February 12, 2006

The Grapes of Ralph

I am fond of red wine, although these days I’ll only drink a bottle of it, on average, every four or five days. Living in Sweden, I have just the one option as to where I can purchase my poison, but, when I lived in England, where the choice was plentiform and multiplicitous, or real words to that effect, I customarily preferred to buy my wine at Oddbins. One of the things I liked about Oddbins were their cool catalogues, which in those days were adorned with illustrations by Ralph Steadman, best-known, of course, as an occasional accomplice to the late Hunter S. Thompson. Each new catalogue would feature some pictures and some travelogue from one or another of the world’s wine-growing regions. I kept a few of these, from the Summer 1995 issue, which contained an account of a visit of Mr Steadman’s to Alsace, to that for Summer 1998, which was concerned with Sicily, and Puglia, the ‘heel’ of Italy. The following are details of scans from the latter catalogue…

Detail from 'The Square, Avetrana, Puglia, (1/3)' an illustration by Ralph Steadman, 1997.


Detail from 'The Square, Avetrana, Puglia, (3/3)' an illustration by Ralph Steadman, 1997.

The pair of images above are taken from a series of three illustrations of the piazza in the town of Avetrana, Puglia. The details below are from a tabular depiction of Sicilian gesticulations, each one accompanied ‘with explanations which may help the descriptive powers of a taster, preferring as they do, to keep his or her opinions to themselves, particularly when the wine commands an embarrassed silence—or a stifled gasp of breathless grief!’

Detail (1/2) from an untitled illustration of Sicilian hand-gestures by Ralph Steadman, 1997.


Detail (2/2) from an untitled illustration of Sicilian hand-gestures by Ralph Steadman, 1997.

Below is a detail from an incomplete scan of a landscape vista of the Trapani salt pans, with, in the foreground, an (evidently British) interloper ‘with a barrowload of chips and a wine-vinegar backpack.’ The last pair of details are both from another landscape, this time of the Tempio di Segesta in Sicily. Note that the image behind these last two details comprises a pair of inexpertly-conjoined scans, and is marred by an unconcealed page-fold. Even so, I think it’s still rather splendid. Two book-length compilations of Mr Steadman’s wine-related artwork have been published, as The Grapes of Ralph, and Untrodden Grapes—the latter volume only having been issued last year. I think I’ll buy a copy to supplement the yellowed & dogeared catalogues I’ve kept all this time, as a small measure of my esteem for this ‘lifetime supporter of the maverick tradition in all fields of human activity.’

Detail from 'Trapani Motya Salt Pans ans Man with Barrowload of Chips...' an illustration by Ralph Steadman, 1997.

I find a lot to enjoy in Steadman’s writing, too, even though he often seems too ready to resort to hyperbole. If you can forgive a sudden change of subject, I found the following paragraph on his website perfectly accords with my feelings on a subject of much current debate, only expressing them better & more directly than I could hope to do:

Last night I listened to the po-faced BBC programme Moral Maze. This one was about TORTURE, as though it was something to question and discuss. Torture, in whatsoever form it is manipulated is an abomination, a crude and savage leftover from the darkest of ages. Unless you are going to kill and eat the poor fucker, what in God’s perverse and beautiful Kingdom do you think you are doing. TORTURE is out of bounds and as a practice in any form, for any reason—even as a hypothesis to maybe prevent a suspected holocaust, it is the one definitive unforgiveable sin—an abhorrent practice banished from all human activity. If I was being tortured, I would sure as hell tell my tormentors any damn thing they may want to know if it stopped them screwing my fingers off or shoving a red hot poker up my backside.
Detail (1/2) from 'Tempio di Segesta' an illustration by Ralph Steadman, 1997.


Detail (2/2) from 'Tempio di Segesta' an illustration by Ralph Steadman, 1997.

These images are Copyright © 1997, Ralph Steadman, & are reproduced here without permission, only for as long as no-one objects to their presence on these pages.

Posted by misteraitch at February 12, 2006 12:07 PM

Great post. I've always loved Steadman's illustrations and it's nice to see some of the his lesser known work. HST cast a large shadow over Steadman (not necessarily to the bad of course) and I suspect he might have had a different trajectory in the art world with less 'infamy of association'.

Posted by: peacay on February 12, 2006 12:40 PM

I don't know if they appear in his books, but Steadman has designed labels [1] [2]and posters for Bonny Doon Winery in Santa Cruz, California. When I was there last year, I was sorely tempted to purchase the Cardinal Zin poster to hang in the cellars of Stately Goof Manor, but after the tasting, it slipped my mind.

Posted by: on February 12, 2006 01:46 PM


Posted by: on February 12, 2006 02:50 PM

i've always been a fan of steadman as well. when i was younger, just on my way to artschool, i'd say his style was among the handful i'd have admitted as influences. he's an interesting case in that though he is a legend in the illustration world that's about as far as his legend goes.

as for the 'infamy of association' i'd have to say it was likely a dream job from a working standpoint. being able to connect with a popular writer and to become his "face" as it were is fairly rare i'd think. to maintain a working relationship with one client for so long... at very least hunter offered steadman job security and a wide audience.

Posted by: jmorrison on February 12, 2006 03:05 PM

jm I agree wholeheartedly. In fact, if it hadn't been for their working relationship we may never have known about Steadman.

I was playing a bit of the devil's advocate. The relationship cast Steadman in a role which on one view was restricting - like the typecasting of an actor. It's not particularly useful of course but musing on 'what might have been' has traversed my mind on a number of occasions in the past.

Posted by: peacay on February 12, 2006 04:22 PM

there is no excuse for hyperbole, its true ...

and some of us are allergic to bad puns, themselves a form of torture !

grapes of ralph, indeedy ...

Posted by: tristan forward on February 12, 2006 05:26 PM

Steadman might be abrasive and belligerent -- a caricaturist, after all -- but not really into hyperbole, I would think. I wholeheartedly back the torture bit, too. Incidentally, it disgusted me watching this morning the sneers and "yes"'s of the guy who shot the video while whimpers are heard in the distance.

Otherwise, Oddbins... the memories!

Posted by: Loxias on February 13, 2006 10:46 AM

I sampled a couple of bottles of ‘Cardinal Zin’ back in the nineties—I thought it was excellent wine, and I kept the empties as long as I could for their labels’ decorative value. And I think Loxias has it right, that caricature is a better word than hyperbole to describe the exaggeration in Steadman’s writing-style, and one can hardly complain about a caricaturist’s tendency to exaggerate… even so, I find I tire more easily of that tendency in his prose than in his drawings & paintings.

Posted by: misteraitch on February 13, 2006 11:16 AM

The Oddbins drawings are actually fresher than a lot of Steadman’s more famous works. I always found him too mannered. Hyperbole is the right word; Daumier, for example, is a caricaturist, but he’s anything but mannered or overwrought.

Posted by: Michelangelo on February 13, 2006 05:29 PM

Ralph Steadman has been a passionate & potent illustrator for some 40 years, thus (for we Brits, anyway) predating the Thompson association by a good few years. With Gerald Scarfe he has been a savage scourge of several waves of feckless politicians, his grotesque caricatures doing more for practical anarchism in a single frame than a page of invective.

Posted by: Dick Jones on February 15, 2006 11:33 PM
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