The subversive humour of Andy Watt
Though you may not know his name, you’ll have seen Andy Watt’s work – I guarantee it – and, like any childhood antihero, it’ll have got under your skin, says Candia Mckormack
As the great fish moved silently through the night water, propelled by short sweeps of its crescent tail, a scratching sound cuts through the still of the cool air.
Scritch. Scritch. Scriiiiitch.
The sound becomes more audible, more frenzied even, as if in response to the advancing menace of the great white nearing its prey. The sweeps of its tail quicken, powering it through the inky blackness, nearer, nearer to the swimming form of the young woman. It’s upon her now and, as razor teeth clamp on to kicking limb, crimson is replaced by lamp black spraying across cartridge paper. Then, stillness. Another drawing is completed by deadline. As I sit in illustrator Andy Watt’s garden studio at his home in Cropredy, Oxfordshire, we’re looked down on from all walls by comic book and movie heroes from our youths. 2000 AD’S Judge Dredd vies for space next to Ronald Searle, and model Airfix aircraft teeter atop books on Ralph Steadman… while all the time we’re watched by the steady, higheyebrowed gaze of that king of British comedy, Ronnie Barker, respectfully framed and sitting on the artist’s desk.
But what really floats Andy Watt’s boat is the movie based on Peter Benchley’s bestselling novel.
“I can’t remember how old I was when I first saw Jaws,” he says, with obvious relish recalling that moment, “but I watch it all the time. If I’m working late, I’ll be blasting out music to a certain time, and then I’ll put a movie on… and it’ll always be Jaws.”
And this is what has shaped the man. The artist.
“If they remade it now, it would be awful; if it was done with special effects it would be dreadful,” he says sincerely.
And there’s no getting away from the fact that the 25-foot-long, five-footwide heap of latex and rubber used in the making of the 1975 movie reared its delta-toothed head in many of our nightmares for many, many years to come.
For the longest time, Andy waited patiently for the opportunity to draw a shark to come along. I say that, but of course he didn’t; he was beavering away on countless brilliant projects for newspapers and magazines, including The Guardian, The Times, The Independent, NME, FHM, GQ, Esquire… *deep breath* … Penguin Books, Channel 4… you get the gist. But, he did get a recent commission from The Telegraph to draw a shark… yep, the fabulous creature you see here (though the confident smile of the woman straddling its back is a far cry from our earlier tragic heroine).
The work of a newspaper illustrator is sporadic – from the frenzied throes of shark mid-feed, to languorous basking in between meals (how far can I take this analogy?) – but this almost seems part of the appeal to an illustrator of Andy’s demeanour. Of course he has commitments – he has a cracking home in Oxfordshire, a wife and young daughter Florence (who enjoys watching Wacky Races almost as much as he does) – but he’s distinctly rock ‘n’ roll at heart.
“I’ve worked for The Guardian and Independent for a few years, doing a little spot every week… and then, and then The Telegraph will say,” – cue the no-nonsense attack of the every-moment’s-a-deadline delivery – “‘We need eight pictures TOMORROW!’ Uohhh!”
Oh, yes, there’s nothing quite like a ‘yesterday’ deadline to focus the mind.
“I once did a job for The Independent which they approved,” he continues, to bring home the point, “so I went out shopping and got a call in Sainsbury’s saying ‘Andy, the story’s changed, can you do this now?’! Ohhhhh-kaaaaay, when do you need it? ‘Five o’clock.’ And it’s half past three.”
Luckily, as he puts it, it was a character he’d drawn before – Tony Blair, as it happens – and so he turned it around in between paying for tea and putting it in the oven. That’s professionalism, right there.
Some people, he says, are really easy to do. As well as Tony Blair, Obama and Nick Griffin are apparently a gift to illustrators.
“The editor of the Indy rang up and said ‘We’ve got some spare budget, how do you fancy doing this?’, and asked me to do a pull-out poster, having a laugh at Nick Griffin for the Independent on Sunday.” Bread and butter for a satirical artist – look it up.
A few weeks later, he was asked to do something in a similar vein on Jeremy Clarkson – ladies and gentlemen, I bring you ‘Jeremy Clarkson’s Brain’,
‘I haven’t been brave enough to send that one to Jeremy. He’s local enough to come and visit me…’
which, as you can see, needs no explaining here.
So, has he had any negative feedback from fragile egos?
“I haven’t been brave enough to send that one to Jeremy,” he says. “He’s local enough to come and visit me…” Yes, Cropredy is certainly a small village, and Jezza does have previous.
For someone who is paid to put other people’s viewpoints across, I wonder how willing he is to show his own political leanings.
“Oh, totally,” he says, laughing, “Particularly if it’s someone like Trump. I’ve done him on the bog, and one of him with a swastika on his pants – both for the New Statesman – and one of him as a giant penis, which I sent round, but unfortunately that wasn’t published. I think I went a bit far.”
Andy grew up in the Folk Horrorsounding village of Fen End between Warwick and Solihull, and went on to study at Warwickshire School of Art. As a boy his interests were – as indeed they are today – aeroplanes, comics, drawing, cartoons and sharks.
At Warwickshire, his tutor told him he was ‘too nice’ to work in advertising – which Andy thought was “lovely” – and was consequently shown a picture by Ralph Steadman called ‘Hitting the Wall’. The picture is a particularly visceral depiction of a marathon runner, and it made Andy realise that there could well be a way for him to do what he loved doing and make a living doing it.
His parents supported him wholeheartedly by bringing home “piles and piles of office paper” and giving him marker pens for Christmas, and he would be endlessly drawing.
As well as his satirical work for newspapers, Andy has been in great demand from book publishers.
‘A Mess of Iguanas, A Whoop of Gorillas’ – endorsed by Ridley Scott and Jane Goodall, no less – is a loving, but playful look at collective nouns for animals, brilliantly illustrated by Andy in his own distinctively ink-splattered style.
That particular work was a we-need150-illustrations-by-next-month kind of job, but Andy was solo and living in a flat in Warwickshire at the point, so able to keep both ends of the candle toasty.
“Crazy, craaazy hours… it drove me insane, but it was a brilliant exercise. I don’t think I could do that now”
By contrast, he produced a book called ‘All Ears’ with Michael Holden
– a series of overheard conversations produced over about four years for the Guardian, which was a joy to work on.
“Fried Chicken Ladies – ladies eating chicken out of the boot of a car,” he smiles, “that was one of my favourite briefs. ‘Yep’ I said ‘leave it with me!’”
And, shown in this and other cartoons and illustrations of his, there’s a definite grotesque nature that is surely an homage to the work of Ronald Searle, Ralph Steadman and others of that ilk.
“It’s funny you should mention Ralph Steadman,” he says with a wry smile. “I asked him for a few words for the back cover of my book, and his response was ‘Oh my god, don’t buy this book! It looks subversive and smelly, and you’ll never get it off your clothes if you pick it up’.”
Now, what subversive, shark-loving illustrator could wish for more?
‘I’ve done Trump on the bog, with a swastika on his pants, and one of him as a giant penis. I think I went a bit far’
Andy Watt in his home studio, Cropredy, Oxfordshire
Chicken Ladies, by Andy Watt
Clarkson’s Brain, by Andy Watt