St. Trinian's Girl School, by Ronald Searle
'St. Trinian's School'.

Ronald Searle was a highly productive, versatile and influential British illustrator, painter, cartoonist and occasional comic artist. He is most famous for his one-panel cartoon series 'St. Trinians' (1946-1952) and his charming depictions of plump, cottony cats. However, both are only the tip of the iceberg in a career that lasted more than 70 years. Searle drew in a distinctive, instantly recognizable style. His characters tend to be tall and skinny, with bulbous eyes, stilt-like legs and hilariously personified facial features. The drawings have an old-fashioned charm, combined with a morbid, satirical undertone. Searle's comedy is observational. His cartoons don't always revolve around a clear gag, but are mostly witty interpretations of people, animals and life in general. Already during his lifetime, Searle's cartoons were reprinted in countless magazines, books, advertisements and adapted into animated shorts. He received numerous awards and became one of the most influential cartoonists of the second half of the 20th century. Like Russell Davies once said: "Ronald Searle didn't make the world funny, but made us experience it as amusing: it was more of a psychological condition than a style."

Art by Ronald Searle
'Full Cry', 1975.

Early life
Ronald Searle was born in 1920 in Cambridge, England, as the son of a post office worker. He loved drawing from an early age and left school at the age of 15. At first he wrapped post packets for a living. When Searle heard that the house cartoonist of the Cambridge Daily News would retire, he applied for the job and was promptly hired. In their pages his earliest illustrations and cartoons appeared. Among his graphic influences were Pablo Picasso, Max Beerbohm, George Grosz, William Blake, William Hogarth, Thomas Rowlandson, James Gillray, H.M. Bateman, Sidney Conrad Strube, J.M.W. Turner, George Cruikshank, Robert Newton and John Leech. Later in life he also admired contemporaries like Roland Topor, André François, Sempé and Saul Steinberg. Near the end of the 1930s, Searle studied at Cambridge College of Arts and Technology, but dropped out when World War II broke out. 

In 1942, Searle joined the British army as an architectural draftsman. Later that year he was sent to Singapore, which was soon conquered by the Japanese army, while he was taken prisoner-of-war. Deep in the jungle Searle and his fellow prisoners had to fulfill forced labour. Each day they marched to cut away plant life and granite mountains in order to build a railway between Siam (nowadays Thailand) and Burma (nowadays Myanmar). People were regularly punished and tortured. At the end of the day, they only received one bowl of rice for food. If these circumstances weren't inhuman enough, mosquitoes, flies and other insects annoyed them day and night. Many died from dehydration, exhaustion, hunger, torture and diseases like malaria and beri beri. Even Searle got ill for a while, but got cured again.

While several fellow prisoners succumbed, Searle found a purpose and outlet in his drawings. He managed to obtain pens, ink and paper and secretly drew eyewitness reports of daily life in the camp. He became determined to show the world what happened here, even if he didn't survive. To avoid capture, Searle put the drawings in bamboo tubes, which he hid underneath the bodies of soldiers who died of disease: the one place where nobody would look. Most of Searle's drawings portrayed the dire working circumstances, his fellow soldiers and the Japanese guards. While many were merciless and sadistic, Searle drew more sympathetic Japanese guards a well. When one army captain heard that Searle could draw, he summoned him to come to his tent. Out of precaution, the young Briton only took his most innocent drawings. The captain happened to be a painter himself and even gave Searle some crayons. In the Spring of 1945, Searle was finally freed and returned to his home country in October. All his life he tried to trace down the Japanese captain who had been so friendly to him, but to no avail.

Searle gained his first national fame when his war drawings of camp life were exhibited in London. They are still kept in the British national archives today as important and valuable historical documents. In 1986 they were compiled in the book: 'Ronald Searle: To the Kwai and Back, War Drawings 1939-1945' (Souvenir Press, 1986, reprinted in 2006). Nevertheless the war experience had been traumatic. While Searle understood that even the Japanese soldiers were victims of circumstance, the horrors he endured still came out in his cartoons. Most notably his signature series 'St. Trinians'...

