Ronald Searle, who has died aged 91, was best known in Britain for his cheerfully anarchic St Trinian’s series of books and Molesworth illustrations, though his reportage work for publications such as Le Monde, Life and The New Yorker saw him feted elsewhere as one of the world’s greatest satirical artists.
Searle attempted to kill off St Trinian’s in 1953 to concentrate on what he considered to be his more serious work. But, much to his annoyance, a series of film adaptations meant that the spindly stockinged legs and dastardly schemes of his St Trinian’s girls remained his most distinctive trademark in Britain.
As the sadistic minxes of the school and their male counterparts, the illiterate "skoolboys" of St Custard’s, continued to delight generations of British schoolchildren, Searle complained of being “trivialised” and “typecast” in his homeland.
For behind the humorist illustrator was a man of much darker vision who could find sharp things to say about global poverty, paedophilia or the war on terror, and could plumb the depths of an almost Boschian disgust with the cruelties and excesses of his fellow man — as seen for example in a sketch entitled In Fashion, featuring maimed and wailing women walking down a catwalk. In this more Swiftian guise, Searle was credited with influencing many leading artists and illustrators, including Gerald Scarfe .
Much of Searle’s work was profoundly influenced by his experiences during the war. As he himself often explained, his experience of the “horror, the misery, the blackness” of a Japanese prisoner of war camp had “changed the attitude to all things, including humour”.
Ronald William Fordham Searle was born in Cambridge on March 3 1920, the son of a Post Office worker who repaired telephone lines. He began drawing at the age of five and, by the time he began his studies at Cambridge Boys’ Central School, he was spending all the money he earned as a boy treble in a church choir on artists’ materials. After his voice broke, he found Saturday work as a butcher’s boy.
After leaving school at the age of 15, Searle was taken on as an office boy by a local solicitor who terminated his employment when he found that his new recruit had been employing his time drawing cartoons on the firm's best-quality paper. Searle then enrolled in evening classes in art, paying his way by working as a packer at the Co-op. In October 1935 the Cambridge Daily News accepted his offer to provide a weekly cartoon, for which he was paid a guinea a week.
Before long he was contributing caricatures and sketches to Granta magazine, at a time when its staff included the future editor of the Evening Standard, Charles Wintour, and the historian Eric Hobsbawm (who recalled that Searle dressed in a borrowed gown so that he could infiltrate the University meetings which he was asked to draw).
A scholarship took him on to the Cambridge Technical School, where he established his reputation by winning several prizes in a competition judged by Gwen Raverat and started doing commissions for local businesses. His illustrations first appeared between hard covers in an illustrated history of the Co-op, now a collectors’ item. Subsequently a local art gallery put on an exhibition of his work and he was taken up by the Gordon Fraser gallery.
As war threatened, Searle enlisted in the Territorials (Royal Engineers), offering his services as an architectural draughtsman. In 1942 he was captured at the fall of Singapore and spent three and a half years under the Japanese, first incarcerated at Changi Jail before being transported up country to Thailand to work as a slave labourer on the infamous Burma railway.
In later life he rejected what he called the “jolly good chaps” account given in David Lean’s film Bridge on the River Kwai for providing a false picture of camaraderie in the face of adversity. Searle had been sent to work on the railway in 1943 after he and two other inmates had begun producing a magazine to boost the morale of the prisoners. “It upset the extremely conservative mentalities of our own administration — the commanders and the chaplains,” he recalled with some bitterness. “When the time came for the Japanese to say we want groups to be sent up north, the English chose the troublemakers.” For Searle, the bridge remained the place “where I lost all my friends”.
His experiences as a PoW - during which he suffered regular beatings and bouts of malaria and beriberi, and his weight fell to six stone - completely changed his outlook on life. “My friends and I, we all signed up together,” he recalled. “We had grown up together, we went to school together ... Basically all the people we loved and knew and grew up with simply became fertiliser for the nearest bamboo.”
