Interview with: Christopher Spencer

Artwork: Cold War Steve

Interviewer: Zan Boag


Zan Boag: It has been said that you draw inspiration from the Dutch artists Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel. Both had a dark take on humanity’s desires and deepest fears – is that what you’re delving into with your work?
Christopher Spencer (Cold War Steve): Since studying it at Art College in the early ‘90s, I’ve been fascinated by medieval Netherlandish art – in particular Bosch and Bruegel. Initially I was mesmerised by the tiny nightmarish characters that populated the paintings. These appealed to my love of both surrealism and dark humour.

I left art college in 1993 and having failed to get into university, spent over 20 years working in low-paid factory work. I thought that my dream of making a living from art had truly passed me by. The stars aligned when technology meant that I could create collages digitally – I had specialised in collage at college, the old analogue scalpel and glue version of course – and with Twitter I had a way to exhibit my work, bypassing the impenetrable established art world. As my skills at digital photomontage improved, so did my ambition. This is when I drew on messers Bosch and Bruegel. The scale, horror and unsympathetic ‘cautionary tales’ were perfect for a 21st century world of Trump, Johnson, Brexit, and Putin. I turn out work almost continually, but the ones I enjoy most are the vast compositions, which can take weeks to complete. Compositionally I look to Bosch and Bruegel, with characters, scenes and symbolism scattered throughout a modern-day hellscape.



You have been compared to the satirists William Hogarth and James Gillray – what do you think of this comparison?
I’m immensely flattered to even be mentioned in the same breath as Hogarth and Gillray. I wouldn’t pretend to have anywhere near their level of brilliance or significance, however there are clear parallels. I’m working two to three centuries later, but I am blessed – I’m not sure that’s the right word – to be presented with an equally abundant reservoir of miscreants and immoral grotesques from which to work with; Gillray, for instance, had a gout-ridden Prince Regent, Hogarth created Tom Rakewell – the titular Rake in Rake’s Progress – I have Donald Trump and Boris Johnson… and many, many more of course.

Like the Georgian satirists, I strive to shine a light on the rapacity and subterfuge of people with power, albeit in the digital age. Obviously my compositions don’t involve the lengthy process of creating an etched plate for a printing press, which means I can react to a breaking news story in real time and publish my finished piece immediately.



Wealth and power are two themes that recur frequently in your artwork. In what way are they intertwined?
I can categorically state that if Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg, and all the other old Etonian types in government had been born into working-class families, they wouldn’t have got anywhere near power. Heirs of mega-rich, influential fathers, their sense of entitlement is rarely contained. Throw in the odd Latin phrase in a plummy voice and the masses pull their forelocks in unison. If you take away the accent and Latin, the substance of what they say is actually facile bollocks. I guess the same would apply to Trump and the presidential dynasties of yesteryear. The establishment are terrified by the idea that the working class could get into power, which is why they continually try to divide them and set them against each other.
The reason a labourer’s wages are so low has nothing to do with the Polish family that moved in down the road. Inequality of wealth is at the heart of many social issues in the UK. What is a potential solution to the problem of inequality? Inequality of wealth is perhaps the subject I return to more than any other. Upon gaining power in 2010, the Tories – in coalition with the Liberal Democrats – introduced the policy of ‘austerity’. This was a consequence of the worldwide banking crisis of 2008. Austerity was cruel. It impacted the poorest and most vulnerable in society, whilst the people that caused the problems were bailed out by the government. It goes on.

Last year we had Liz Truss, the shortest-serving Prime Minister in our history. Her mini-budget, announced just three weeks after she had taken office, was cheered by all the usual right-wing commentators. It was a disaster, which resulted in driving the pound to record lows, sparking chaos on bond markets and increasing mortgage costs for millions of people. Despite this, Truss is still parading around – she even spoke at the recent CPAC in Maryland – claiming that the ‘deep state’ scuppered her plans. Yet again, those with the least are suffering disproportionately more than the people that caused the problem.

What is the solution? I don’t know, but a genuine socialist government in the UK still seems like an impossible dream. The only glimmer of hope I have is with my daughter’s generation. They are the polar opposite of the decrepit, tweed-wearing bigots currently in power. They are progressive, compassionate, and open-minded. The governments of Britain and America – and indeed the world – desperately needs an injection of youth and diversity.



The Oxford PPE is seen as a factory for politicians, which is well known in the UK but it is also true abroad – Bill Clinton, Benazir Bhutto, Aung San Suu Kyi, and Bob Hawke all took the course. Of course, this ‘factory’ gives you plenty of fodder, but it also poses a major problem: how can a ‘ruling class’ identify with the issues that face the average citizen?
The ‘out of touch’ ruling class features heavily in my art. I contrast the very real rising poverty people are enduring, with the rising wealth and entitlement of those in power. I hope that it may lead to the scales falling from the eyes of the ‘forelock tugging’ working class Tories. I am up against it however. The most popular and influential newspapers in the UK are The Daily Mail, The Sun, The Telegraph and The Express. Owned by billionaire tycoons, these publications have been ‘radicalising’ their readers for decades. Bullshit stories about the EU, constant polemics against asylum seekers, striking workers, the poor, the vulnerable. This has led to a huge, admittedly ageing, proportion of the electorate consistently voting the way the tycoons want them to.

‘Deference’ is an affliction that has held sway over too many Britons for too long. To believe someone is better equipped to rule over you, simply because they have a posh accent – or wear a top hat, à la Jacob Rees-Mogg – is maddening.



Your satirical artwork reaches many people in the UK and around the world. Which topics do you hope to raise awareness for over the coming years?
My detractors accuse me of being a typical ‘woke-leftie’ – an assertion I can’t argue with really. Politically I’ve always been a Socialist and using the word ‘woke’ as a pejorative is absurd – I embrace it. I’m often asked what will I do if/when Keir Starmer’s Labour Party gets into power later this year. My answer is that I will continue to hold the government’s feet to the fire, regardless of the colour of their rosette. In any event, Starmer – who is desperately disappointing as an opposition leader – has been appearing in my work for a while.

My work as Cold War Steve began as a coping strategy following years of alcoholism and a complete breakdown. Making a photomontage is still very much a therapeutic process for me. I feel so fortunate that I am able to channel my despair at world events into my art. My greatest fear for some time has been the rise of the far-right – which seems to have coincided with the Brexit referendum result and election of Donald Trump. In the UK we have a Conservative government describing refugees as an “invasion” and Gaza peace protestors as “hate marchers”. It is clear that in an effort to cling to power, the Tories are attempting to divert people’s attention away from their own ineptitude and corruption by making people angry with minorities; taken straight from the fascist playbook, blame the people at the bottom for the problems created by the people at the top.

This is a hugely significant year on both sides of the Atlantic. I have longed to break America… I mean if ‘A Flock of Seagulls’ can do it, then surely I can, right? US politics fascinates me and Trump has been a regular in my work since I began. I will be ramping up my United States output as the year progresses toward the Presidential elections. The rematch of Biden vs Trump is straight out of a Bosch triptych. The contest for leader of the free world is between an increasingly doddery Joe Biden and the narcissistic, sociopathic insurrectionist that is Donald Trump. USA, I’m coming to save you.


Cold War Steve is the pen name of collage artist and satirist Christopher Spencer. From the Wealth edition of New Philosopher, which can be purchased here.