Letter by Ronald Searle
Detail from a letter sent from Singapore, September 21, 1945 (source:

St. Trinians
The first episode of Ronald Searle's signature series 'St. Trinian's' was published in 1941 in the magazine Liliput. After publishing one cartoon, he was drafted. It wasn't until after the war that Searle picked up the concept again and developed it into a series of one-panel gag cartoons. 'St. Trinians' revolves around an all-girl's boarding school. All pupils are naughty little girls who are frequently punished by their headmistresses. Searle was inspired by a real-life school named St. Trinnean's in Edinburgh. He'd met two girls who were pupils there and loved the place so much that they couldn't wait to return. At first, he had no idea why, but he later discovered that St. Trinnean's was a progressive school with less strict rules and more emphasis on autonomy. Other inspirations were the Perse School for Girls (nowadays Stephen Perse Foundation) and St. Mary's School for Girls in Cambridge, whose uniformed pupils he often saw passing by.

In the late 1940s, early 1950s, corporal punishment still existed in British schools at the time. The topic had inspired many British novelists before, such as Charles Dickens and, of course, the 'Billy Bunter' series, originally written by Charles Hamilton, then adapted in comic form by  C.H. Chapman and Frank Minnitt. But 'St. Trinian's' gradually evolved into something less realistic and more darkly disturbing. Searle's experiences as a prisoner-of-war in a Japanese camp during World War II had a considerable impact on the tone. The little girls enjoy underage drinking, smoking and gambling. They also downright torture each other on the rack, collect mushrooms to poison people or drown each other at the beach. The teachers are sometimes completely oblivious about the girls' violent behavior. Other times they lock the pupils up in dampy dungeons. It remains an open question whether the depraved girls are juvenile delinquents who are punished by being sent to a "special" school, or that they became rotten as a result of their oppressive education. 

St. Trinian's Girl School, by Ron Searle
'St. Trinian's School'.

Amazingly enough, 'St. Trinian's' became massively popular, despite the fact that the world was still recovering from a world war. In 1948, the first book compilation was published. Many more would follow. Gags appeared in countless magazines all over the world. Yet Searle felt its formulaic comedy severely limited him. In 1952 he brutally discontinued his hit feature by dropping an atomic bomb on the dreaded school. While it presumably killed its characters, it didn't terminate its popularity. The books have never been out of print. Their influence on later British humor comics can be felt in David Law's 'Dennis the Menace & Gnasher' (1951) and 'Beryl the Peril' (1953), Leo Baxendale's 'Minnie the Minx' (1953) and 'The Bash Street Kids' (1954), Gordon Bell's 'The Belles of St. Lemons' (1971-1972) and Ken H. Harrison's 'Skookum School' (1973-1975).

The 'St. Trinians' cartoons even inspired a long-running series of live-action comedy films which Searle had nothing to do with. Over the decades, seven films in total were made: 'The Belles of St. Trinian's' (1954), 'Blue Murder at St. Trinian's' (1957), 'The Pure Hell of St. Trinian's' (1960), 'The Great St. Trinian's Train Robbery' (1966), 'The Wildcats of St. Trinian's' (1980), 'St. Trinian's' (2007) and 'St. Trinian's 2: The Legend of Fritton's Gold' (2009). They were never critical successes, but made enough money to receive sequels and reboots. Though this could also be attributed to the fact that, as the decades progressed, the devious little girls became far more sexualized young women. To this day, Ronald Searle is still first and foremost associated with his 'St. Trinian's' cartoons, even though the series barely ran a decade, while his entire career spanned half a century. 

'The Illustrated Winespeak', 1983. 

Illustrations in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s
In the general public's defense, it's not all that surprising that 'St. Trinian's' remains Searle's best-known work. His publications have been so numerous that it's not easy to keep track of every single one of them. Many of his cartoons and illustrations had no recurring characters, except the nameless cats and snails which starred in many of his cartoons since 1967. Several of his illustration jobs and books were built around thematic ideas and usually remained one-shot projects. In collaboration with Kaye Webb, Searle created memorable portrayals of city life in Paris and London, collected in 'Paris Sketchbook' (1950) and 'Looking at London and People Worth Meeting' (1953). Together with Alex Atkinson, he made various witty travel reports visualizing picturesque scenes in the United States and Russia, such as 'USA for Beginners' (1959) and 'By Rocking Horse Across Russia' (1960). 'Take One Toad' (1968) visualized strange but authentic ancient remedies against various illnesses. 'The Second Coming of Toulouse-Lautrec' (1969) reimagined 19th-century painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec as a grotesque dwarf between huge prostitutes towering over him. It had a foreword by Roland Topor. 'The Illustrated Winespeak' (1983), 'Parler en Vin' (1984) and 'Something in the Cellar' (1986) were created out of Searle's passion for wine and champagne and his disregard of snobbish liquor experts. The books illustrate genuine and ludicrous wine reviews Searle read in magazines and imagine what wine culture and traditions might look like in Germany, France, Japan, Iran, Australia, the Netherlands... , visualized through witty national stereotypes.

