Gerald Scarfe interview: ‘Donald Trump is fantastic to draw, but Brexit is boring’

The great cartoonist reflects on the art of satire, drawing in war zones and the gentler side of his work

For anyone at all interested in art or politics or history, stepping into Gerald Scarfe’s Thames-side studio is a terrific treat. The whitewashed walls are festooned with his wicked caricatures, some finished, some half-finished, all executed in his uniquely fluid yet jagged style. One cartoon jumps off the wall – a vivid, savage portrait of Donald Trump (literally) talking out of his arse. There’s Trump’s flushed and bloated face, with that pursed and puckered mouth, spouting the usual inane nonsense, and another pursed and puckered mouth where his backside ought to be. Like all Scarfe’s best cartoons, it sums up in a single image what the rest of us are thinking.

Throughout his 50 years on The Sunday Times, Scarfe worked the same magic every week. His cartoons skewered the vanity and hypocrisy of our leaders, making the wordy articles on the op-ed pages seem superfluous and trite. He’s still drawing a weekly cartoon, for George Osborne’s Evening Standard, but it doesn’t feel quite the same. How could it? Under great editors like Harold Evans and Andrew Neil, The Sunday Times set the news agenda. It was a golden age of print journalism, before rolling news and Twitter, and Scarfe’s scabrous cartoon was the defining image of the week.

Amateur psychologists might assume the creator of so many angry, indignant artworks would be pretty angry and indignant in person, but having interviewed Scarfe before (a long time ago) I expected he’d be relaxed and affable, and it turned out I was right. Like a lot of Grub Street’s sharpest writers, past and present (Julie Burchill, Auberon Waugh…), he’s a lot more sanguine in real life – friendly and unassuming, a fine advertisement for the cathartic power of the vituperative arts. As Rhoda Koenig said of Waugh, ‘He gets all the spleen out on paper and in person he is very sweet.’ For Waugh, read Scarfe. A few years ago, I cobbled together a book of Waugh’s greatest hits, and Scarfe agreed to do the dustjacket. It was a brilliant portrait, but what struck me was its sensitivity. All the rage was channelled into that twisted nib.

Orpheus in the Underworld – a costume design from the exhibition (Gerald Scarfe)

In our brave new virtual world, when any image is just a click away, it’s easy to forget how shocking a Scarfe cartoon could be (Margaret Thatcher as top bitch at Crufts with Ted Heath as a dog turd was one of his tamer creations). However he’s anxious to point out that there’s a gentler side to his art. His newspaper work was only ever one day a week, and his other work is a lot softer. His latest exhibition, at the House of Illustration, behind Kings Cross station, is a perfect case in point. It’s a lively, colourful display of costumes, props and storyboards from his work in the theatre and the cinema – The Nutcracker for English National Ballet, Orpheus in the Underworld for English National Opera, Disney’s Hercules, and Pink Floyd’s The Wall. The Wall was pretty grim, of course, but all the other stuff is joyous. Away from the politics, he can also be heard enthusiastically discussing the history of the Thames in the Tate’s latest podcast seriesClearly, it’s politicians in particular, rather than humanity in general which really gets his goat.

It’s a quarter of a century since I last sat down with Scarfe yet remarkably, after all these years, he still looks much the same. He was 56 then, and looked it. He’s 81 now, but he could quite comfortably still pass for 50-something. Age has softened his lupine features. His gaze seems gentler, more content. Being married to Jane Asher clearly hasn’t hurt – they’ve been together for nearly half a century, with three children to show for it. I wonder if there’s a self-portrait hidden in his attic, growing older and uglier by the hour.

He was born in 1936, in London. His father was a banker, his mother was a teacher. Gerald was their first (and, for a long while, their only) child. His earliest memories are of wartime. He recalls being sheltered in the cellar during the Blitz, more scared of the wolf he thought lived down there than the Luftwaffe up above. Severely asthmatic from an early age, he was in and out of hospital throughout his childhood, separated from his parents, surrounded by disease and death. ‘I was an isolated, lonely, timid, frightened child,’ he says. ‘My parents were anxious people. There was a lot of anxiety around.’

His father joined the RAF and moved from town to town. Gerald and his mum went with him. Even when he wasn’t in hospital, he was rarely in the same school for long. His friendships and his school work suffered – drawing was his solitary respite. ‘I used to have nightmares as a child – it’s great to be able to draw them now,’ he tells me. ‘We all live in a nightmare world and it’s great to have some way of exorcising it.’ When his kid brother finally came along, Gerald was already nine, having spent his first decade as a sickly only child. Ever since he was a boy, he’s been an outsider looking in.

Gerald Scarfe at the House of Illustration (Paul Grover)

‘In those days, they didn’t have children-only hospitals – you went in with the adults,’ he recalls. ‘There was one guy who died in the bed next to me.’ Scarfe watched him get out of bed, stagger to the window, pull back the blinds and gasp his last breath. ‘These sort of things stay in peoples’ minds, I guess, but there were other people who had similar experiences, and they don’t draw grotesque drawings.’ Yet those other people didn’t have Scarfe’s talent, or his commitment to his art. He bought a book on anatomy and learnt to draw dissected bodies, like the Old Masters. Illness made him unsentimental about mortality, giving him that splinter of ice in his heart (as Graham Greene put it) which all great artists require to turn tragedy into art.