Despite his own sufferings, Searle continued to draw what he saw, hiding his sketches under the mattresses of men dying of cholera to prevent their discovery by Japanese guards. “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 recalled.
A fellow prisoner later recalled of Searle: “If you can imagine something that weighs six stone or so, is on the point of death and has no qualities of the human condition that aren’t revolting, calmly lying there with a pencil and a scrap of paper, drawing, you have some idea of the difference of temperament that this man had from the ordinary human being.”
Around 300 of his sketches survived the war, conveying a story of terrible suffering and cruelty with eloquence and economy. Most were eventually published alongside Searle’s own recollections in To the Kwai — And Back (1986), in which he described waking up one morning to find a friend on each side of him dead and a snake coiled beneath his head.
“You can’t have that sort of experience without it directing the rest of your life,” he said. “I think that’s why I never really left my prison cell, because it gave me my measuring stick for the rest of my life.”
After the war, Searle worked as a graphic artist for advertisers; created St Trinian’s (based on his sister’s school and other girls’ schools in Cambridge); collaborated with Geoffrey Willans on the Molesworth books (Down With Skool!, 1953, and How to be Topp, 1954); and produced an extraordinary volume of work for magazines and newspapers, including drawings for Life, Holiday and Punch and cartoons for The New Yorker, The Sunday Express, the News Chronicle and Tribune.
He also designed posters, illustrations for travel books and the title backgrounds for the Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder film The Happiest Days of Your Life (1950). As a 1960 paperback edition of his work stated confidently: “Mid-century Britain is a Searle-haunted land.” He even started a publishing company, Perpetua Books, to produce fine editions of his work.
In 1948 he married Kaye Webb (later editor of Puffin Books), who, before the war, had accepted some of Searle’s quirky cartoons, including one of some delinquent schoolgirls, for the irreverent magazine Lilliput, of which she was then deputy editor. They had two children, but the marriage did not last. In 1961 Searle abandoned his family and moved to Paris, later marrying the theatre designer Monica Koenig.
In France he worked more on illustrated reportage and less on cartoons. Magazines would send him around the world to draw landscapes, characters and events, from the rowdy pit at the ringside of a wrestling match to the American primaries, and from theatre productions to the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem. In 1971 he became the first non-French living artist to exhibit at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. He drew regularly for The New Yorker until 1992. Le Monde began publishing his work in 1995. His output was in such demand that he was able to work on his own terms — even keeping copyright.
Searle continued to work in a broad range of media. As well as animated films and sculpture for commemorative medals, he continued to design for the cinema - he had provided the opening, intermission and closing credits for Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965).
He was widely honoured for his work, winning numerous awards, including the American National Cartoonists Society’s Advertising and Illustration Award in 1959 and 1965. He was appointed CBE in 2004 and a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur in 2007. In 2009 he was awarded the German Order of Merit.
Examples of Searle’s work are held in the permanent collections of the British Museum, the Victoria & Albert Museum and the Imperial War Museum in London as well as in many other institutions around the world. In 2010 he announced his intention to leave his personal collection to the Wilhelm Busch Museum in Hanover.
Searle continued to live in France for the rest of his life, moving in 1975 to Haute Provence, though he never took French citizenship. “If they said you can only stay in France if you become French, I’d say, 'Not possible.’ It’s like saying PG Wodehouse should be French,” he explained. “You can’t simply put on a nationality like a jacket. I remain extremely English whatever happens.”
Ronald Searle’s most recent book, Les Très Riches Heures de Mrs Mole, published last year, featured a collection of the drawings he created for his wife to help her through treatment for breast cancer, “to cheer every dreaded chemotherapy session and evoke the blissful future ahead”.
Monica Searle died last July. Ronald Searle is survived by the son and daughter of his first marriage.
Ronald Searle, born March 3 1920, died December 30 2011- Obituary Source - The Daily Telegraph 2:49PM GMT 03 Jan 2012