Gerald Scarfe: How my childhood loneliness led to my grotesque cartoons

The legendary illustrator reveals how he thought he would die as a child, being unleashed by Private Eye and the one thing he couldn't draw in his Letter To My Younger Self

Before I was 16 I was constantly bedridden or hospitalised, sick with asthma. Kids don’t want to play with a sick child sitting in his bedroom doing a jigsaw. They want to be outside running, which is what I wanted to do. But by the time I was 16 I was starting to feel much better, like a normal boy – pretty active and very interested in girls. But very unconfident. I was a very shy, diffident young boy, I blushed easily. My life has changed so completely since those days. But the boy is always there inside. You are basically always what you were made to be in those formative years. 

I was told I was a good-looking boy but I didn’t feel it. I was fretting about girls. Other boys were getting interest from the opposite sex but I wasn’t. I didn’t go out with a girl till I was 19. Even then, I was no Don Juan. I was so shy. I might go back and tell my teenage self that what girls want is probably just a friendly, reliable friend who will support you while you support them. I’m still not sure I understand girls though I have had a long happy marriage [to actress Jane Asher, whom he married in 1981].

My parents told me I would be reliant on them all of my life and I understand why – I had no prospects whatsoever. The only thing I could do was draw. My dad was a banker who wanted me to be a banker, so it was the opposite end of the spectrum from that. The war had a big effect on the family – my father was in the RAF and away a lot for many of my early years, so my mother was running me and the house. My relationship with her became difficult when I wanted to break free and be myself; I just wanted to leave home. She wasn’t possessive, but – I don’t want to use the word hard, that‘s misleading. But she was assertive. My father was a more gentle person. When I was older, and I had what you’d call a success, I was much more secure in myself, and happy that I’d found what I wanted to do. And I started to get on much better with my parents. 

I do pride myself as an artist on being able to draw anything but Vietnam… my God, it was horrific

If I could go back in time, I’d like to go to university. And art school too. I’d have liked to be around other artists. Many people say to me that I am what I am because I didn’t go to art school at that malleable age, where I might have been influenced by other artists and become not so unusual. But during the war we travelled around, following my father, and I’d just go to the nearest school. That lack of formal education has always been a bit of a beef. I set about trying to educate myself, doing a lot of reading about Greek and Roman art, learning French and German, but I felt uneducated and I still feel I have huge gaps of knowledge. 

I can’t say for sure why so many of my drawings are of this black, satirical, often grotesque nature. My loneliness and my asthma probably played into the style I developed. It was a very sickly childhood and I think my parents were primed that I was going to die. And I was aware of that constant fear. I understand why – if you’ve ever seen a person heaving with asthma, unable to breathe, it is scary. But that can’t be the only reason I developed the style I did. Researching this book I’ve found out more about my wider family and there does seem to be a certain kind of humour running through it, a bitter, satirical, black sense of humour. 

DID YOU KNOW…

The Big Issue magazine is read by an estimated 379,195 people across the UK and circulates 82,294 copies every week.

When I started I had no idea my drawings were different from anyone else’s. They were always pretty unusual but when Private Eye came along they – Peter Cook, Willie Rushton, Richard Ingrams –  just released me. I could draw what I liked for Private Eye – pubic hair, eyeballs… I never knew I wanted to draw them but once I did I enjoyed it. Then Willie Rushton said I should go for politicians. I drew them in all their nakedness, the most basic truth of them. Sometimes I have gone to exhibitions of my work and been almost embarrassed by this evidence of what’s come out of my own mind; some drawings are so twisted and dark, with so much sexual content. I’m almost shy standing next to them.

My younger self was confident that he could draw absolutely anything. But it turned out not to be quite true. When I went into the American morgue in Saigon during the Vietnam War the American sergeant said, are you sure you want to do this? And I said yeah, I’m an artist, I draw anything and everything. Then I went into this tin hut, where the floor was awash with blood and bits of human beings. I didn’t want to put my foot down in case I trod on any flesh. There were 12 operating bunks and they had men on them. Dead men. And what had never struck me before, having been brought up on John Wayne films where everyone is shot and they fall over in a full heap, was that bodies which are shot can end up in bits, without arms or legs or heads. They had become lumps of meat and ribcages. I told the sergeant I just couldn’t handle it and he said, thought not. We went outside and I found I was sweating and clutching my armpits. It seemed like hell. I do pride myself as an artist on being able to draw anything but Vietnam… my God, it was horrific. 

Me and Roger Waters both have kind of the same attitude to life, we definitely both have an edge

If you’d told the 16-year-old me one day he’d be a production designer on a Disney film [1997’s Hercules] he’d say, no, you’ve got that wrong. No way. Disney played a big part in my life when I was young. Pinocchio was a particular favourite. People found it weird that someone with my vicious point of view could be working for Disney, though it does have a history of pretty scary villains, like the witch in Snow White [and the Seven Dwarfs]. But I do think part of what attracted me to that job was how it would feel for the teenage me. 

If I could go back to any time in my life it would probably be working with Pink Floyd (providing illustrations for the 1979 album The Wall, and subsequent tour). The sudden discovery that my drawings, when projected on to a screen, could excite an audience of multi-thousands of people – that was being a rock’n’roll artist and it was tremendous fun. Roger Waters and I had a great working relationship. We didn’t tread on one another’s toes, he did music and I did vision. But we did sometimes inspire each other. For example, when he wanted an image that represented the forces of oppression and I came up with these hammers – cruel, unrelenting, marching like the Nazis – he wrote lyrics about ‘hammer, hammer, hammer’. But above all, we both have kind of the same attitude to life, we definitely both have an edge. And we got on very well, we played a lot of snooker, went skiing and drank a lot of Special Brew together. It was a friendship, which still exists today.

 Gerald Scarfe’s Long Drawn Out Trip: a Memoir is out now (Little, Brown, £20) geraldscarfe.com