Financial Times Magazine, April 8th, 2004
“Fiction should be banned. It’s sanctioned lying,” says artist Ralph Steadman as he guides me through his studio, a rambling outbuilding adjacent to his Georgian house in Kent. Evidence of his phenomenal creative output is everywhere: large-scale illustrations bearing his trademark ghoulish colours and ink-blots are piled high like millefeuilles, scattered across the floor and stashed in portfolios awaiting dispatch.
There are Dadaesque bottle sculptures, outsize photographs – even a shrine to Picasso. And there are books. For, in spite of his declared aversion to contemporary fiction, Steadman loves books. “I read in short bursts,” he says, “mostly reference books.” A shelf of leather-bound volumes on wine and anatomy provides particular inspiration. “I plunder these for their 19th-century wisdom and use it blatantly as the latest thinking.”
He pulls out An Atlas of Human Anatomy by Carl Toldt. “I bought this in Marin County where I ended up having a drink with Harrison Ford. I’m fascinated by drawings of the human body. I love the intensity of the observation in this book. It was a different mindset then – we’re gadflies now and don’t have long attention spans.” A book on cattle diseases is also well-thumbed.
As a child Steadman was more interested in making things than reading – model aeroplanes were a favourite. One of his first book finds was three volumes of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks, on the bargain table at a shop in Rhyl, north Wales. This led eventually to I, Leonardo, his scatological interpretation of key da Vinci moments – the painting of “The Last Supper” and “Mona Lisa” and his experiments with flight.
The Water Babies, illustrated by Heath Robinson, also made an early impression. “It started me thinking about illustration. I don’t think it should ever be secondary.” This view informed his approach to illustrating a 1968 edition of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. There is an unspoken understanding that writers are superior to artists, he says. “I’m afraid I take an unserious approach to literature. There are so many egos. Look at the Booker Prize: it’s a shameless display of ego. I used to think anyone who was in the arts was bound to be nice, but they’re not.”
Some of Steadman’s spleen is perhaps influenced by a book on his bedside table, The Ego and Its Own by Max Stirner. “It’s fantastic. It’s about how egocentric we are and how we all have our own best interests at heart,” he says. “Such awareness was quite revolutionary in 1844.”
One senses this disdain for writers is half-hearted, however. He has always moved in literary circles. “I used to go to Bernard Stone’s bookshop in Kensington. I did my signings there… I met all the poets: Alan Ginsberg, William Burroughs. It was a real watering hole – or rather a wine hole.” His author friends include Will Self. “Dear old Will. He’s trying to befuddle me… He takes me down avenues I don’t wish to go down – verbal avenues. He has a tendency to invent words that are not on the map. He does it to provoke. He does try one’s concentration.”
Steadman’s concentration does not waver with regard to his work, however, or to his recent support for the refurbishment of London’s Hackney Empire theatre. He is also finishing his second book on wine, Untrodden Grapes. “I think I am coming around for the second or even the third time.”
WHAT’S ON THE SHELF
Foundations of Modern Art by Amedee Ozenfant “It’s about connections – between tribalism, music, modern art… It’s a dipper. I look in and read something quite marvellous that can affect me for the whole day.”
You Can’t Get to East Kilbride from Here: Poems 1968-2003 by Gordon Kerr “He’s the greatest living poet.”
Who’s Who in Hell by Robert Chalmers “He sends me his manuscripts – it’s like an Olympic game trying to keep them from sliding off your knees. He played God in this book and killed off the wife. I argued with him about that. Why arbitrarily dismiss this wonderful lady?”
Philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer trs. by Belfort Bax and Bailey Saunders “I can’t let philosophy go by without having a look at it. I read it now and then for the intellectual exercise.”
De Profundis by Oscar Wilde” He wrote it in prison. It’s about his abject contrition for what he had done. His spirit had been broken. It’s the idea that such a sparkling mind can be driven so low.”