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Cartoonist Gerald Scarfe On Politics, Pink Floyd & Life in Chelsea

Celebrated cartoonist and long-time Chelsea resident Gerald Scarfe on depicting heroes, villains and Donald Trump

How do you capture the essence of a person’s character on the page? It is a preoccupation for novelists such as myself who attempt to do just that with words. Then there are the cartoonists, who can distill personalities in a few deft brushstrokes. 

Cartoonists don’t come better than Gerald Scarfe. I meet him at his light-filled Chelsea studio, at the top of his handsome brick house, up several flights of steps – “good for making me plan ahead and avoid forgetting things such as glasses,” says Scarfe, now 81. His characterful smile and features are a worthy subject for his own cartoons (he has done several self-portraits), and while he carries a hip injury from earlier in life, he still stands up to draw, putting his whole body into it, requiring a large canvas to accommodate the energy. 

“I know from the first line if the drawing will work or not,” he says. How does he know when it is working? “When I just feel it looks right,” he replies. We, the audience, may know it as that delicious moment of recognition – “That’s it!” – as we see a person or situation unmasked. 

The cartoonist’s job is a curious one, placing him or her at odds with the subject. Attention-craving politicians may be flattered to become subjects, but it is hard to imagine many people enjoying seeing their features exaggerated so. When Scarfe drew Arnold Schwarzenegger and showed him the result, the Terminator star responded, “My lips are too big.” He wasn’t joking. The conversation ended there. Scarfe drew the lips bigger.

Today he can depict anyone without leaving his studio, but he still likes to move quietly among his subjects, observing politicians eating and socialising, or celebrities in similarly unguarded moments. Conversely, he has never felt at ease with sitters. “They ask to see what I have drawn and I end up pulling my punches,” he says. Having worked in his studio for half-a-century, he has become superstitious about it. “I feel that if I ever left, things might go awry.” It is filled with busts, exercise equipment and inks and nibs from Green & Stone Art Materials on the King’s Road, and yet, aside from the finished work on the walls, little compares to the artist himself. 

He had a difficult, asthmatic childhood – much of it spent in bed – and drawing became his creative outlet. Aged 16, he won a competition organised by Eagle comic. ‘David Hockney, Bradford’ was a runner-up. Scarfe began drawing for Eagle and later attended Saint Martin’s School of Art and the Royal College of Art. He taught himself to draw anatomy by studying medical books. His break came when his work was published in Private Eye, which brought him into contact with his future wife, actress Jane Asher. They remain together. 

Scarfe came to Chelsea in its ’60s heyday. He moved in all the right circles; the owner of the Daily Mail even bought him an E-Type Jaguar in 1966. Does he feel that the area has lost its magic? “It has changed, but the ambiance is still here. People still parade up and down the King’s Road,” he says. Collaborations with entertainment figures followed, including Pink Floyd and film director Alan Parker. These were not always easy, but invariably memorable. His work for Pink Floyd’s concept film The Wall remains revered, and will feature at Gerald Scarfe: Stage & Screen, an exhibition at the House of Illustration in King’s Cross running from 22 September to 21 January. 

He still enjoys dining locally, a current favourite being Elystan Street (“all the dishes are excellent”). Another pick is The Five Fields on Blacklands Terrace. In a former guise, it featured prominently in the cult film Blow Up, which starred Scarfe’s great friend David Hemmings. The two men were regulars at Chelsea Arts Club. Scarfe was commissioned to design the poster for the 1976 Arts Club Ball and drew in genitalia; when the organising committee objected, Hemmings (who was on the committee) interceded. “They know the kind of things I draw!” Scarfe complained. The original design was upheld.

Commentator Matthew Parris observed that cartoonists have to lead as well as read public opinion. They cannot reverse polarities by making a villain out of a hero, but they can alert us to fissures. So Obama (a great hero of Scarfe’s) was drawn as Superman wearied by the weight of the world’s expectations – an increasingly sorrowful figure. Much of this process occurs at the subconscious level, Scarfe says, but it shows up in outward traits such as Theresa May’s stooping shoulders, or Tony Blair’s ferocious smile.

A cartoon may start with a set of ideas that suddenly coalesce, or be forced into existence by an imminent deadline. “The blank page and a looming deadline can still fill me with terror, but sometimes that is what is needed to summon the adrenaline, sweat and cerebral energy required,” Scarfe admits. Cartoons can also be provoked, typically by the foolishness of man. His favourite painting is Goya’s Duel with Cudgels – two men bludgeoning one another – a scene from all ages, and easily identifiable in situations such as the North Korean stand-off. 

Little surprise that he finds the most rewarding subjects to be villains – Nixon and yes, Trump. One cartoon in the studio shows the current President awakening the sleeping figure of ‘Ugly America’ with a kiss (pictured, below). It was drawn well before this summer’s civil unrest in Charlottesville. Where does he start, on the page? “The face, usually the eyes. Trump’s eyebrow, in that case.” He points to the cartoon I am admiring. Does he impersonate his subjects? “Sometimes I hear the voice in my head,” he replies. “If you notice with Trump, he has a manner of raising his fingers to add emphasis to his words. At the start of my career, I used to draw in every dimple and pore, now it’s more about the overall shape. The simpler my message, the more chance it stands of whacking you in the face.” 

His work has, if anything, become more energetic and acerbic as his life has gone on. This is refreshing in a world where many occupations and disciplines are closed off to practitioners beyond a certain age. ‘Caricare’ (in Italian) means to load up, and the exaggeration in cartoons has caused them to be considered a lesser art form by some. Scarfe points out that in many a Chelsea home, the cartoons are in the lavatory; the Hockney is in the living room. Yet the success of a recent sale of his work at Sotheby’s suggests that any such distinction is misplaced. Yes, these cartoons sometimes “whack us in the face”, but – like all great forms of art – they prompt us to deepen our perception of the wider world.