Ralph Steadman has just published a very handsome new picture book, folio size, entitled Critical Critters, about species threatened with extinction. I know about it – confession of involvement here – because I recently received a comp copy, thanks to the inclusion of a dinky little poem of mine about the rhinoceros. There are in fact two different kinds of rhino portrayed – a black one and a white one. I get the white one (p.93), which isn’t really white at all. Its name comes from the Dutch word ‘wijd’, which means that this particular category of rhino is distinguished from others not by the pallor of its hide but by the wideness of its lips.
In this collection there are no birds – Ralph has done those fairly fully already – but a very wide variety of other things, including some humanoid critters than a purely imaginary. The text consists both of a lot of quite solid scientific information and of an exuberant dialogue between the artist and his co-author Ceri Levy – two good ole boys rambling on. Not just because of its generous page size, reading the book is an immersive experience.
‘Immersive’ is, in fact, the mot juste in more than one way, as a good many of the drawings seem to have been generated from random liquid splashes and blots. They look as if they are appearing spontaneously on the page, with just a little help, a few expert nudges, from mischievous Master Ralph.
In fact, this spontaneity is why Steadman, famous for his caricatures, is, in fact, one of the great draftsmen of his generation. His critters may be in serious danger of disappearing from the face of the earth, but in these generous-sized pages, they are perpetually in the throes of being reborn. Just looking at them, you become part of the whole complex process of creation.
So thank you, Ralph, for giving me a tiny role in the roiling creativity of you and Ceri’s book.
Words: Edward Lucie-Smith Top Photo: P C Robinson © Artlyst 2017