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 drew in a very distinctive graphic style. His characters tend to be tall and skinny, with bulbous eyes, hilariously personified facial features and stilt-like legs. Searle excelled in drawings which have a charming old-fashioned quality over them, but at the same time a morbid, satirical undertone too. As a cartoonist he is best remembered for his one-panel gag cartoon series 'St. Trinians' (1946-1952), about the most depraved girls' school of all time. He also made numerous cartoons featuring plump and cottony cats. However, both are just the tip of the iceberg in a career that lasted more than 70 years. Searle's comedy is mostly observational and caricatured people and animals into instantly amusing and recognizable characters. His cartoons don't always revolve around a clear gag, but more around a witty situation or amusing satirical portrayals of humans and animals. The graphic execution is often part of the joke. Searle's drawings appeared in countless books, magazines, advertisements and were occasionally adapted into animated shorts as well. His work received various awards and left behind a legacy that still inspires artists today. 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

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. It was here that his first illustrations and cartoons were published. 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. He joined the army as an architectural draftsman and served in Singapore from 1942 on. Unfortunately the city was captured by the Japanese army and Searle suffered for three years in a prisoner-of-war camp.

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 was lucky to get cured again. With no possibility of knowing how long this Hell would go on many gave up. But Searle found an outlet in his drawings. He managed to obtain pens, ink and paper and secretly drew eyewitness reports of daily life in the camp. It gave him a purpose: he had to show the world what happened here, even if he didn't survive. To avoid capture Searle hid 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' (1986). Nevertheless the war experience had been traumatic. While Searle understood that even the Japanese soldiers were victims of circumstances, the horrors he endured still came out in his cartoons.

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. The series is set in an all-girl's boarding school of the same name. Searle was inspired by a real-life school named St. Trinnean's in Edinburgh. He'd met two schoolgirls who were pupils at St. Trinnean's and loved the school so much that they couldn't wait to return. He didn't understand why, until he found out it was a progressive school with less strict rules and more emphasis on autonomy. Searle was also inspired by 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. After the publication of one cartoon Searle was drafted. In 1946, after returning from military service, he picked up the concept again and developed it into a series of one-panel gag cartoons. But the jokes became more sadistic. All pupils in St. Trinian's are naughty little girls who are frequently punished by their headmistresses. Corporal punishment in schools still existed in British schools at the time. The topic had inspired many British novels before, such as the novels of 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' was far less realistic and darkly disturbing, motivated by Searle's war-time traumas. The little girls torture each other on a rack, collect mushrooms to poison people, drown each other at the beach or study books on how to shrink human heads. Those who aren't murderers enjoy underage drinking, smoking and gambling. It's difficult to say whether the girls are juvenile delinquents or just became rotten as a result of their education. Sometimes the teachers seem completely oblivious about their violent behaviour. Other times they lock the girls up in dampy dungeons. 

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 quickly grew tired of his hit series. He 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 sure made enough money to receive sequels and reboots. Though this may have had something to do with the fact that the devious little girls became far more sexualized young women as the decades progressed. 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'.

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 amusing 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', he 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), which was 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'.

Book illustrations
Searle also did 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 turned 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.

Searle furthermore 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 furthermore 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 contributions
Searle made a graphic contribution to Alan Aldridge's 'The Beatles' Illustrated Lyrics' (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 2004 he was appointed CBE, in 2007 honored with the Légion d'Honneur and in 2009 awarded with the Niedersächsischer Verdienstorden. In 2011 he received the Winsor McCay Award for his contributions to animation. 

Cats by Ronald Searle

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 he named his '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. After moving to France Searle 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 Ronald Searle only died at the end of 2011 at the age of 91.

Legacy and influence
Ronald Searle received praise from people like film directors Mike Leigh and Tim Burton, comedian Groucho Marx and Beatle John Lennon. He was a major influence on artists like Arnold Roth, Richard Thompson, Ralph Steadman, Ann Telnaes, Nick Galifianakis, Chuck Jones, Gerald Scarfe, Steve Bell, Oto Reisinger, QuinoPosy Simmonds, Pat Oliphant, Quentin Blake, Martin Rowson, Hilary Knight, Mort Drucker, André Franquin, Adrian Teale, Jean-Louis LejeuneJan Sanders, Bill Wray, Everett PeckNiels Bo BojesenBenoîtPhilippe Geluck, Peter van Straaten, Richard SalaDan Collins and Matt Groening. Even the Walt Disney Studios changed into a more Searlesque style from 'Sleeping Beauty' (1959) on up until 'The Rescuers' (1977). In 1973 he was the first non-Frenchman to have his art exhibited in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. His entire archives were donated to the Wilhelm Busch Museum in Hanover, Germany in 2010.

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' (1990, updated in 2003 and again in 2012) is a must-read.

St. Trinians by Ronald Searle

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

Series and books by Ronald Searle in stock in the Lambiek Webshop:


If you want to help us continue and improve our ever- expanding database, we would appreciate your donation through Paypal.