A major retrospective of Ralph Steadman’s work, including several pieces from his private collection, is being held at the wonderfully converted artspace that is The Artworks in Halifax; an old mill in deepest West Yorkshire that’s well worth a visit.
Fans of Hunter S. Thompson and Steadman’s illustrations for the late-Gonzo journalist’s seminal work, Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas, will be happy to find a small selection of recreations of that particular artwork here, although the originals, which he created in his Fulham flat, are sadly absent. He sold the original drawings on the cheap; for about $60 apiece, to a former Rolling Stone editor years ago, a decision the artist apparently still bitterly regrets.
Steadman and Thompson were good friends and held one another in huge regard. The reverence that the illustrator held Thompson in is clear, with several images of the US author here, including one depicting Thompson as having five hearts – how else could he sustain a life of alcohol and drug excess?
Steadman’s style is captivating because of the aggressive nature of his pen strokes. Just as in those famous images for Fear and Loathing, the vast majority of his work on show here is in his trademark style – politicians brought to life in sharp lines of black ink and concentrations of colour, sprayed lightly as a backdrop to subjects that almost jump off the page.
The shamed former US president Richard Nixon is a favourite topic – Steadman found him effortlessly expressive and clearly enjoyed depicting him on paper as the Watergate Scandal unfolded. His retrospective includes works showing Nixon grabbing the Statue of Liberty and another of him looking fraught in a courtroom.
Politicians served as great fodder for Steadman over the decades as his cartoons featured in the likes of Private Eye and Punch, and other figures who have been subjected to the Steadman treatment include Margaret Thatcher – in a brilliant Last Supper style scene that makes the exhibition – that’s before he decided to quit drawing their faces. Politicians’ egos are built up by such satirical portrayals, so he vowed to only ever draw their legs in future.
Also included in the exhibition are some of the illustrations he produced for publications of Alice In Wonderland and Animal Farm. It’s a real treat to see these up close and in full size. Scrutinising his work at such close quarters serves only to inflate my respect for the detail and impact of his striking style.
Steadman, now 77 but still working, has a long-held fascination with Leonardo da Vinci and he has written and illustrated his own book on the great artist – so too the famous Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud – and illustrations of both characters are among those on display here.
There is also a small selection of his illustrations of vineyards, which he produced after being sent on a world tour of vineyards and distilleries by Oddbins. The wine merchants commissioned him to illustrate its catalogues and these landscape pieces are a departure from his usual style, demonstrating his flexibility as an artist.