Ralph Steadman, that’s who; the maestro of caricature, the prince of ink, the spewer of satire, the Big I Am. Yes, Ralph Steadman is God, and I will accept no argument to the contrary. He is a true original, and his sardonic, splattered wit has been copied by generations of illustrators, myself included. Most of his books have found a home on my shelves, and I am slightly ashamed to admit that on a trip to Newcastle in the 1993, I dragged my sister and newborn niece to see a showing of his work in Aberdeen, Scotland. It was a long train ride, but worth every minute to be in the same room with Ralph Steadman originals (or so my 6 month old niece gurgled.)
The Ralph Steadman Book of Dogs is his latest publication, and it is wonderfully and gorgeously daft. Also, a bit rude, in keeping with Ralph’s life-long illlustrative embrace of the less than lovely aspects of being human, or in this case, being dog. Expect to see a few steaming piles alongside brilliant drawings of dogs in all their idiosyncratic glory. But make no mistake, Ralph Steadman is a dog lover. This is his fourth book on dogs, and as per usual, there is no end to the inventiveness of his line. This is a man who mastered the finer points of drawing a long time ago and now, with a flick of his pen, expertly (and effortlessly) captures the essense of whatever or whomever is the subject of his ferocious intellect, be it Osama bin Laden or a poodle.
In approximately 90 black & white and colour illustrations, Steadman gives us inkblot dogs (suitably explosive), buddhist dogs, abstract dogs, dogs in repose, dogs in gowns, and alongside the drawings, some helpful tips on dog training. For example: “When your dog is hungry the reason is often not simply lack of food-but variety. If your dog chews his leg off and brings it to you, he may be trying to tell you that he has had enough of the same old thing.” Got it. While these illustrations are hilarious in their depiction of all that it is to be dog, they also act as a mirror to our ridiculous behaviour around dogs, as in our attempt to breed perfection into an imperfect creature. Never mind, the pampered pooches remain resolutely mutt-like in spite of all our puffery.
What is the point of the Book of Dogs? To bask in the glory of Ralph Steadman, of course. Even if you’re not a dog lover, there is something deeply pleasurable about the art. Whether he’s exposing political hypocrisy, making fun of the royal family, or capturing the plaintive expression of a dog in want of food, in a flurry of line and splatter a clarity of vision and a robust (though grumpy) humanity emerges that is simply breathtaking. And, he will make you laugh. Hard, and often.
“To do another book about dogs in the wake of my three other books about dogs is, I am aware, a trifle excessive…but then I heard that there are, at least, 50 million dogs in the UK alone and their owners are going to need more vital wisdom about these faithful but stupid creatures that will help them to sustain a sense of humour – not to mention proportion – if they are going to treat their mutts right and give them a half-decent life and, most importantly, see the funny side of their every action.”
Ralph Steadman was born in 1936 in Wallasey, Cheshire, and raised in Towyn, North Wales. He attended the London College of Printing and Graphic Arts while doing freelance work for Punch, Private Eye, the Daily Telegraph, The New York Times and Rolling Stone. Ralph Steadman is familiar to many for his long-time collaboration with Hunter S Thompson, ‘gonzo’ journalist and fellow eccentric. While I find that work interesting, I am far more enamoured with his one-off publications, such as Animal Farm, The Big I Am, Jones of Colorado (about HS Thompson’s cat), and I, Leonardo. In the last decade or two, Steadman has been dabbling in wine, both as a producer and as a roving illustrator for Oddbins, a British wine merchant. Two fabulous publications were born of this hobby: The Grapes of Ralph and Still Life with Bottle. If you look hard enough, you can even find his wine on the shelves of your local boozery, although I admit that I purchased the wine for the label. Mr Steadman has also written a wonderful, and monumentally loopy ‘triography’, Doodaaa: The Balletic Art of Gavin Twinge (Bloomsbury, 2002), and a retrospective of his work entitled Between the Eyes was published in 1984 by Jonathan Cape. Expect to see more reviews of his children’s books and other publications in later posts.
The Ralph Steadman Book of Dogs, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011 ISBN: 978-0547534251