the interview : RALPH STEADMAN, ARTIST,

He tried building areoplanes. He tried cleaning motorbikes at the Wall of Death. He tried rat-catching. Then he took Percy V Bradshaw's correspondence course, 'Learn to Draw and Earn Pounds'. And he never looked back
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everyone whose psyche has brushed up against the art of Ralph Steadman has a particular picture they remember. There's one in his book about Leonardo Da Vinci wherein the young artistic prodigy designs a prototype shaver which rips horrifying furrows out of his cheeks. Steadman is a man who knows what savage things a line can do. In the flesh, his own features are almost shockingly understated - no mad swooping brow or huge bloodshot eyes, just a firm brown gaze and a gentle rounded face, oddly (especially for a celebrated political cartoonist) reminiscent of Mikhail Gorbachev.

The accent of Steadman's soft-voiced "hello" does not quite betray his North Wales origins, but there is a beguiling hint of Animal Magic legend Johnny Morris in it. With proprietorial courtesy, Ralph shows off his works in progress. Each of the well-lit rooms in the studio at the back of his imposing Georgian house has several pressing claims on the visitor's attention. In the space of a few yards there's a supremely scatological etching of George III, some doctored Polaroid photos of the Princess of Wales - "It's quite interesting to see how majestic she looks as a horse" - and 120 of Ralph's screenprints that William Burroughs has shot with different guns and then titled "Something New Has Been Added".

There's also a table covered in large piles of letters - the sum total of Steadman's quarter century of correspondence with his friend, colleague and partner in depravity Hunter S Thompson. These are currently being sorted through with a view to publication; an idea which seems to please everyone but Thompson himself. "He told me 'Not you Ralph, with your two- and-a-half per cent instincts'," Steadman guffaws, pride apparently unhurt. " 'Don't bring shame down upon yourself and your family'." Ralph seems unsure as to exactly what might be meant by his "two-and-a-half per cent instincts," but not getting a royalty for his aptly warped illustrations of Thompson's crazed masterpiece Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas probably has something to do with it. "All the money's gone up his nose," he sighs resignedly.

Back in the house there's also a half-completed children's book, about "a full stop that doesn't want to be a full stop". Seated with a cup of tea made by his wife, Anna, in front of a flickering log fire, Steadman, 59, appears the very image of creative contentment. "I must be honest with you," he says gravely, "I don't know what the hell I'm looking for. The New Year has started with no ideas." If this is Ralph in a trough, it must get pretty cluttered round here when he's on a roll. "My mind went completely dead over Christmas," he insists. "And then I got depressed - there's nothing worse than wanting to get on with things but not feeling you can find a reasonable reason for doing them."

Finding a reason for doing things seems to be very important to Ralph Steadman. He is currently planning a trip to South Africa, at the behest of the wine merchants to whose catalogues he lends his distinctive style in the manner of a renaissance painter inserting his patron's face into a biblical tableau. "It pays the bills," he says cheerfully. "If it was advertising creosote I wouldn't do it, but since it's wine that's OK ... wine goes with art doesn't it? There are wine bottles in Cezanne paintings."

This thought process would seem to attest to a talent for rationalisation, but Ralph is still tying himself up in terrible knots over whether a journey to the Southern Hemisphere is sufficient justification for purchasing the very pricey digital cam-corder he has had his eye on for a while now. Couldn't he just get one because he fancies it? "That's terrible." Ralph is shocked. "That idea frightens me." A pause. "It's hedonistic."

Can this be the celebrated accomplice of the notoriously profligate Hunter S Thompson talking? "When it's someone else's volition, that's OK," Ralph explains. "Anyway, I'm a different kind of person when I'm with Hunter - the animal comes out." Steadman first met Thompson in 1970: he had gone to America after the break-up of his first marriage, and their collaborational debut was at that year's Kentucky Derby. Ralph had forgotten his colours and - much to the delight of his Gonzo host - was using a Revlon make- up set to sketch the startled faces of bewildered Southern race-goers.

