“If there is a common thread, it is certainly that of the explorative, probing line, a line of much hesitation, sensual pleasure, exorcism and occasionally hate, lurking behind the predatory bite of the steel nib, like a greedy crow behind the plough. The uncompromising brutality of black on white violates a virgin sheet of paper”. – Ronald Searle’s preface to “Carnet de croquis: le Plaisir du trait”, La Nompareille, 1992
“The eye may select, but the brain must revaluate. A drawing does not dribble through the eye, down through the fingers, and out onto the paper. Thought and a point-of-view make the artist. . . The simple sketch turns swiftly before your eyes into a personal comment and the moment is uniquely pinned down.” – Ronald Searle’s introduction to “Creative Pencil Drawing”, by Paul Hogarth, Studio Vista, 1964
Beloved in England, honoured by his peers in America, eminent throughout Europe, with well over a hundred books to his credit, Ronald Searle has built an international career spanning almost seventy years. Easy as it is to be awed by his accomplishments, his skill and his wit, it can prove more of a task to follow and understand his prolific career. Particularly, when Searle’s development has been impelled by his need to challenge his formidable technique. Searle has always drawn with a distinctive line, which over the years has proven capable of nearly everything. Stuttering, querulous, sometimes wobbly, deceptively doubtful when actually determined and accomplished, his line attests to a unique observation and interpretation of the world reflected in his ever-mutating manner of depicting humanity.
His career describes in miniature a transition from realism through impressionism to his own brand of modernism. The first half of his career seemed to chase after an ever more skilful and refined realism. Barely out of art school, he was thrust into World War II, then taken as a POW in Singapore where he recorded savagery and death in art both harrowing and restrained. When Searle returned to England his career progressed at first by alternating between simplistic yet morbid cartoons and straight reportage. But Searle achieved his most strikingly accomplished results when he applied traditional detailed realism to his aptitude for humour. Even before he developed into the last of the great “Punch” cartoonists he was already famous for his St Trinian’s cartoon, and would become a favourite of American magazines for his illustrations of Paris, London and America. Yet, at the height of his acclaim, in 1961 he gave up the career he had worked so hard to build, afraid of sacrificing his potential for easy lionisation by pandering reassuring conventional humour.The second half of his career would be spent developing a manner of abstraction, surrealism, whimsy, and satirical and observational fantasy. Yet throughout his entire career, his figures whether foregrounded in camps, cities, cameos or on surreal stages are often solitary, as Searle himself has also proven a solitary survivor escaping the scene of his latest success.
Ronald William Fordham Searle was born 3 March, 1920 in Cambridge, England, the son of a railwayman. He was educated at the Boys’ Central School. He wanted to be an artist and showed talent at a very early age, despite prejudices against his left-handedness. He was an avid book collector and the second-hand volumes he bought spurred his ambitions to become an artist. As Searle developed, his artistic heroes and influences included Picasso, Rowlandson, Toulouse-Lautrec and George Grosz. One of his first acquisitions was Spielmann’s “History of Punch”, fostering an ambition to become a “Punch” cartoonist. He left school in 1935 to start employment. He began studying in the evenings at Cambridge School of Art and then full-time from 1935 to 1939. His studies were in “the fiercely academic tradition of Tonks and the Slade, that of unremitting toil combined with minute surgical observation”. He paid for his classes by contributing weekly cartoons to the “Cambridge Daily News” when the previous cartoonist quit the paper. His first cartoon appeared on 26 Oct 1935, imitative of H.M. Bateman’s style. Searle would produce 195 weekly cartoons, which if they had little bearing on his later work, at least taught him to draw for reproduction. In 1938, Searle made sorties to London to approach newspapers, but nothing resulted, though he had become a major contributor to “Granta”, Cambridge University’s respected student journal.
In 1939 Searle received his Ministry of Education Drawing Diploma. He also illustrated his first book, “Co-Operation in a University Town” by W. Henry Brown. He enlisted in the Territorial Army in anticipation of the forthcoming war as an Architectural Draughtsman, and was mobilised in September 1939. He was posted around England, engaged in camouflage work. His final stationing in Britain was at Kirkcudbright, Scotland, where he encountered evacuees from St Trinnean’s, an Edinburgh progressive girl’s school. Searle continued to submit drawings and cartoons to newspapers and magazines for the next two years, including the prototype St Trinian's cartoon which appeared in “Lilliput” in October 1941. That same month Searle sailed with the 18th Division from Scotland, reaching Singapore on 13 January 1942. While in transit Searle sketched everything he saw, and sent them back Cambridge. These drawings were exhibited in 1942, prompting a critic to note the influence of Picasso and Epstein. As soon as they disembarked at Singapore the troops immediately found themselves in combat with the advancing Japanese Imperial Guard. The British were untrained and unequipped for jungle warfare. One month after he arrived, on 15 Feb 1942, the British surrendered Singapore unconditionally to the Japanese and Searle spent the rest of the war as a prisoner. It was while he was under fire in February that Searle chanced upon a copy of the October 1941 “Lilliput” discarded in the street that proved he was now a professional cartoonist.
