Gerald Scarfe is one of the most revered and feared cartoonists in the country.
He designed the animation for the film of Pink Floyd’s The Wall and the title sequences of BBC TV comedies Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister. He has also designed the sets for umpteen theatre, opera and ballet productions across the world.
That, perhaps, is where the reverence bit comes in. But the fear factor is related to his work as a political cartoonist with a famously sharp wit and pen. For 47 years his cartoons have appeared in The Sunday Times, weapons designed to cut bumptious politicians down to size.
In March, in what looks like a notable coup, the Bowes Museum will exhibit Milk Snatcher: The Thatcher Drawings which will feature more than 100 Scarfe cartoons spanning the career of the ‘Iron Lady’, from her years in the Shadow Cabinet through her turbulent time in office and to her ultimate decline and fall.
Explains Scarfe: “They came to me and said: ‘We’ve got this idea, to have all your drawings of Margaret Thatcher’. At first I thought, who’s interested in Margaret Thatcher? But they kind of persuaded me.
“She had a huge effect on this country and I’ve got over 100 drawings of her from the 1970s through to the 1990s.
“It was in the1970s that she became notorious for snatching away children’s milk.
“Remember when they used to leave the milk bottles on your doorstep and little tits would land and peck off the tops? I drew her as a little tit sitting on a bottle and that’s really where it started. It goes all the way through to the funeral cartoon.”
That one, published the weekend before Mrs Thatcher’s funeral, is called Four PMs and a Funeral and it shows the ex-Prime Minister’s ferocious ghost looming over her dutifully mourning male successors and declaring: “You’re all bloody useless.”
Gerald Scarfe has mixed feelings about Thatcher. “I can’t pretend I was in any way a fan of hers but she was fantastic material. The worse they are, the better ‘copy’ they make and she was always someone I could depict as aggressively cutting or slicing.
“You’ll see in the exhibition that drawing the same person over and over again is tedious so I turned her into an axe, a knife, an iron, a gun, the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz, a mad cow and an old bag. It was just to entertain me by not doing the same thing over and over again.”
A Londoner by birth and now aged 78, he recalls: “When I first left school at 16 I worked in a commercial art studio and my job there was to illustrate catalogues in which I was really telling lies.
“I was depicting things as glossy, beautiful and desirable and they were crap, a lot of them. So I felt pretty miserable doing that, as if I was prostituting my talents in not telling the truth.
“I think an artist’s job is to tell the truth so when Private Eye came along in the 1960s I went to see them and they encouraged me to really go for it.
“That was when my drawings became known for being satirical and ugly.”
Scarfe remembers someone complaining in a letter to the New Statesman that a cartoon he had done was “lavatory wall art”.
It was about the Vietnam war and it showed a caricature of US President Lyndon Johnson defecating bombs onto a beautiful Vietnamese woman, “which symbolised Vietnam at that time”.
In true ‘publish-and-be-damned style’, the young cartoonist took it as a compliment.
“When I joined the Daily Mail, they sent me to Vietnam and I was able to see in truth what I’d been depicting in cartoons, which I’d taken from what I’d seen on TV.
“In those days, the footage was almost idealised. You’d get a shot of these guys jumping out of a helicopter and the grass fanning out under the rotorblades. It looked like a John Wayne movie.
“But when I got there it was hell and chaos and very dangerous. There were all these young kids of 19, taken from their studies and sent out there to kill people.
“It was horrific but all of that I was able to channel into my work.”
Much of Scarfe’s work appears to express an inner rage, the style visceral, energetic, vivid. He explains that whereas some cartoonists work sitting at a desk, he stands and “kind of works from the shoulder. It’s almost like painting really but with a pen.”
He says: “If I have to draw somebody I always start with the pupil in the middle of the eye and work on from there, going down the nose as it gets longer.
“The eyes are very, very revealing, as you’ll know in life. It used to be the mark of a good painting, if the eyes follow you round the room.”
Gerald Scarfe has put a lot of eyes on paper over the years, often to devastating effect.
He recalls the editor of the Daily Mail, shortly after he joined the paper in 1966, taking him to lunch with Ted Heath.
“I thought he was really rather snotty to me and put me down at the meal. For years afterwards, whenever I drew him those thoughts came back into my mind. It’s wrong really because it’s not to do with my feelings, it’s to do with what these people are doing to the country.”
Scarfe doesn’t appear to hold politicians in the highest regard, seeing it as his job to keep “these self-important little buggers” in contact with planet Earth.
“Thank God I do other jobs,” he says jovially but with feeling.
And thank God he found his way into this one and sticks with it, blowing his visual raspberries into the ongoing political debate and making life much more fun for those of us who vote for politicians but have no wish to be one.
Milk Snatcher: The Thatcher Drawings is at the Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle, from March 14 to May 31. Details www.thebowesmuseum.org.uk