Next came the America's Cup; the scene of Steadman's one and only first- hand encounter with the hallucinogens that were Thompson's main source of nutrition. "I kept asking what the pills were that he was gobbling all the time," Steadman remembers, "so he gave me one." The experiment was not a success ("My mind was uncomfortable and paranoid and desperate anyway," Ralph observes matter of factly, "so it was like suddenly unwinding a spring") and culminated in him and his partner being caught writing "Fuck the Pope" on the hull of a yacht.

Steadman seems to have made a habit of teaming up with writers who are what you might call chemically driven. "I'm not sure why I seem to court friendship with these people when I'm as straight as a die myself," he ponders. "I suppose in a strange kind of way some of my drawings are junkie drawings - not all of them: sometimes I get a bit elegant - but a lot of my work does look as if I'm on something." A short pause. "I suppose what I'm actually on is a frightening, paranoiac fear of life, and I exorcise that fear by drawing."

Have things always been that way? "They used to be worse," Steadman says brightly, "I used to have cardiac neurosis, where your heart just stops because it can't think of a reason to keep going." How did that happen? "When I was in the forces [doing National Service in the RAF in the mid- Fifties] I got punched in the chest. I had a terrible pain under my heart where a rib had cracked. I thought it was something to do with my heart and it became something that obsessed me ... That's why I'm still swimming" - a small, very chilly-looking pool outside the back door is in daily use throughout the winter months - "to keep my tubes open. If you can give the body a bit of help," Ralph observes hopefully, stubbing out his roll-up cigarette in a beautifully carved vulture ashtray, "sometimes it'll keep going."

It was also during National Service that Steadman took Percy V Bradshaw's prophetically-named correspondence course "Learn To Draw and Earn Pounds". It wasn't just a hobby he was after. "I was looking for something to do," he remembers. "I'd tried Woolworths; I'd tried De Havillands aeroplane factory; swimming pool attendant; wall of death motorbike cleaner in Marine Lake, Rhyl; rat-catching." How was he as a rat-catcher? "You know that woman, what's her name? Hettie, the one from Keeping Up Appearances [Patricia Routledge], who's now trying to be a detective? I think I was as much of a rat-catcher as she is a detective."

How would he describe what he does now? "I'm not sure what I am. I always wanted to be an artist, period: I hate the word illustrator - it just sounds so limp - I prefer cartoonist. Goya was a cartoonist, Daumier was a cartoonist, even Picasso used the cartoon form to express himself. But cartooning has got a really bad name now hasn't it? People think it's just something for filling up a column in a newspaper [adopts condescending voice] 'Oh, it's only a cartoon, here's a fiver ...' I'm not trying to be artsy-fartsy but I don't like the division that one thing is fine art and another thing isn't."

Steadman is happy to be thought of as being in the same line as Gillray and Hogarth. "I feel a part of that tradition - that's what we did, and I say 'we' because I mention Gerald Scarfe quite happily, though he'd never mention me." Why not? "We fell out years ago. We both started out at the same time, and we spent so much time together and what we did was so similar that in a way it was frightening - some people thought we were the same person." Scarfe, it turns out, was godfather to the eldest of Steadman's five children, but he is reluctant to go further into their falling out. Ralph Steadman obviously doesn't like falling out with people. His next book was going to be about cannibals until his agent said if he ever wrote anything about cannibals, he'd never represent him again.

"I get claustrophobic in traffic jams," Steadman says in a brief conversational hiatus, as his sheepdog Flop looks up at him fondly. "That's why I hope there's no life after death, because if there is and someone puts me in a coffin, I'll feel very claustrophic." He laughs. "What a horrible thought ... Oh Jesus, let's not talk about that."

A short while later, the photographer asks him to pose on his raked gravel drive. He does this smilingly, jumping up and down with clenched fists and shouts of "Get off my land". As we leave his house to drive away through the Steadmanesquely-named Kentish village of Loose, Ralph stands outside his house, very sweetly waving.