Scarfe wanted to be an artist but his parents thought fine art was far too rackety. Instead, his father got him a job in his uncle’s advertising agency, but this was hardly Saatchi & Saatchi. In a humdrum office in Elephant & Castle (one of London’s less salubrious neighbourhoods, then and now), Scarfe drew fanciful pictures of cheap household items, a form of artifice he abhorred. ‘That was plainly telling lies – you were trying to sell crap and make it look fabulous.’ Yet it was also a great apprenticeship. In an era when art schools were spurning figuration, he learnt to draw anything and everything – a useful toolbox for the years ahead.

He started sending cartoons to Punch, but it was when Private Eye took him on that he finally found his voice. ‘I suddenly realised, “This is what I want to do! I want to talk about the world around me. I don’t want to draw little men on desert islands, putting messages into bottles.” I’d done that at Punch and I’d come to the end of that. I knew there was something more.’

At Private Eye, he joined an incredibly talented clique of satirists. ‘They were very kind to me. Willie Rushton, Peter Cook and Richard Ingrams all encouraged me. Richard used to say whenever they wanted something horrible drawn, he’d come to me.’ He became good friends with Cook, his neighbour in Hampstead. ‘He was a delight to be with,’ says Scarfe. ‘A difficult character as well, but he was very, very funny.’ However it was Rushton who encouraged him to start drawing politicians, and it was then that his career took off. Scarfe’s fearless, furious cartoons were a perfect fit for the idealistic outrage of the times (Macmillan naked; Churchill decrepit; Wilson pulling down LBJ’s trousers, in an attempt to lick his arse…). After a brief dalliance with the Daily Mail, Harold Evans took him to The Sunday Times.

Under Evans’ campaigning leadership, Scarfe found his natural home, yet it was after Evans left, and Rupert Murdoch moved the newspaper to Wapping, that he did some of his finest work, often in stark contrast to the Thatcherite politics of the paper. He was criticised by right-on hacks for sticking with this strike-busting paper, but his cartoons packed a far bigger punch in The Sunday Times than they would have done in a more left-wing rag. Actually, Scarfe’s work isn’t right wing or left wing, simply anti-authoritarian. Like all the best satirists, the thing he hates more than anything is being bossed around. People who think they know better than us, telling us what to do, pretending it’s for our own good when it’s really for their own advancement – these are his main targets, and there are just as many on the left as on the right.

Scarfe’s enduring ability to shock was reconfirmed a few years ago, when Murdoch apologised to Benjamin Netanyahu for publishing a ‘grotesque, offensive’ Sunday Times cartoon of Netanyahu building a wall with bloodied Palestinian bodies. In fact, the thing that caused most offence was publishing this cartoon on World Holocaust Day, which was hardly Scarfe’s fault. The suffering caused by authority figures (of every stripe) is one of his most familiar motifs. When he did a cartoon about paedophile Catholic priests a lot of Catholics wrote in and said, ‘these things have to be talked about, and aired.’

A Scarfe cartoon of Theresa May that went up for auction earlier this year (Getty)

About the two big talking points of our times, Trump and Brexit, Scarfe feels conflicted. He’s clearly not a fan of Trump, but for an artist he’s godsend. ‘He’s a loose cannon, as we know,’ he says, ‘but of course, ironically, he’s fantastic material for cartoonists.’ Conversely, he finds the Brexit debate dull to draw even though, as a Remainer, he has plenty to be upset about. ‘It’s a frustrating landscape,’ he says. ‘It’s hard to make a dramatic drawing about it – it drags on and on, and doesn’t seem to get anywhere.’

Although he observes most events from afar, he’s done his fair share of proper reporting, sketching Nixon on the campaign trail and drawing in the field during the Vietnam War. ‘I wasn’t there for a very long time but it was a very, very intense time,’ he recalls. ‘I remember walking into this morgue. I thought as an artist I would be able to draw anything, but I really couldn’t draw this. This was too much.’ An American platoon had been hit by friendly fire. ‘There were just lumps of meat there. That is hard to get out of one’s mind.’

He was drawing in Northern Ireland at the height of The Troubles when a man got into his car and put a gun in his ribs. ‘You’re a brave drawer,’ said the gunman, surveying Scarfe’s work. Luckily, it turned out the gunman just wanted his car, a Ford Cortina. ‘They blew up a Post Office the next day with the car. Cortinas apparently have nice big boots. You can put plenty of jelly in them, plenty of gelignite.’ So did Scarfe get better drawings from putting himself in such danger? ‘Not really, no,’ he laughs.

How will the world remember Scarfe? What will be his place in artistic and journalistic history? He’s been likened to Regency satirists like Gillray and Cruikshank, but although he shares their indignation at the cant and hypocrisy of our rulers, his style is actually closer to German Expressionists like Otto Dix or George Grosz. There’s a Teutonic angst about his work that’s a world away from most English satire. His surname is Scandinavian, a Viking word for a sharp blade. After all these years, Scarfe’s sharp nib is still cutting through the blubber of our body politic. His work should be in the National Gallery, not just the National Portrait Gallery, not just as a political cartoonist, but as one of the great artists of his age.

Gerald Scarfe – Stage & Screen is at the House of Illustration, King’s Cross, until January 21. Gerald also appears in the Tate’s podcast series, Walks of Art


Close