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 comics 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

Ronald Searle was born in Cambridge, England, in 1920 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 home cartoonist of the Cambridge Daily News was to 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 through the jungle to cut away plantlife 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 sympathethic Japanese guards a well. One of them was an army captain who summoned Searle to come to his tent, after hearing that he could draw. 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.

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

Meanwhile, 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. Many of his illustrations have a somewhat sadistic and morbid undertone. None more so that his signature work, 'St. Trinians School', which already debuted in 1941 but only became a full-time series from 1946 on. The gag cartoon series is set at a horrible boarding school where teachers frequently cane pupils. True to life in many British schools at the time, the subject had inspired various British fiction before, such as the works 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. What set 'St. Trinians' apart was the fact that the violence was far more gruesome and set at a girls' school. None of the female pupils are sweet and innocent. They torture one another on the rack, collect poisonous mushrooms, drown each other at the beach or read the book 'How to Shrink a Human Head'. Likewise their teachers lock them up in dampy dungeons. Amazingly enough, despite the fact that the world had just experienced a world war, 'St. Trinians' became massively popular.

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

First published in book form since 1948, they have never been out of print. Their influence can be felt in similar sadistic school-themed comics like Leo Baxendale's 'The Bash Street Kids' (1954), Gordon Bell's 'The Belles of St. Lemons' (1971-1972) and Ken H. Harrison's 'Skookum School' (1973-1975). Still, Searle felt that his hit series limited him. He grew tired of its formulaic nature and decided to end the serie by drastically dropping an atomic bomb on the school. Unfortunately for Searle it had no effect. The cartoons kept being reprinted and even spawned a a long-running series of British live-action comedies, with 'The Belles of St. Trinian's' (1954) as the first entry. Since 2009 seven pictures in total have been made. As the year progressed the devious girls of the comics became far more sexualized in the film portrayals. To this day Ronald Searle is still first and foremost associated with 'St. Trinians', despite a long career which spanned half a century.


From: The Illustrated Winespeak

In the general public's defense, it must be said that Searle's 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. Several of his illustration jobs and books were built around thematic ideas and usually remained one-shot projects. As such 'St. Trinians' and his famous cartoons of plump cats and snails are the only ones which could be identified as a real series, making it more understandable why they remain his best known works. 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 wine experts. The books illustrate genuine and ludicrous wine reviews Searle read in magazines and also imagine what wine culture and traditions may look like in Germany, France, Japan, Iran, Australia, the Netherlands... visualized through amusing national stereotypes.

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

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 make sketches of the actors and finish them later at home. 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. 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 prepublished 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.

Emergence of MS-tique USA
Emergence of MS-tique USA

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. Searle also did pure book illustrations, such as for Charles Dickens' 'A Christmas Carol' in 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)

By the 1950s and early 1960s Searle had become one of the foremost British illustrators and widely popular all across the globe. In 1960, he was even the first non-American cartoonist to receive the National Cartoonists Society's Reuben Award. While first and foremost known as a humoristic 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 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 Babbit 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.

Cats by Ronald Searle

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. Searle remarried in 1967 and would spent the rest of his long life in France, moving to the Haute Provence in 1975. 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.

Searle kept publishing cartoons, paintings and illustrations, working in a lighter style. He kept painting and sketching from life during his travels. In 1961-1963 he 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 in which blobs, dribbles, slashes and angles were used to create new works. In 1967 he also introduced his famous cartoons depicting snails and cats. Searle lived a very reclusive life. 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 in 2011 at the age of 91.

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, Posy Simmonds, Pat Oliphant, Quentin Blake, Martin Rowson, Hilary Knight, Mort Drucker, André Franquin, Adrian Teale, Jan Sanders, Bill Wray, Everett Peck, Philippe Geluck, Peter van Straaten and Matt Groening. Even the Walt Disney Studios changed  into a more Searlesque style from '101 Dalmatians' (1960) on until 'The Rescuers' (1977). In 1973 he was the first non-Frenchman to have his art exhibited in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. In 2004 Searle was appointed with a CBE by the British Queen. In 2007 he was honored with the Légion d'Honneur. His work has often been exhibited and his entire archives were donated to the Wilhelm Busch Museum in Hanover, Germany in 2010. 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 procartoonists.org

Series en boeken door Ronald Searle op voorraad in de Lambiek Webshop:

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