Searle reports on Winston Churchill’s last Commons speech for Life. Image: Perpetua
Before I even knew what illustration was, I loved the work of Ronald Searle, who has died aged 91. To call him a ‘cartoonist’ somehow doesn’t do justice to one of our great satirists, artists and chroniclers of the best and very worst of life
Searle’s figures, whether crusty old majors, devious schoolboys or famous names from the stage or politics, had a fantastic rumpled, inky quality to them. All pointy shoes and sharp elbows.
Famously, Searle had been a Japanese prisoner of war during World War Two. In 1942 he was captured in Singapore and suffered the horrors of incarceration in the infamous Changi jail and forced labour on the Burma railway. Summoning the last of his strength at the end of each day, Searle sketched his fellow prisoners, hiding his drawings at great personal risk: “I desperately wanted to put down what was happening, because I thought if by any chance there was a record, even if I died, someone might find it and know what went on,” he told the Guardian in 2010. Searle saw himself as an ‘unofficial’ war artist but his drawings, now held by the Imperial War Museum (see here), are as powerful a portrayal of the horrors of conflict as any.
While a prisoner, Searle also worked on his St Trinian’s cartoons – the anarchic and mischievous schoolgirls who, after the war, would become wildly popular first in print, then as a series of films for which Searle created title sequences. For Searle, the success of St Trinian’s was double-edged: he came to loathe the cartoons and the films they spawned, fearing that they overshadowed everything else. For while in Britain he will always be linked with gymslips and hockey sticks, his work encompassed so much more.
Holiday cover, July 1959. Image: Perpetua
Portrait of Papa Doc Duvalier for Status magazine, New York, 1968. Image: Perpetua
Searle illustrated Punch’s theatre column during the 1950s. Image: Perpetua
After moving to France in the early 60s to escape his new-found fame, Searle worked extensively for American magazines, illustrating almost 40 covers for The New Yorker, as well as contributing cartoons for Life and a number of portraits of political figures for various titles. Also for Life and for Holiday, he produced some superb reportage work, including commissions to record Churchill’s last Commons speech, the trial of the Nazi Adolf Eichmann in Israel and JFK’s 1960 presidential campaign. Searle also worked extensively in advertising, making full use of his gift for characterisation in campaigns including one long-running series of posters for Lemon Hart rum.
Later in life, Searle produced acerbic cartoons for Le Monde as well as travel books, animation and film posters. Unfortunately, much of this work went unnoticed in the UK, St Trinian’s, as Searle suspected, overshadowing everything else.
This 2000 piece from The Guardian explains far better than I could the breadth, depth and appeal of Searle’s work. But on a personal level, when I think of Searle it will always be as the man who brought to life the self-styled ‘gorilla of 3B’, Nigel Molesworth. To a comprehensive schoolboy like me, large parts of Down With Skool!, How to be Topp, Whizz for Atomms and Back in the Jug Agane – the series of Molesworth books Searle produced with writer Geoffrey Willans in the 50s – were virtually incomprehensible. I’d never heard of ‘prep’, had no idea what a matron did and the idea of studying Latin was baffling. I had nothing in common with the world of St Custard’s, Molesworth’s boarding school, but I was enthralled and delighted by the characters that inhabited it. The teachers were psychopaths, the pupils a distinctly unhygienic mix of “oiks, wets and weeds” as Molesworth would say, and the whole place in danger of imminent collapse in great clouds of chalk dust and spiders. And I loved it.
As I said at the beginning of this piece, the word ‘cartoonist’ seems wholly inadequate to describe Searle – he preferred the term ‘graphic satirist’ which is more like it. If you know little of his work beyond naughty schoolgirls and scowling ‘young Elizabethans’ I’d recommend Russell Davies’s biography, the Imperial War Museum site, the fantastic archive of almost all Searle’s work on the Perpetua blog, his Illustrated Winespeak which pokes gentle fun at the arcane language of wine snobs and, doing the same for book collecting, Slightly Foxed but Still Desirable.
Plate featuring one of Searle’s wine cartoons ‘Fullish body but beginning to fade’. Available here
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