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Ralph Steadman: A way with the birds

PAUL SHEEHAN
Last updated 05:00 21/01/2013
Ralph Steadman

FEATHER WEIGHT: ‘‘I realised I’ve drawn birds for as long as I can think of. I just kept going for a year,’’ says British cartoonist and illustrator Ralph Steadman about his new book Extinct Boids.

Ralph Steadman
Ralph Steadman's illustration of New Zealand's Moa.

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A cult exists around Ralph Steadman. It has existed for 40 years, since the publication of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, with its dazzling illustrations of vomiting, drug-crazed adventurers in a book that helped define an era.

Hunter S Thompson wrote the book and invented the term ''gonzo'' to describe his approach to journalism, but it was Steadman who provided the indelible images. They made each other famous. ''With gonzo,'' Steadman told me recently, ''you didn't go to cover the story, you became the story.''

Thompson put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger in 2005, at 67, but Steadman, now 76, continued to make art. Their infamous collaboration began in 1970 when Steadman illustrated Thompson's story The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved, which led to a commission from Rolling Stone to illustrate the writer's visit to Las Vegas.

Thompson drove to the city ready for more decadence and depravity, mostly his own, writing at the outset of his story: ''We had two bags of grass, 75  pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt-shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-coloured uppers, downers, screamers, laughers, and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls.''
It takes a certain talent to render what happened in Las Vegas into imagery and Steadman proved to be the perfect person. The best-selling result of their work led to a sequel, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72.

Forty years later, Steadman's skill, originality and wildness on paper is undimmed. So much so that when he decided to draw more than 100 birds that no longer existed or had never existed, art that no one had commissioned, the mere existence of this collection led to the creation of a coffee-table book published by Bloomsbury. Because the arrival of so many new Steadmans is an event.

The process began on February 25, 2011, when a film-maker, Ceri Levy, sent this email to Steadman: ''Dear Ralph, Lady Catherine Saint Germans passed on your email to me, as I would love to involve you in an exhibition we are organising about bird extinction and the dangers that face birds today  ...  It is called Ghosts of Gone Birds.''

Levy asked for a single new illustration of an extinct bird for the exhibition. He heard nothing for a month. Then Steadman sent an enigmatic reply. Two days later came another email: ''I don't know why I was doing it but I have done four birds today. Extinct too!!''

Steadman was not just in, he had done four drawings. A nerve had been touched. When he emailed a picture of his first work it was an egret on the wing, with the words, ''An egret in Japan. Extinct.'' It was an unmistakable Steadman, with an elegant spray of ink splotches.

A few days later another emailed attachment arrived showing another bird. Then came another. He had started to draw extinct birds. The auk, the moa, the black mamo and, of course, the dodo. After a few weeks he began adding birds of his own creation: the lesser-blotted bitwing, the needless smut, the blackened thront. For every silly bird came many more real lost birds. Levy couldn't believe his luck.

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The result is a hardcover book, Extinct Boids, with 110 works by Steadman and a commentary by Levy. When I interviewed Steadman by phone from his home in Kent, I asked what prompted this outpouring. ''I don't know,'' he replied. ''I like to put a fresh sheet of paper on the board each day, then I whack it and see where it goes.''

In 2011, it went to birds. ''I got carried away. I actually ended up doing 136. I realised I've drawn birds for as long as I can think of. I just kept going for a year. I started looking things up. Websites, books, encyclopedias. They went [into extinction] mostly from islands. It's because of sailors, rats and cats. The moment they arrive the birds have had it.

''We're still doing our best to get rid of a lot of other things. I was amazed by how many extinct birds I found. I stare at birds. Thrush, magpie, crow. I realised many people look at birds. I also realised the dawn chorus is gone. In a hundred years, we've lost 125 species.''

The seed of Extinct Boids was evident 41 years ago, in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, when Steadman depicted a room full of dissolute revellers. The men had crocodile heads and the women had birds' heads. They look like dyspeptic crows.

As his initial email request began evolving into something much more, Levy told me, he thought it would be useful to include the silly birds in the project: ''Through humour we hope we have brought people to what is a difficult subject. If we can engage with people through humour, there is a chance that the issue will stay with some readers.''

Levy brought his own passion to the subject. He had made a documentary, The Bird Effect, about the impact birds have had on the lives of humans. As an active conservationist he has made trips to Malta, where indiscriminate cruelty to birds is commonplace.

''In Malta, there are between 10,000 to 15,000 hunters,'' he said. ''I have seen swallows, bee-eaters, hoopoes, lesser spotted eagles, eleonora's falcons, kestrels, lesser kestrels, pallid harriers, little bitterns, night herons, grey herons, marsh harriers, white storks and black storks and many more shot out of the skies in the name of sport.

"I have been shot at, spat at, been attacked, called a Nazi, and all because we stand and witness ... I have worked with people who have had cars burnt out and homes attacked, who are in fear for their safety, and all on 23 kilometres of murderous island in the Mediterranean.''

Extinct Boids is an unexpected late detour for Steadman. After studying graphic art in London he started work doing editorial cartoons for a local newspaper group then made a career doing freelance work, notably for Punch, Private Eye and The Daily Telegraph. During a visit to the US, Rolling Stone gave him some work. Then a short-lived, radical magazine, Scanlan's Monthly, commissioned him to illustrate Thompson's visit to the Kentucky Derby in 1970. To his regret, the high point of his American work, the art for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, was sold for a pittance to Jann Wenner, publisher of Rolling Stone.

''Jann wanted to know if I would sell them at £75 ($NZ143) each. My agent, stupidly, said, 'Sell them, it's a good career move'. So they are now all on the walls of  Rolling Stone. I was stupid. It was the worst thing I ever did. And my bloody agent took his 15 per cent.''

Most of Steadman's original artwork, including his Extinct Boids work, is still with him in the 17-room house in Kent where he has lived for the past 32 years. He lives with his second wife, a daughter, her husband and two grandchildren.

He has turned away from his roots in political caricature. ''I'm not interested in politicians,'' he told me. ''They are not encouraging people to make things. It's all about the balance sheet. It's all as boring as hell  ... Things are depreciating. The quality of life is depreciating. It's all kind of stupid advertising  ...  I'm afraid technology has f..... us up more than it has helped us.''

That sense of wasting assets, of silent dawns, may be why he started drawing lost birds, and kept going.

THE DETAILS

Extinct Boids is published by Bloomsbury, $80.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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