My best teacher - Gerald Scarfe

25th June 2010 at 01:00
A bed-ridden chronic asthmatic for most of his school years, the cartoonist only found his calling at technical college

Memories I have from my time at school are incredibly hazy. Not only was my childhood a nomadic experience, it was insecure and frightening, too. Born in 1936 with chronic asthma, I travelled around Britain thereafter with my mother - from Cardiff to Kidderminster, Inverness to Shaftsbury - because my father was in the RAF. Yet, unfortunately, I spent most of this period either in bed or in hospital. As a result, I missed the majority of my schooling.

You see, every time I started a different school, I would be there for about a week before getting ill again. Besides any natural worries about the war, it was all very confusing; hardly a surprise that I was an anxious, ill-educated child. It was not until my mid-teens, when treatment drugs became more sophisticated, that my asthma improved and I started to emerge as a person.

Understandably, my parents thought I would be forever reliant on them. Once the war had finished, my father wanted me to follow him into banking. Thank goodness I failed all the interviews. This was the last thing I wanted to do. Despite my father's reservations, there was only one intended avenue: drawing was, and still is, a way of exorcising my fears and expressing myself.

When I was 16, I worked in my uncle's commercial art studio but was trying to make items look glossy for advertising. Effectively, I was lying. I felt miserable about this and thought I was prostituting my talents.

Leslie Richardson, who was my art teacher at East Ham Technical College in the 1960s, played a crucial role. Upon leaving school, I felt a lack of academic acknowledgement, but he gave me the groundwork and legitimacy to become an artist. He made art a viable pursuit, something I could do as a career.

Teachers, I believe, have to orchestrate or manage their pupils, not necessarily perform what they preach. I wanted desperately to know the secrets of art and Leslie brought the best out of everybody, teaching me specifically how to use colour and how to use different implements. But what he did so well was talk about the theory of art: what I should be doing and looking at.

He never once corrected or altered my drawings with a pencil. An excellent policy, because once you do you are interfering with that person's methods. Every explanation he gave was done with words rather than actions. "That nose," he would say, "is too long." Or: "If you're drawing a chair, look at the spaces around the chair."

Leslie's constructive way of teaching was so beneficial that I felt encouraged enough to apply for the prestigious Royal College of Art, where David Hockney studied at that time. But I didn't feel I was that type of artist and, given that I was already earning money, I left after four days.

As my career developed, Leslie and I drifted apart, losing contact. However, I am grateful for his teaching. I am so lucky to do what I do - it is tough making a living as an artist - but at that time of my life I really wanted it. Art was the subsistence I needed, having been bed-ridden for 16 years, and Leslie certainly helped to feed that urge.

Cartoonist Gerald Scarfe has created a limited edition World Cup-themed Sky+HD (1TB) Box, He was talking to Rob Maul.

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