The Sitter's tale: Gerald Scarfe

New faces at the National Portrait Gallery: the cartoonist tries to bring out the worst in himself
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
I have been a cartoonist for 30 years, but very seldom draw myself - I only draw myself when I am asked to do so for a particular purpose. I've drawn myself only eight or 10 times. This one was done for a book, Line of Attack, in 1988.

I try to be as cruel to myself as I am to others but it's very difficult. I only ever look at myself when I'm shaving and even then it's only to make sure I don't cut myself, but when I make a drawing of anyone I have to search and look very hard. With a caricature one has to get the overall feel of a person, but it's very difficult to know one's own character. People thought this portrait wasn't like me at the time when I made it. I picked on my eyebrows which are fairly bushy, and I thought I was getting rather jowly - the sad news is that as I get older I am getting more and more like the drawing.

In this work I am supposed to be a jester. A jester can say to the king, "You may be wrong", and my job is to tell the establishment what I think is the truth of a given situation or person.

Artists see things differently: non-artists look at a subject for milliseconds, but practicing artists look for a much longer time, a matter of seconds. It is a more searching look. People always ask me if I see people as I draw them, but I don't see them as warthogs or anteaters, I see normally; unless I am working.

It is my job to get the essence of someone, and as swiftly as possible. A cartoon is like a piece of chewing gum - I can pull the chewing gum out as far as possible, in any way I want, but if it snaps the likeness has completely gone and I have to start again.

My favourite subjects are people who have interesting lives - Mrs Thatcher gave me lots of possibilities because of her personality, although I generally find it quite difficult to draw women, perhaps because my Mum told me to be polite to them. But everybody is caricaturable.

INTERVIEW BY CHARLOTTE MULLINS

Gerald Scarfe is an artist. His 1988 self-portrait is included in `Scarfe at the NPG', National Portrait Gallery, WC2 (0171 306 0055), to 6 April.

Comments