Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Late Great Ronald Searle

Ronald Searle, who created the St. Trinian's School cartoons and with Geoffrey Willans co-created the Molesworth series of books, passed on 30 December 2011 at the age of 91.

Ronald Searle was born in Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, England on 3 March 1920. He started drawing when he was only five years old. He left school when he was 15, at which point he drew cartoons for The Cambridge Daily News.  In 1939 he enlisted in the Corps of Royal Engineers. He trained for two years at Cambridge College of Arts and Technology. It was in 1941 that the first St. Trinian's School was published in the magazine Lilliput

Mr. Searle was station in Singapore in January 1942. Unfortunately, Singapore fell to the Japanese a month later. He was taken as a prisoner of war by the Japanese. Initially he was incarcerated in the Changi Prison in Singapore. Later he served as slave labour on the Siam-Burma Death Railway in the Kwai jungle. During his imprisonment he contracted both beri-beri and malaria. Mr. Searle documented the conditions of his imprisonment in drawings that he hid in bamboo tubes, mattresses, and other places. Had they been discovered Mr. Searle would have most certainly been executed. Several of the drawings would be published in The Naked Island by Russell Braddon (who was also held as a prisoner by the Japanese).  Most of the drawings would appear in Mr. Searle's book Ronald Searle: To the Kwai and Back, War Drawings 1939-1945, published in 1986.

Following the war Ronald Searle resumed drawing St. Trinian's School cartoons in 1946, although they tended to be much darker than they had been before the war. The cartoons were set at St. Trinian's School, where the schoolgirls were not only not exactly well behaved, but sometimes down right homicidal. The cartoons and their gallows humour proved popular enough to be published in several collections. The cartoon series also provided inspiration for a series of  four movies in the Sixties, one movie in the Seventies, and a new series of films in the Naughts.

It was in the early Fifties that Geoffrey Willans approached Ronald Searle with a proposal to illustrate a series of  books based on a series of columns he had written for Punch.  The result was the Molesworth series of books, which followed the misadventures of schoolboy Nigel Molesworth at St. Custard's School. The first book in the series, Down with Skool! A Guide to School Life for Tiny Pupils and their Parents, was published in 1953. The series would provide inspiration for two sequels written by Simon Brett portraying Moleswoth as an adult, and a BBC Radio 4 serial, Molesworth, which portrayed Moleswoth in middle age.

In 1955 Ronald Searle became the illustrator for the theatre column of Punch, for which he provided a humorous cartoon adaptation of The Odyssey in 1956.  In 1957 he made the short animated film "Energetically Yours." In 1960 he became the first non-American to win the Reuben Award given by the National Cartoonist's Society. Throughout the Fifties into the Sixties he provided illustrations for magazines ranging from The New Yorker to Life to TV Guide. In 1961 he left cartooning for a time and moved to Paris. There he worked as a reporter for both Life and Holiday. He also worked in film. He had designed the titles for the first few St.Trinian's films and also did titles for Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965), Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies (1969), and Scrooge. He served as production designer on the full length animated film Dick Deadeye or Duty Done (1975).

Ronald Searle also published a good number of books unrelated to either St. Trinian's School or Molesworth, both on his own and with various collaborators.

I am not sure that it is enough to say that Ronald Searle was the greatest British graphic artist of all time. Quite simply, he was one of the greatest graphic artists of all nation and of all time. He was a cartoonist who easily ranks alongside such greats as Charles Addams, Edward Gorey, and James Thurber. Like any truly great cartoonist Ronald Searle combined artistic skill with an incredible sense of humour. It was present in everything from the St. Trinian's School cartoons to his lesser known works. Throughout his lifetime he proved incredibly influential, influencing such diverse artists as Quentin Blake, John Lennon, and Matt Groening. If few cartoonists ever reach the levels of success that Ronald Searle did, it is perhaps that there have been so few that possessed his incredible talent.

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