For more than 50 years Ralph Steadman has been an establishment terroriser, capturing the monstrous and maniacal aspect of anyone powered by ambition and ego in his, to use the words of his long-time collaborator, the US journalist Hunter S Thompson, filthy scribblings.
The surrealist extremist, now 83, has sidestepped politics in recent years but is drawn to the personalities of today like a moth to the flame, and has created the image of our prime minister on this week’s cover exclusively for The Big Issue.
“I saw him as a scatty clown,” Steadman says from his house and studio in Kent. “Actually, I wouldn’t say clown because that’s an insult to a clown. Clowns can be quite funny and nice. But not Johnson.
— Ralph Steadman Art (@SteadmanArt) September 16, 2019
“The picture started life as a blot. I threw dirty water and coloured water on to that page, let it dry then worked into that and Boris came out of it.
“It’s a buffoon face that couldn’t possibly contain in that head any wisdom of any kind.
“I think Buffoon is a good title. Portrait of a Buffoon. But Portrait spelled P-O-O-R – Poortrait.”
Steadman’s career began at the 1960s, when he was actively engaged in the political system.
“There was a time when I was working for Private Eye where I was really interested in the whole process,” he says. “But I was a lot younger. It was before I went to America.”
In 1970 he travelled to the USA, and a meeting with Hunter S Thompson would change the direction of both of their lives. The article they collaborated on, The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved, exposed a wilder side of both artists and kickstarted a relationship that peaked with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, then more of the same on the Campaign Trail ’72.
In total, more than 92,000 people have sold The Big Issue since 1991 to help themselves work their way out of poverty – more than could fit into Wembley Stadium.
Steadman could see the crooked side of Richard Nixon but believes he was still superior to today’s leaders.
“The thing about Nixon, at least he was a real politician, whereas we’ve got people now who are faux politicians,” he says.
“We’re in a particularly swampy mess at the moment. I’m flabbergasted by it all. I suppose in some ways I shouldn’t care. But there we are, I do.”
Steadman says he would like to see Corbyn have a go and is quite impressed by Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson. “She seems an intelligent lady. I mean, words come out of her mouth that seem quite balanced.”
But at the moment feelings of fear and loathing reign supreme. So what artist better encapsulates our world today than Steadman?
“It’s an expression of exasperation,” is how Steadman describes his style. “There’s certain anger in it. People say to me, ‘You don’t do pencil first. Don’t you make a mistake?’ There’s no such thing as a mistake. A mistake is an opportunity to do something else, isn’t it? You change things as you’re going along. I like the opportunity to make a mistake.”
Half a century ago, brimming with youthful energy and naivety, Steadman believed he could change the world.
“And I think 50 odd years later I’ve succeeded,” he says. “It’s worse now than it was when I started.”
But perhaps he shouldn’t take all the blame.
“I shouldn’t take all the blame, no. But I’ll take a bit.”
How you can win a signed print of Steadman’s incredible cover
Ralph Steadman’s work is something to behold. And we have a host of ways for you to own some.
You can get one of only 50 signed limited-edition prints of this cover. To win it, simply post a photo of you holding the cover on Twitter or Instagram – @bigissue or @bigissueuk – with the hashtag #BorisBigIssue.
If you don’t win, don’t worry. The Big Issue Shop is carrying the print on a T-shirt. AND Ralph has created two more bespoke T-shirt designs just for The Big Issue. Go to bigissueshop.com for details. It’s a Steadman smorgasbord.