Gerald Scarfe – A Portrait Of The Artist

It sounded complete nonsense to me at the time,’ remarked Gerald Scarfe, when the band Pink Floyd asked him to create an animation to accompany the album, film and tour for The Wall in the late 1970s. It’s not surprising that this seemed like an out-of-the-blue request. The London-born Scarfe has been best known for his sharp political cartoons for more than half a century now. In the true tradition of a caricature artist, his work has been a constant commentary on public figures, ever since his first cartoons for the satirical magazines Private Eye and Punch in the 1960s.

‘When I first came to prominence, they said I was the new Hogarth. I could see what they meant,’ he comments, referring to the English 18th-century satirical artist. ‘I believe it is important for satirical art to be with us always. To be able to question our leaders is a very healthy state. I always think rather like the old court jester, who was able to poke fun at the king and was able to make comments on behalf of the common people. We have a great tradition of satirical art in this country – examples being Hogarth, Gillray, Cruikshank and Rowlandson.’

Gerald ScarfeLondon Can’t Get Enough Of Him 
London is celebrating Scarfe. Illustration hosts Gerald Scarfe: Stage and Screen (from 22 Sep). It turns the spotlight on the theatrical side of this artist, exploring lesser-known designs, from Hercules to The Nutcracker. The Victoria and Albert Museum’s Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains (to 1 Oct) includes exhibits and interviews about the album and film The Wall.

‘Mostly I’m known for my political cartoons, but as people will see I have entered many other worlds: rock and roll, opera, ballet, animation and theatre. This explores those areas – bringing my drawings to life, bringing them off the page and breathing life into them through theatre and animation,’ he says.

Scarfe Does More Than Just Political Drawing 
Scarfe is something of a Renaissance man, as demonstrated by his diverse career. Not only his collaboration with Pink Floyd – ‘They might be rock gods, but to me they were just regular guys’ – but in 1994 Disney approached him to design the characters and sets for the animated film Hercules. Later, Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Nutcracker courted controversy before it was staged at the London Coliseum, when Scarfe designed killer mice with gas masks, brandishing Kalashnikovs. ‘It is a great escape from drawing the same wretched politicians over and over,’ he comments.

He’s Nice To His Fans  
As a precocious art student in 1987, I had the pleasure of meeting my hero, Scarfe. While studying his work, alongside other British caricature art, I made an unannounced visit to his west London home. He and his wife, actress Jane Asher, welcomed me graciously and showed me around his upstairs studio where I was able to see his pieces.

The ever-imaginative Scarfe went 3D to create one of my favourite pieces, Chairman Mao: a sturdy, red leather armchair designed in the form of the late Chinese leader, Chairman Mao. It has overtones of Salvador Dali’s sofa shaped like the mouth of Mae West – although this has real bite to it.

He Has Drawn The Political Greats 
He has attacked leaders with his razor-sharp pen, mainly for The Sunday Times for 44 years, from where he recently retired. Nothing escapes his scrutiny: one of his earliest pieces was of Sir Winston Churchill looking frail in the House of Commons in 1964. It was deemed too controversial to publish in The Times, but Private Eye put it on the front cover when he died.

‘At the time I drew Churchill we, the public, only knew his iconic image: the bulldog with the cigar clenched within his teeth facing the Hun from the white cliffs of Dover. When I went to draw him in the House of Commons, it was the first time I’d seen him, the icon, as now a shambling, senile wreck helped into the chamber of the House of Commons by young MPs. It was a shock to see what he’d become.’

Margaret Thatcher was often portrayed ‘with a stabbing, aquiline nose, drooping eyes and a small mouth, full of bloody incisors,’ he describes in an interview. Tony Blair was portrayed as an evil-looking Ronald McDonald. Scarfe’s work is often grotesque, and sometimes even obscene.

Not Everyone Likes His Work 
‘The cartoonist’s job is to be as truthful as possible. In Private Eye they encouraged me to attack. I’m happy to draw some of these characters as pigs, or demons, or whatever – that’s my job,’ Scarfe says. ‘I should be able to attack anybody – although that can be difficult at the moment,’ he added, making a sombre reference to the attacks on the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in 2015.

But do his cartoons always meet with approval? Some people balk at his creations, including readers, publishers and the subjects themselves. In 2013, The Sunday Times publisher Rupert Murdoch was forced to apologise when Scarfe’s blood-splattered cartoon of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was deemed by many to have crossed the line.

On the other hand, as Scarfe comments: ‘I’ve had some politicians write to me to ask for a copy of an offensive cartoon I’ve done of them – maybe to hang up in their toilet! Most prominent figures do not react to their caricature, but perhaps they feel it is beneath their dignity.’

But will there always be politicians who inspire Scarfe to satirise? ‘The most memorable are usually the wickedest – people like Richard Nixon, Idi Amin, Enoch Powell, Tony Blair and George Bush. And now there’s the frightful Donald Trump.’

A Bar Has Been Named After Him 
Rosewood London hotel in Holborn opened Scarfe’s Bar in 2013 – he was commissioned to paint caricatures of famous British figures on its walls. Its figures range from a grinning Princess Anne to a guitar-strumming Paul McCartney and a pouting Mick Jagger. He’s just created cartoons to accompany the bar’s cocktail menu featuring David Beckham, Harry Potter and James Bond.

House of Illustration, 2 Granary Square, N1C 4BH. T: 020-3696 2020.
Victoria and Albert Museum, Cromwell Rd, SW7 2RL. T: 020-7942 2000. 

From Comics To Cartoons 

The Cartoon Museum 
Now in its 30th year, The Cartoon Museum champions the best of British cartoon art. Temporary exhibitions showcase present-day artists, while its permanent collection features great masters of the genre including Gillray, Cruikshank and Hogarth.

The British Library 
Satire is a worldwide genre, as demonstrated by Comic and Cartoon Art from the Arabic World in The British Library’s Treasures Gallery. Arab comics are examined, from 19th-century Egyptian satirical press to contemporary graphic novels. It sheds light on politics and society across the Arab world. 

Sir John Soane’s Museum
William Hogarth, dubbed ‘the grandfather of satire’, is considered to be one of the greatest English political cartoonists – the medium certainly wouldn’t have been the same without him. His works, usually engravings and etchings, were critical of London society in a darkly humorous way. Tucked away in Sir John Soane’s Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, you can see his famous series of prints from The Rake’s Progress, which tells the story of Tom, who inherits his father’s fortune, before sinking it into a life of vice and destruction. 

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