Biography of former Sunday Times political cartoonist Gerald Scarfe

The angry genius who stabs with his pen: Ysenda Maxtone Graham looks into the biography of political cartoonist Gerald Scarfe

  • Gerald Scarfe became a ruthless diminisher of power through political cartoons
  • He is still fuming at The Sunday Times for letting him go after 50 years there
  • Top cartoons he has done include the Pope having sex with Mary Whitehouse



by Gerald Scarfe (Little, Brown, £20, 288pp) 

When you look at a political cartoon by Gerald Scarfe — grotesque, hilarious, shocking, pushing all boundaries of taste — you can’t help but wonder: ‘Where does all that fury come from?’

What turned the boy from a loving, middle-class home in Hampstead into a ruthless diminisher of the powerful, tearing politicians’ egos to shreds in his portrayals of them as apes, pigs and pterodactyls?

Scarfe has never cared a jot about making enemies. In his Chelsea studio, he’s drawn the Pope having sex with Mary Whitehouse, Harold Macmillan naked in the pose of Christine Keeler . . . and countless other ruthless takedowns. Bernard Levin called him a ‘candidate for the position of the first man to be prosecuted simultaneously for obscenity, blasphemy and criminal libel’.

Sunday Times and Evening Standard political cartoonist Gerald Scarfe has published his autobiography ‘Long Drawn Out Trip’

In the first film he directed, Scarfe On Scarfe, he showed a drawing of the Rhodesian premier Ian Smith hanging the Queen by the neck. Shortly afterwards, Scarfe met Princess Anne at a charity event. ‘I really enjoyed your TV programme,’ she said, ‘but did I see Mummy hanging from a tree?’

In this compelling, but tightly controlled, memoir, he likes to blow his own trumpet, quoting letters and articles praising him. I did have a slight ‘pot-calling-kettle-black’ feeling when he harangued politicians for being egotistical, thick-skinned and ambitious.

He’s still fuming at having been let go by The Sunday Times after 50 years, aged 81, and lets us know that he was snapped up by the Evening Standard.

Scarfe explains in his introduction that he’s going to keep his personal life out of this memoir, although he does frequently refer to his current wife, Jane Asher, the glamorous actress and cake-maker. But there’s no mention, not a squeak, of the mothers of his first two children, Maureen or children’s author Marcia Williams. So this is very much a selective memoir.

The childhood chapters are extremely moving. Gerry’s first 16 years were blighted by debilitating asthma, requiring him to take weeks off school every term.

He was rushed to hospital in the middle of the night, gasping for breath; he was made to wear a plastic mouth-plate to aid breathing; a sadistic male nurse made him stand naked in a white-tiled room and hosed him with needle-sharp jets of cold water, ‘as though I was being sliced by an open razor as the laser-like jet traced down my back on to my buttocks’. A few reasons for the lifelong anger, then.

He went along to St Martin’s School of Art aged 15, forgetting his portfolio. The interviewer said he was too young. Scarfe writes: ‘I feel that if he had seen my drawings, I would have become a student at St Martin’s.’ He’s probably right.

Also powerful in those opening chapters is Scarfe’s portrayal of his compulsion to draw. Aged ten, Gerry was taken by his father to see Disney’s Pinocchio. He drew all the characters endlessly.

‘I could never have imagined that I would one day be the only outside artist to be production designer on a Disney movie.’ (Hercules.)

Scarfe’s first success was winning a competition by The Eagle in which David Hockney was the runner-up.

He whisks us from the boredom of his first job in advertising to the relief at being free to let rip when Punch and then Private Eye took him on.

In the Sixties, he was lured to the Daily Mail with a Jaguar E-Type. The paper sent him round the world as a reportage illustrator, where he drew the horror of the Vietnam war and a cholera outbreak in Calcutta.

Pushing boundaries, he began making sculptures of his cartoons. His son told his teacher: ‘At home, we have a dog, three cats, a goldfish and two naked Mrs Thatchers.’

This vigorous sculpting led to him designing sets for Pink Floyd concerts. A Bafta for Scarfe On Scarfe led to him being suddenly sought after as a film director.

It’s hard to keep the ego at bay when you’re both feted by the whole world and married to Jane Asher.

But always, Scarfe says, he has suffered from a lack of self-confidence, as well as sensitivity about his status as a true artist.

‘One only has to go into a Chelsea house,’ he writes, ‘to see that the real art is hanging in the drawing room and the cartoons are hung in the lavatory.’

On the jacket of this memorable, but frustrating, book, Scarfe has drawn himself as a jester holding a quill pen. It’s far milder than his cartoons of other people.

It would require a more ruthless cartoonist to capture the man who tells the truth, and nothing but the truth, but not the whole truth. 

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