The Japanese assumed that a soldier would die before being captured, and that soldiers who surrendered were without honour. The British prisoners-of-war consequently found themselves treated pitilessly, held in the Changi area as mere captives not conventional prisoners of war. The POWs were issued armbands reading “One who has been captured in battle and is to be beheaded or castrated at the will of the Emperor”. They were kept in conditions of squalor and suffered great brutality at their captors’ hands, as near-starvation and dreadful living conditions soon reduced the POWs to living skeletons. Casual punishments and beatings were meted out at the whim of the guards. For their amusement, guards might force a prisoner to hold heavy rocks over his head at spear-point. A guard once stuck a pickaxe in Searle’s back, almost penetrating his spine, leaving his legs temporarily paralysed. Filth, malnutrition and insects ravaged the men with disease: enteritis, gastritis, dysentery, ulceration, beri-beri, jaundice, dengue fever, and malaria. Despite, and indeed, because of all this, Searle was determined to continue his work recording his war, and throughout his captivity he kept a record of the prisoners’ sufferings in his drawings. At great risk and aware of the punishment awaiting him if his work was discovered, he drew his fellow soldiers, the forced work detachments, the neglect and torture by the guards, and his dying comrades. He scrounged and salvaged every available scrap of paper, even bartering with the guards. It was, in Searle’s words, “the graffiti of a condemned man, intending to leave a rough witness of his passing through, but who found himself – to his surprise and delight – among the reprieved”
In May 1943 Searle was selected as one of the forced labourers who would construct the Burma-Siam railway for the Japanese. Searle thinks he was assigned by British officers as a means of keeping perceived troublemakers out of the way. He and two other inmates had begun producing a magazine, “The Survivor”, to boost the morale of the prisoners which had upset the conservative attitudes of the internal British camp administration. He was one of 3,270 men assigned to march 160 kilometres through jungle to cut a railway through mountains and dense forest. Already debilitated by fever and exhaustion, the POWs also struggled with the terrible heat and monsoons. Many died before they ever reached the worksite of the “Death Railway”. Searle has condemned any “romantic” notions of purpose and achievement in constructing the railway from “The Bridge on the River Kwai” as movie “nonsense”. Malnourished, suffering from innumerable diseases, beaten by their guards, and further shamed at assisting their enemies, personal survival was the prisoners’ only objective. Two thirds of Searle’s group would die before the end of the year. In all, the Japanese employed about 180,000 Asians and 60,000 Allied prisoners of war as forced labour, of whom 90,000 Asian labourers and 16,000 Allied POWs died. The saying went “that a man died for every sleeper laid”.
The railway was completed in October 1943 and in 1944 there a wholesale transfer of the surviving men to Changi Gaol, Singapore. The prison had been built by the British in 1936 to hold 600 men. The Japanese would make it hold 10,000 men. Searle’s health continued to suffer like everyone else’s amidst the surrounding horror. “In a tent which housed the dying I think I reached rock bottom. Between bouts of fever I came round one morning to find the men on each side of me were dead, and as I tried to prop myself up to get away from them, I saw that there was a snake coiled under the bundle on which I had been resting my head.” Searle nearly died, with colleagues able to do little more for him except take him into the sun to dry out. His fellow internee Russell Braddon remembered, “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.” Searle would hide his sketches around the camp, but found that they were most safely placed with cholera victims, since the Japanese guards’ extreme fear of cholera meant they would not search sufferers. When Singapore surrendered on 4 September 1945, three hundred pieces of artwork had survived for Searle to take back home with him.
