‘Modern Hogarth’ Coldwar Steve goes public with surreal visions
Considered by some a “modern Hogarth” and better known as Coldwar Steve by his legion of online fans, Christopher Spencer’s surreal visions of Brexit Britain have been showcased in public for the first time on a Liverpool billboard.
Two years ago Spencer was an unknown artist. He didn’t get into university and had been floundering between jobs. He had a breakdown and attempted suicide. But this resulted in Coldwar Steve – a darkly comic Twitter profile dedicated to absurdist photomontages.
“I started sketching as soon as I popped out of the womb … but this is something I could never have expected in my wildest dreams,” he told the Guardian at the unveiling of his first public commission – a 16ft billboard in Williamson Square, Liverpool.
Inspired by the third panel of Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, the piece, entitled the Fourth Estate, is a large-scale portrait of the UK news landscape.
His works feature leaders such as Donald Trump and Theresa May grappling for space against mundane backdrops with low-level celebrities including the ever-present figure of EastEnders actor Steve McFadden.
The idea behind the billboard, he said, is that “people will sit and eat their sarnies in front of it” and attempt to identify the characters.
Cowell shows off his tanned torso as he is thrust forward by a lizard on a leash. Paul Dacre, the former editor of the Daily Mail, scurries in the background with a single striped plastic bag, while Jeremy Corbyn hangs on a lamppost desperately trying to escape. The scene is set in Spencer’s birthplace – a pit that runs under Birmingham’s infamous spaghetti junction.
“It is a bear pit,” says Spencer, 43. “A circle of hell in which all the odious characters roam. And then, of course, there is Steve [McFadden], watching on with all the existential angst of the everyday man.”
With this first public art display Spencer finds himself in good company – the work was commissioned by the Rapid Response Unit, an experimental project in Liverpool fusing artists with news and current affairs. Their other commissions have included Turner Prize holder Lubaina Himid, Lily Cole and Damon Albarn.
Spencer describes himself as the normal son of a teacher and driving instructor. He has accumulated 111,000 followers; actor and director Kathy Burke has called @Coldwar_ Steve “one of the funniest accounts on Twitter”, while writer Jon Savage described him as a “modern Hogarth or Gillray”.
But Spencer has set his sights not on world stardom but a rather more humble ambition: to earn enough from his art to buy his first home and help his wife retire early.
Two years ago Spencer, who suffers from clinical depression, hit a crisis point and attempted suicide.
But it was following a stint in hospital and a break from work that he created his first montages.
“I decided to channel everything into art. At first my wife didn’t really get it. I was on my phone all the time. In between bathing the kids I’d be composing a new piece and she’d just be like ‘will you get off your fucking phone!”
“But slowly I began to get more of a following and now this.”
The only critic he wishes to win over is also his harshest – his 13-yearold daughter.
“She is painfully embarrassed by it all. I’m often reminded that Justin Bieber has significantly more followers. I’m fine with it though, it keeps me grounded and she probably gets her misanthropy and cynicism from me.”
‘It is a bear pit. A circle of hell in which all the odious characters roam. And then there is Steve McFadden’ Christopher Spencer Artist
Coldwar Steve’s first public commission, The Fourth Estate, went on display in Liverpool