"It sounded complete nonsense to me at the time," remarked Gerald Scarfe, of when the band Pink Floyd asked him to create the animation to accompany the album, film and tour for "The Wall" in the late 1970s.
It’s not surprising that this seemed like a request out of the blue. The London-born Scarfe has been best known for his acerbic political cartoons for more than half a century now. In the true tradition of a caricature artist, his work has been a constant commentary on public figures ever since his first cartoons for the satirical magazines Private Eye and Punch were published in the early 1960s.
"When I first came to prominence they said I was the new Hogarth. I could see what they meant," Scarfe said, referring to the English 18th-century satirical artist – part of a long tradition in this country.
"I believe it is important for satirical art to be with us always. To be able to question our leaders is a very healthy state. I always think like the old court jester, who was able to poke fun at the king and was able to make comments on behalf of the common people."
In the Spotlight
London is now celebrating Scarfe. The House of Illustration hosts the new exhibition "Gerald Scarfe: Stage and Screen" (from 22 Sep). It turns the spotlight on to the theatrical side of this hugely versatile artist, exploring his lesser-known production designs, with exhibits including storyboards from "Hercules" to the English National Ballet’s "The Nutcracker." Meanwhile, the Victoria and Albert Museum’s exhibition "Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains" (to 1 Oct) includes exhibits and interviews on their album and film "The Wall."
"Mostly I’m known for my political cartoons, but as people will see I have entered many other worlds: rock n’roll, opera, ballet, theatre and animation," Scarfe said. "This exhibition explores some of those other areas—bringing my drawings to life, bringing them off the page and breathing life into them through theatre and animation."
He has attacked leaders across the political spectrum with his razor-sharp pen for decades, mainly for The Sunday Times newspaper for 44 years, from which he's only recently retired. Nothing escapes his scrutiny: one of his earliest pieces was of Sir Winston Churchill looking frail in the House of Commons in 1964. It was considered too controversial to publish in The Times, but Private Eye had put it on its cover when he died, six months later.
Acceptance and Approval
"The cartoonist’s job is to be as truthful as possible. In Private Eye they encouraged me to attack. I’m happy to draw some of these characters as pigs, or demons or whatever—that’s my job," Scarfe said. "I should be able to attack anybody—although that can be difficult at the moment," he added, making a sombre acknowledgement to the attacks on the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in 2015.
To see his works in situ, Rosewood London hotel in Holborn opened Scarfe’s Bar in 2013, for which he was commissioned to paint caricatures of famous British figures on its walls. Those figures range from a grinning Princess Anne to a guitar-strumming Paul McCartney, and there are unflattering portrayals of political leaders Harold Wilson and Ed Miliband. Scarfe has just drawn cartoons to accompany the bar’s themed cocktail menu with British characters including Harry Potter and a pouting Mick Jagger.
But will there always be politicians who inspire him to satirise? "The most memorable are usually the most wicked—people like Richard Nixon, Idi Amin, Enoch Powell, Tony Blair and George Bush. And now there is the frightful Donald Trump," Scarfe says.
From this evidence alone, the 81-year-old shows no sign of flagging, and remains as razor sharp and relevant as ever.