As a body of work his sketches are a testament to the horrors of war. To say they are evidence and Searle bears witness is to suggest something of these works’ calm, detached quality. Goya’s “Disasters of War” also confront the atrocities of war, but Goya represent its aftermath, expressed in almost every conceivable variation of human dismemberment. Goya’s prints are intended as intense condemnations. Searle’s are composed in the belly of the beast by one suffering what he records, yet his sketches are calm and objective. He is not just the detached observer but one of the victims, yet even in this most abject condition there is no anger at what humans can make each other suffer. His art is neither exaggerated nor sensationalised. The implacable recording of his experiences and observations is too important. To speak of style might be almost gratuitous or unseemly in such circumstances. They are as “finished” as conditions allowed. If not masterworks, they are effective. Where Goya executes dark, dense infernos, Searle’s sketches are typically loose and open, yet the content is vivid. Speedily completed from memory, often before or after 16 hour work assignments, when Searle does emphasise shadow and darkness, it partakes of the intensity and fervour which characterised the apocalyptic Neo-Romantic art of the 1940s. His curving strokes define negative space. At their sparest, Searle captures gaunt figures recumbent and dying, and then the necessary minimalism is devastating. Other figures are smooth and rounded with more finish. His bland, satisfied and casual Japanese soldiers are rarely menacing, but such bored, yet substantive figures are telling in comparison to his POWS. Having seen humans at their emaciated worst, this apprehension of distorted human anatomy perhaps carries over into his figures of the 1950s.
As unique as his pictorial record of captivity is, it was not to prove any practical starting point for his career. Searle’s internment and his artistic compulsion to record has always been newsworthy and made for good journalistic copy throughout his career, but the images remained unavailable to the public for a long period. After he returned to England in October 1945 there was one exhibition of them at the Cambridge School of Art in December, and then a selection in Forty Drawings (1946), his first book. Searle’s work was complimented by several critics for its unexpected beauty. Other than a few reproductions in memoirs of other Changi survivors, Searle’s war sketches went uncollected until shortly after Searle donated them to the War Museum. In To the Kwai and Back (1986) Searle illuminates his art as he recounts his experiences with forbearance and dry sarcasm. Curiously, his work never made him retrospectively eligible for the official status of War Artist.
Searle may have put aside his war work, deriving from his self-appointed sense of mission, because of the contemporary feeling that the British public was eager to put the war behind it and concentrate on the work of the future. Searle was likewise intent on beginning a career as a successful working artist, and to obsess over his past works would not be helpful or productive. Searle soon made the acquaintance of his cartoon editor at “Lilliput”, Kaye Webb. Webb not only gave him a network of contacts but would also soon become his wife. There was a wide variety of publications looking for cartoons and illustrative art, and Searle essayed various styles to satisfy their requirements and prove his commercial versatility. Even before his discharge from the army in June 1946 his work was appearing in all the mid-range popular publications: “John Bull”, “Printer’s Pie”, “Lilliput”, “Reynold’s News”, as well as “Punch”. The late 40s were to prove a working apprenticeship as Searle mastered his skills and discovered his own particular style. His work readily diverges into two separate categories. There would be Searle the cartoonist and Searle the detailed draughtsman and recording artist.
While Searle was a POW he had unknowingly become established as a young cartoonist to watch for. Works which he had dispatched to “Lilliput” and “London Opinion” prior to departing from UK had been slowly eeked out over the following years. This backlog had been sufficiently noteworthy that at one point it had earned him inclusion in the “Twelve Best Cartoonists of the Year”. Even while he was in Changi, Searle worked on a notebook of gag cartoons, and these ideas were soon put to work upon his return.
Searle starts off drawing cartoons in a style which is intended to be recognisably cartoonish. His line is happy to merely encompass the outline of his figures without sophistication, content to be only slightly better than amateurish (as indeed a certain casual amateurishness of effect was the essence of ffolkes and Osbert Lancaster). Many of them are standard gag cartoons. They are populated by spivs, forgers, dukes, matrons and little children, all the stock social and cartoon types of the period. The two strongest influences in both conception and handling may be Arno and Anton. Searle is just discovering his distinctive bodies, long spindly legs dwindling from the jutting haunches, hips and overhanging buttocks. His upper torsos loom forth, but he is unsure what to do with his faces. They are still generically cartoony. Enlivened by a prominent nose or a moustache, they resemble Rowland Emmett’s faces, but otherwise bear no resemblance to Searle’s own realistic drawings of observed people. He has a tendency to stretch and contort bodies, as though a slightly zany physical aspect will help sell the joke, and this is complemented by backgrounds which are similarly, twisted, spun and warped. The reliance on vertical figures with sharp features caught against sharp scratchy angles and heavily scribbled shading to suggest their settings evoke Anton. There is also a strong tendency to unreality and the wholly imaginary, with devils, witches, and talking animals, rather than merely fantastical exaggerations of real observations. These are all standard cartoons, and it is probably of some significance that Searle largely exhausted himself in this obvious vein within his first few years, and that none of it approaches his best work.
