadman illustrated arguably the two most well-known examples of Gonzo novels, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (later adapted into a film starring Johnny Depp and Benecio del Toro) and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72.  The Gonzo Heritage Society has placed a coveted blue plaque dedicated to Ralph Steadman on London’s New Kings Road. 10 years after his first work with Hunter S. Thomas Steadman was named the American Institute of Graphic Arts’ Illustrator of the Year.

The artist’s style is grotesque with wild mark-making and warped caricaturesque portraits, inspired by the likes of John Heartfield and George Grosz. He has produced cartoons of George Bush, Richard Nixon and Donald Trump and believes that cartooning is “a vehicle for expression of some sort, protest, or it’s actually a way of saying something which you cannot necessarily say in words”. Steadman’s Gonzo Guernica inspired by Pablo Picasso’s 1937 anti-war artwork Guernica demonstrates the cartoonist’s political fervour.

Steadman has illustrated many children's books including a 1972 edition of Alice in Wonderland in which his recasting of the Mad Hatter as a union leader highlighted the artist’s political disposition. This project won Steadman the Frances Williams Award. He has produced large bodies of work about the world’s vineyards, extinct and endangered birds and drawings of the cast members of AMC’s hit series Breaking Bad

As well as illustrations, Steadman produced stage sets for the 1995 production of Gulliver’s Travels for Clwyd Theatr Cymru and the 2000 production of The Crucible for the Royal Opera House. He has also created album artwork for acts like The Who, written and released his own music and was commissioned in 1985 to design a set of postage stamps to commemorate Halley’s Comet.

Steadman continues to contribute regularly to the New Statesman, The New York Observer, The Independent and lives in Kent.


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