Ronald Searle was a well-known British illustrator and satirical cartoonist. He was born in Cambridge, England, in 1920. He started his cartooning career at the age of fifteen, making cartoons for the Cambridge Daily News. Searle's art was influenced by Max Beerbohm, George Grosz, William Blake, William Hogarth, Thomas Rowlandson, James Gillray, H.M. Bateman, J.M.W. Turner, George Cruikshank, Robert Newton and John Leech. He also admired contemporaries like Roland Topor, André François, Sempé and Saul Steinberg.
Ronald Searle joined the army as an architectural draftsman in 1939. He served in Singapore from 1942, where he was taken prisoner of war. During his time in a prison camp, Searle never stopped drawing, and upon his return to England in October 1945, his work was displayed in an exhibition. His first book, 'Forty Drawings', was published in 1946. A year later he married Kaye Webb, the editor of Lilliput, the magazine in which had started publishing his 'St. Trinian's School' cartoons in 1941.
Detail from a letter sent from Singapore, September 21, 1945 (source: procartoonists.org)
A first book collection of these famous cartoons about a girl's school gone bad appeared in 1948, called 'Hurrah for St. Trinian'. His devious little school girls became so popular that they even inspired a movie, with Alastair Sim playing the role of head mistress. During the late 1940s and 1950s, Searle made drawings for British satirical magazine Punch. His work included illustrations for the theatre column, and - in comics format - his version of William Hogarth's 'A Rake's Progress' featuring the rise and fall of many "modern types". In 1955, he also made a comic adaptation of 'The Odyssey' in 1955. His art furthermore appeared in magazines like Life, Holiday, The New Yorker, the Sunday Express and the News Chronicle.
By the 1950s, Ronald Searle was one of the foremost illustrators in England, known for his illustrations in Geoffrey Willans' 'Molesworth' books, among other things. His work was also noticed in the USA, where he made an animated film, 'Energetically Yours', in 1957. In 1960, Ronald Searle was the first non-American cartoonist to receive the National Cartoonists Society's Reuben Award. Overwhelmed by his popularity and fame, Searle left cartooning and departed for Paris. There he remarried and devoted himself to painting (resulting in 'Anatomies and Decapitations') and other art forms.
The Odyssey (1955)
During the sixties, he developed a lighter style and worked on animated opening sequences for films and other assignments, as well as books like 'Hello - Where Did All the People Go?' (1968), 'Take One Toad' (1968), 'The Square Egg' (1968), 'Homage a Toulouse-Lautrec' (1969, which had a foreword by Roland Topor), 'The Adventures of Baron Munchausen' (1969), and 'Secret Sketchbook' (1970). After his wife successfully recovered from breast cancer, the Searles moved to the mountains of Haute-Provence in 1975. Searle didn't slow down from working however, and continued to work on numerous projects, including his famous cat books.
He enjoyed sketching from life during all of his travels and even kept clippings of magazine photographs and ads. All this material was kept in maps and sketch books to be used as a resource when drawing cartoons. Searle's comedy is mostly observational and caricatured people and animals into instantly amusing and recognizable characters.
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 "Q" Drucker, André Franquin, Adrian Teale, Philippe Geluck and Matt Groening. Even the Walt Disney Studios changed into a more Searlesque style from '101 Dalmatians' (1960) on until 'The Rescuers' (1977).
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.