Ronald William Fordham Searle, CBE HRWS (1920-2011)
Equally inspired by a wide range of experience and a great knowledge of the history of caricature, Ronald Searle honed an incisive graphic skill to develop an unparalleled graphic oeuvre, an oeuvre that has immortalised him as one of the most popular and influential cartoonist-illustrators of all time. The son of a railwayman, Ronald Searle was born in Cambridge on 3 March 1920, and was educated in the city at the Boys’ Central School. He started work as a solicitors’ clerk, then joined the hire purchase department of the Co-operative Society, studying in the evenings and later full-time at Cambridge Technical College and School of Art (1935-39).
Searle contributed cartoons regularly to the Cambridge Daily News from the age of fifteen. Enlisting in the Royal Engineers at the outbreak of the Second World War, he spent some time in Kircudbright, where he encountered evacuees from St Trinnean’s, a progressive girls’ school situated in Edinburgh. This resulted in his first cartoon for Lilliput, published in October 1941, and later developed into the anarchic St Trinian’s, known through a series of books and their cinematic spin offs. With the later schoolboy character, Nigel Molesworth of St Custard’s (devised with Geoffrey Willans in 1953), this is one of his most famous creations.
In October 1941, the Royal Engineers set sail for Singapore, arriving in December.
A month later, Japanese forces captured the island and the Allies were forced to surrender. Searle became a prisoner-of-war and was incarcerated at Changi Camp, Singapore. It was here that Searle first saw a copy of the Lilliput cartoon, in 1942. Remarkably, he survived the horrific experiences of both imprisonment and slave labour and managed to produce a visual record of life in the prison camp.
On his return to England in 1945, Searle exhibited the surviving pictures at the Cambridge School of Art and, in the following year, published the collection Forty Drawings. Exhibition and volume together established his reputation as one of Britain’s most powerful draughtsmen, and led to several opportunities to record the atmosphere of post-war Europe. His familiarly audacious style was equally developed through his early contributions to Punch and crystallised in his comic collection, The Female Approach (1949), which was highly praised by Max Beerbohm. Throughout the 1950s, he produced a large variety of illustrations which together seemed to present a guide to life in Britain. In Punch alone, ‘Heroes of Our Time’, such as T S Eliot, rubbed shoulders with teddy boys and other inhabitants of ‘The Big City’.
Such was Searle’s success that his rejection of family and country in a move to Paris in 1961 came as a great surprise. However, it offered a fresh start, resulting in several solo shows, including major exhibitions at the prestigious institutions of the Berlin- Dahlem Museum and the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris; indeed he was the first non-French living artist to exhibit at the Bibliothèque Nationale. He also reached an even wider audience with animated sequences that he produced for Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines (1965) and Monte Carlo or Bust (1969).
Even his move to a remote village in Haute-Provence, in 1975, did not diminish Searle’s ability to work with energy, and publish widely. Projects have included designs for commemorative medals for the French Mint (1977-80), advertisements for American Express, Lloyds Bank and other companies, and many covers and cartoons for the New Yorker. Notable books have included Ronald Searle’s Big Fat Cat Book (1982), The Illustrated Winespeak (1983) and Slightly Foxed – But Still Desirable (1989). Searle received a CBE in the Queen’s Honours for New Year 2004.
Three exciting books have been launched with the help of exhibitions at Chris Beetles Gallery: Jeffrey Archer’s collection of short stories, Cat o’ Nine Tails (2006), which contains 49 illustrations by the artist; and two works by Robert L Forbes, Beastly Feasts: A Mischievous Menagerie in Rhyme (2007), with over 40 images, and Let’s Have a Bite! A Banquet of Beastly Rhymes (2010). The artwork for Beastly Feasts was central to a huge New York retrospective, held in September 2007 at the Forbes Gallery, and to an exhibition at Chris Beetles Gallery in October and November of the same year. In 2010, Chris Beetles Gallery celebrated Ronald Searle’s 90th birthday with a ‘Happy Birthday Ronald Searle’ exhibition.
Additionally, in summer 2007, Chris Beetles mounted a show of fifty pictures at Nunnington Hall, a National Trust property in Yorkshire. A review by Charles Hutchinson in the York Press commented that ‘the sound of laughter emanates from the exhibition rooms at Nunnington Hall, yet Ronald Searle’s cartoons are often rimmed with darkness’. Ronald Searle has received an Honorary Doctorate from Anglia Ruskin University (into which Cambridge School of Art has been subsumed). Anglia Ruskin University also mounted an exhibition devoted to Ronald Searle, from January to February 2008. In 2009, he was awarded the German Order of Merit.
In 2011, Ronald Searle published his final book Les Très Heures Riches de Mrs Mole, a story based around drawings he had created for his wife Monica, to help her through breast cancer. Sadly, she passed away in July 2011, and Ronald Searle died five months later. Chris Beetles Gallery held the major tribute exhibition, ‘Ronald Searle Remembered’, in May-June 2012. It was accompanied by a 200 page fully illustrated catalogue, containing newly researched essays and notes.
His work is represented in numerous public collections, including the British Museum and the V&A; and the Bibliothèque Nationale (Paris). In 2010, Ronald Searle announced his intention to leave his personal collection to the Wilhelm Busch Deutches Museum für Karikatur und Zeichenkunst in Hannover.
Further reading: Russell Davies, Ronald Searle, London: Sinclair Stevenson, 1990