Searle's cartoons appeared in the British satirical magazine Punch. Much like 'St. Trinians', several have a dark undertone. More light-hearted illustrations appeared in the magazine's theatre review column. Searle often went to see plays in order to sketch the actors. This was not a pleasant experience, as the artist had to scribble mostly in the dark and use a tiny telescope to properly see the people on stage. Naturally he also annoyed other spectators and embarrassed himself. 

A Rake's Progress by Ronald Searle
'The Rake's Progress' (1954).

Inspired by William Hogarth's 18th century series of paintings 'A Rake's Progress', Searle created a similar satirical "rise and fall" story under the same title, but used different characters and a modernized setting. Under Searle's pen, we follow the witty trials and tribulations of the prototypical actor, clergyman, doctor, soldier, girlfriend and so on. 'The Rake's Progress' (1955) was later collected in book format and published by Searle's own publishing company: Perpetua Books. In 1973 Searle created a similar idea, 'Emergence of MS-tique USA' (1973), published in the New York magazine Town & Country. 'Emergence of MS-tique' follows a young woman who is beloved by many men, then studies her way up to become a radical feminist and eventually Secretary of Defense. The story is presented in a series of sequences comparable to a text comic.

In 1955, Searle drew another rare comic strip for Punch, this one including speech balloons. It was an adaptation of Homer's epic poem 'The Odyssey'. Another notable comic work was 'The Addict: A Terrible Tale' (1971), a pantomime comic in which an old woman goes to fetch cigarettes for a character whose identity is only revealed on the final page. 

Emergence of MS-tique USA
'Emergence of MS-tique USA', 1973. 

Book illustrations
Searle also made pure book illustrations, such as for Charles Dickens' 'A Christmas Carol' (1961), R.E. Raspe's 'The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen' (1969) and 'Dick Dead Eye' (1975) based on the comical operas of Gilbert and Sullivan. His drawings of 'A Christmas Carol' would later be used during the opening titles of the 1970 film 'Scrooge', while 'Dick Dead Eye' was adapted into an animated film, 'Dick Deadeye, or Duty Done' (1975) by Bill Melendez.

As a book illustrator, Searle is best remembered for his work on Geoffrey Willans' popular book series 'Molesworth' (1953-1959). His depictions of the long-suffering bespectacled school boy Nigel Molesworth and his bad spelling abilities became the definitive visualisation of Willans' works. Searle also contributed drawings to James Thurber's 'The 13 Clocks and the Wonderful O.' (1962).

Ulysses, by Ronald Searle 1955 (courtesy of Ulysses link below)
'The Odyssey' (1955).

Graphic reports
By the 1950s and early 1960s Searle had become one of the foremost British illustrators and widely popular all across the globe. While first and foremost known as a humorous illustrator, Searle was often asked to fulfill more serious assignments as well. He visited the House of Parliament where he drew Winston Churchill's final speech in 1955, before he retired from politics. Searle also drew a graphic report of the 1960 U.S. Presidential elections and worked as a courtroom sketch artist covering the 1961-1962 trial against Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem.

Animation career
Searle made some cinematic contributions. He designed and animated the opening, intermission and closing sequences of comedy films like 'The Happiest Days of Your Lives' (1950), 'Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines' (1965) and 'Monte Carlo or Bust!' (1969). In 1957, Standard Oil commissioned him to create and animate a short cartoon in collaboration with Dave Hilberman, best-known for the 'Gerald McBoingBoing' and 'Mr. Magoo' cartoons at UPA. Other animators involved with the project were former Disney animators Art Babbitt and Bill Melendez, the latter who'd later create the acclaimed TV specials based on Charles M. Schulz' 'Peanuts'. The final product, 'Energetically Yours' (1957), was a funny visualisation of the history of mankind and their discovery of various sources of energy. His artwork appeared in magazines like Life, Look, Time Magazine, The Saturday Evening Post, TV Guide, Holiday, The New Yorker, Le Monde, Hugh Hefner's Playboy, the Sunday Express and the News Chronicle.

