“HAVE you ever heard of a well-off artist?” Steve Allender asks the question over coffee, which I’m paying
“HAVE you ever heard of a well-off artist?” Steve Allender asks the question over coffee, which I’m paying for. Not that money is a major worry for him — he couldn’t be happier.
Steve, 49, likes to devote as much time as possible to his cartoons and painting, saying: “I try to work the bare minimum — what I can get away with.”
He does get paid for about 20 hours a week doing gardening and various painting and decorating jobs.
Steve, who lives in Queen Street, Henley, also volunteers as a caretaker at the Kenton Theatre, where he paints sets for productions.
He says: “You do get used to not having any money — I haven’t been on holiday for years. I’d say 99 per cent of artists can’t make a living out of it. It is bonkers that I live in Henley but the opportunities are greater living here.”
Steve was born in Sidcup in 1965. His father was an electrical engineer for the Ministry of Defence and his mother was a housewife and part-time shopkeeper. His sister, Linda, 53, is a semi-retired civilian officer in the Metropolitan Police.
Steve’s first encounter with art came at the age of five when his father bought him a set called the Book of Art from a door-to-door salesman.
Meanwhile, he was showing some potential for the subject at primary school.
Steve recalls: “My class was doing a picture of one of the Apollo missions and the teacher got them to all look at my picture. I guess I was considered to be good at art.”
He attended Bexley Grammar School but left just before his 16th birthday having failed his art O-level.
“A lot of artists do fail their art exams,” says Steve. “I hated the grammar school. I had a terrible time there.”
He worked in “dead-end” jobs until he reached his late twenties. “I worked in a warehouse, as a gardener and caretaker and I did some painting and decorating,” he says. “It has all come in handy over the years.”
He worked as a caretaker at a drama college where a colleague was a cartoonist. This made him realise that drawing pictures and making people laugh interested him.
Steve says: “The two most important things in my life are art and humour so the natural thing for me was to become a cartoonist.
“In effect, I locked myself in a room for seven days a week until I could draw and that’s how I did it. I’m self-taught, so it’s all my fault.”
His first cartoons were a series called Victorian Values. He then submitted cartoons to magazines and succeeded in getting his work into Punch, the satirical magazine that closed in 2002.
“Eighteen months after I started doing it I got my first pictured published in Punch,” says Steve.
“It was of a policeman standing next to an odd- shaped hole in the ground — a comma. He was saying something like ‘better call an ambulance, he has fallen into a comma’.
“It was a dreadful drawing and a poor joke but they took it. I was paid £100. They had eight different types of pay, depending on the size and colour of the work.
“At that time it was £250 for a full-colour page. I got one which was about the death of Enoch Powell. He was going up to heaven and as he went through the clouds there was St Peter as a Rastafarian. There was no punchline needed.
“The magazine would get 400 cartoons sent in per edition and publish only 10. I used to do mine in colour because they paid £20 more.”
Steve had work published in Punch almost every week for the next two or three years before losing interest.
He says: “Cartoons is an extremely competitive business. On my day I could do a good cartoon but the guys who do it daily are in a totally different league. I am never that good.
“At that stage I was like ‘I know I can do that’ so I moved on to painting and pretty much stopped doing cartoons.”
About six years ago Steve moved from Haywards Heath in West Sussex to Henley, which he had visited previously and hoped to find inspiration for his art.
“I didn’t have much money so I thought I would go and live in the most expensive place ever,” he jokes.
“The reason for moving here was to paint the river.”
About 90 per cent of his art is landscape, which he paints from photographs he takes mainly of the area between Hambleden and Marsh locks.
Steve says: “There is never a question of not having ideas. Every day I have a little doodle. I have a little doodle book about the size of a small notebook, which I do stuff in. It might be bits of verse or ideas for a theatre set or creating a painting.” He uses good quality oil paints and the “cheapest” brushes to produce paintings ranging from postcard size to 3ft square. He sells an average of four paintings a year and has exhibited at galleries around the country.
Steve’s sense of humour is never too far away and he enjoys making people laugh.
“I can’t see how it can get much better than that,” he says. “You get a great buzz out of it.
“It is about being creative. If I was talking to someone aged 15 who was thinking about getting into art I would say that it is not about doing what you’re expected to do, it is about doing what you want to do.”