Tom Eblen

Ralph Steadman recalls his ‘decadent and depraved’ Kentucky Derby with Hunter Thompson.

You may not know Ralph Steadman’s name, but you have seen his art. For six decades, it has been everywhere: in magazines, novels and children’s books; on beer bottles, movie posters and music album covers.

The Welsh illustrator’s scratchy pen-and-ink drawings are often grotesque and splattered with ink blots, a stylistic signature Steadman says he began accidentally through sheer clumsiness.

Look closer, though, and you see humor, irony, biting social and political commentary and an artistic sophistication that echoes Francisco Goya, William Hogarth and Leonardo da Vinci.

Steadman is best known for illustrating the 1971 novel “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and other works by the late Louisville-born writer Hunter S. Thompson. Their 35-year collaboration began in 1970 when they met for an alcohol-fueled weekend in Louisville that became the story, “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.”

That legendary magazine piece launched Thompson’s career as “gonzo” journalist and created a genre of reportage perfectly aligned with Steadman’s artistic vision. Thompson always did more drinking and drugs than writing, and his bent for self-destruction ended in a 2005 suicide.

But at age 82, Steadman is still creating art in his studio in Kent, England, including his first hip-hop album cover last year. With the help of Sadie Williams, his daughter and studio manager, he has pulled together a touring retrospective exhibit that will be at the University of Kentucky Art Museum from Feb. 16 until May 5.

Ralph Steadman in his studio in Maidstone, England, in January 2014. Rikard Osterlund Ralph Steadman Studio

The exhibit features more than 100 pieces of Steadman’s art, including some never shown before, along with letters and memorabilia from his adventures. The show’s catalog features a foreword by another Kentuckian and Steadman fan, actor Johnny Depp. The exhibit was originally curated by Anita O’Brein and Chris Miles at the Cartoon Museum in London in 2013.

“He’s an amazing artist: pen-and-ink, collage, even women’s makeup,” museum curator Janie Welker said, noting that Steadman lost his art supplies in Louisville and borrowed cosmetics on deadline to finish his Kentucky Derby illustrations.

Museum director Stuart Horodner said the show has generated buzz on campus across the generations. While Steadman is most famous for his Thompson sketches and recent illustrations for album covers and beer labels for Flying Dog Brewery, his work is much more extensive.

Steadman’s career began in the 1950s with cartoons for British humor and political magazines. He did illustrations for famous editions of such classic books as “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” “Animal Farm” and “Treasure Island.”

His acclaimed 1974 book “America” took on U.S. politics and culture. He has lampooned presidents from Richard Nixon to Donald Trump. Steadman’s most recent book, “Critical Critters” (2017) features illustrations of extinct and endangered animals.

“The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved,” by Ralph Steadman. 1970, Pen, brush, ink, and watercolor on paper. Private collection. Ralph Steadman Studio

“His commentary is really no-holds-barred,” Welker said. “He’s not known for pulling any punches, and he takes aim across the board.”

Steadman’s work also will be featured in two Louisville exhibits this year commemorating Thompson: “Freak Power” at the Frazier History Museum, April 30-Sept. 2; and “Gonzo” at the Speed Art Museum, July 12-Nov. 10.

In an Skype interview from England, Steadman said he probably won’t make it to the Lexington show’s opening, although his daughter will. Advanced age has made changing planes in Detroit or Atlanta difficult, he said.

But since the 1970 Derby, Steadman has returned to Kentucky several times to visit his friend, Lexington artist Joe Petro. (I met Steadman several years ago outside the Post Office on High Street, where he was running errands with Petro, my first cousin.)

“There’s a guy in Kentucky who still places a bet for me on the Derby every year,” Steadman said. “Last year, I think I won $36.”

Ralph Steadman self portrait, 2006. Pen, brush, and ink on paper with celluloid and collage and strip of ink-splattered paper from desk. Private collection Ralph Steadman Studio

In our conversation, Steadman recalled his Derby adventures with Thompson, whom he said didn’t like to get out of bed until 3 p.m. and would then have six Bloody Marys for “breakfast.” They went to visit Thompson’s mother in an old folks’ home and she greeted them with a tray of drinks balanced on her walker.

While dining at Louisville’s exclusive Pendennis Club, Steadman said, Thompson chided him to stop his “filthy scribbling”. Things got more tense when a lady there took offense at his sketch of her. Steadman said she grabbed the sketchpad out of his hand and angrily scribbled a drawing of him, ripping the page in the process.

That weekend was the beginning of a great friendship and artistic collaboration, even though Steadman and Thompson were an odd couple. “We were like chalk and cheese, so different,” Steadman said, before turning philosophical.

“In some ways, I’ve often thought that Hunter really wasn’t worried whether he wrote or not,” he said. “It was the way he went about writing, or the way he found out about things was much more interesting to him than this idea of being a proper writer.

“Though he always had a wonderful turn of phrase,” he added. “His bat-craziness was always his magical way of coming out with a phrase that was just right. You know that one about ‘buy the ticket, take the ride’? It was a great line. But that was the problem with the drugs. I did it once with him … and I just couldn’t take the ride.”

Tom Eblen, the Lexington Herald-Leader’s metro/state columnist since 2008, writes opinion and feature columns. A seventh-generation Kentuckian, he was the Herald-Leader’s managing editor from 1998-2008. Eblen previously worked for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Associated Press. He is a member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame.
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