Graphic and written contributions
Searle wrote the foreword to Bruce Petty's 'Australian Artist in South East Asia' (Grayflower Publications, Melbourne, 1962) and made a graphic contribution to Alan Aldridge's 'The Beatles' Illustrated Lyrics' (Houghton Mifflin, 1969). 

Searle won the Advertising and Illustration Award twice, in 1959 and 1965 and two decades later again, after these awards had been separated into the Illustration Award (1980) and Advertising Award (1986) (1987). In 1960, he became the first non-American to receive the prestigious Reuben Award from the National Cartoonists' Society. In 1973, Ronald Searle was the first non-Frenchman to have his art exhibited in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. He was additionally appointed with a CBE (2004), Légion d'Honneur (2007) and the Niedersächsischer Verdienstorden (2009). In 2011 he received the Winsor McCay Award for his contributions to animation. 

Cats by Ronald Searle
'Young Cat Already Regretting Puberty'. 

Move to France
Searle kept publishing cartoons, paintings, travel sketches and illustrations, working in a lighter style. Unfortunately the workload and success became too much for him. With a wife and twin children to support, Searle suddenly felt trapped. The former prison camp survivor had the impression he'd lost his freedom a second time. In 1961, he took a drastic and controversial decision. While his family was on holiday for a weekend, he simply packed his things and moved to France. He had waited until his children were 14 years old and at least somewhat less dependable on their mother. His wife never forgave him, his children barely and all ties with his remaining relatives were cut. Though he did have the decency to send his family money on a regular basis.

Reclusive final years and death
In 1961-1963, Searle made a series of abstract expressionistic paintings, 'Anatomies and Decapitations', which have been interpreted as an expression of his feelings after leaving his family behind. These experiments would evolve into a more extreme style full of blobs, dribbles, slashes and angles. Searle remarried in 1967 and would spent the rest of his long life in France, moving to the Haute Provence in 1975. He became a recluse. His phone number remained a secret and people could only contact him by fax. Visitors had to have an appointment to see him. He disappeared out of public view and thus the general public assumed he had passed away long since. In reality, Searle only died at the end of 2011 at the age of 91. A year earlier, he'd donated his entire archives to the Wilhelm Busch Museum in Hanover, Germany. 

Ronald Searle. 

Legacy and influence
Ronald Searle received praise from film directors Mike Leigh and Tim Burton, comedian Groucho Marx and Beatle John Lennon. He had a massive and far-reaching influence on many cartoonists all over the world. In the United Kingdom, he was an inspiration to Quentin BlakeRalph Steadman, Gerald Scarfe, Steve Bell, Ian Knox, Martin Rowson, Harry Harrison (the British-Chinese political cartoonist), Adrian Teal and Posy Simmonds. In France, he influenced Joann Sfar and Laurent Colonnier, in the Netherlands Jan SandersPeter van Straaten and Jos Thomassen, while in Belgium he counts André Franquin, Jean-Louis LejeuneBenoîtPicha and Philippe Geluck among his followers. In the United States he influenced Joel BeckMike FontanelliChuck Jones, Arnold Roth, Edward Sorel, (Australian-born) Pat Oliphant, Mort Drucker, Richard Thompson, Hilary Knight, Nick Galifianakis, Richard SalaAnn TelnaesBill WrayDan CollinsEverett Peck and Matt Groening (who placed Searle's 'The Female Approach' on nr. 26 in his personal list of '100 Favorite Things'). Even the Walt Disney Studios changed into a more Searle-esque style from the late 1950s until halfway the 1970s, visible in most of their animated features made during this period, including '101 Dalmatians' (1961), 'The Sword and the Stone' (1963), 'Jungle Book' (1967), 'The Aristocats' (1970), 'Robin Hood' (1973) and 'The Rescuers' (1977). Last but not least, Ronald Searle also influenced artists from Australia (Michael Atchinson), Croatia (Oto Reisinger), Denmark (Niels Bo Bojesen), Sweden (Sven Nordqvist) and Argentina (Quino). 

Books about Ronald Searle
The finest overview of Searle's long and versatile career is the compilation book 'Ronald Searle in Perspective' (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1983). For those interested in his lifestory, Russell Davies' 'Ronald Searle: A Biography' (Chris Beetles, 1990, updated in 2003 and again in 2012) is a must-read.

St. Trinians by Ronald Searle
'St. Trinians'. 

Ronald Searle biography at Bud Plant site
Ronald Searle tribute blog
Ronald Searle at

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