Searle’s St Trinians cartoons, despite his own misgivings, have been Searle’s longest-lasting contribution to pure gag cartooning. His sadistic murderous schoolgirls, later familiar from numerous films, struck a chord which continues to resound. There will always be a large element of the public for whom Searle will always be known only for Those Girls. In the fiendish delights of innocent girls as violent thugs, Searle discovered a milieu for macabre “black humour” to match Charles Addams. Where American values inhere in the family, the British Establishment learns theirs at their public schools. The revered humorist and caricaturist Max Beerbohm complimented Searle on his “power of converting the macabre into the most pleasurable of frolics”. Searle was intent, after his war experiences, on introducing some new disturbing element of horror and misery into humour. It was genius on Searle’s part to execute the tantrums and sulks of young girls as murderous vengeance. Searle had attempted a short-lived series of cartoons featuring a scapegrace boy, ‘Orrible Albert, whose destructive mischief intentionally provokes all the adults, but this nuisance was no “Dennis the Menace”. St Trinians was a grander conceit, a self-contained world, rather than mere knock-about comic irritation. St Trinians drew into itself all the worst in the popular imagination - gangsters, guns, alcohol, cigarettes, medieval punishment and tortures, black magic and diabolism. There was a casual relishing of cruelty and violence, recognising there is a worse world of human relations and behaviour. The cartoons survive because Searle’s use of young girls surprises us with cruelty in an unexpected venue but also domesticates that cruelty by returning to it again and again until it becomes a school code of behaviour. Searle admitted a St Trinians girl “would be sadistic, cunning, dissolute, crooked, sordid, lacking morals of any sort, and capable of any excess. She would also be well-spoken, even well mannered and polite. Sardonic, witty and very amusing. She would be good company. In short: typically human, and despite everything, endearing.” In retrospect, some of the cartoons replay for laughs the abuses suffered under the Japanese.
Though the humour is distinctive, Searle has always been in danger of being remembered for some of his least distinctive art. The hockey sticks, pigtails, boaters and uniforms are probably better known from the film adaptations. The St Trinians cartoons do at least benefit from Searle’s artistic development. He had eventually dispensed with black dots for eyes, with the discovery that compressed ovals were ideal as more sophisticated and slitted eyes, capable of encompassing a range of pensive, leery, suspicious and avaricious expressions. Originally his girls’ faces had resembled spring onions, but eventually their frequently bespectacled features benefitted from these new sinister slit eyes. In predatory profile their jutting noses above broad curved grins suggest a shark rising from the sea. What St Trinian’s demonstrated was that in following his own vein of fantasy, his vision could prove startlingly successful.
While his cartoons exercised his imagination humorously, Searle was also engaged in a broad array of realistic illustration and reportage for books and newspapers. Since many publications still had problems reproducing photos effectively on cheap paper, the 1940s and ‘50s were the last heyday of illustration, of fine and commercial art. Searle would prove equal to this golden age of Paul Hogarth, Fritz Wegner, Susan Einzig, and Edward Ardizzone. Upon his return to England, Searle would even have a studio in the same building as John Minton. Searle’s illustrations and reportage record his determination to capture the details of observed reality and organise them on the page. They also record his development from the sketchiness of his Changi drawings. Unlike the strong outlines of his cartoons, here Searle builds outlines with lengthy lines, picking up his nib then continuing by overlaying at the end of the line. At this stage in his career it gives his illustrations a slightly tremulous quality, and in the case of buildings make them look particularly wavy. Often the outlines of his people, when done so scratchily, encompassing a space of white with his slightly etiolated forearms and legs, gives his humans a spidery appearance. The thinness of his lines, sometimes undistinguished and the unsurety of his wash in attempting rough shading gives them a slightly gloomy cobwebby look. It all attests though to a growing power of observation and mastery of fact. Yet the detail of creases in clothes, ornaments, architectures, as plumes of curves blossom and intersect bestow a solidity on his representations, though individual features and objects are sometimes imprecisely captured. Ultimately, one is struck by the mass of individual lines working to appropriately fill the page. Each page is a vista, with the people imbedded as but one element of staffage.
This was refined by the work he did for the “Radio Times”. Under the art editorship of R. D. Usherwood, the “Radio Times” was a patron of “Fine, Commercial Art”. Artists were carefully selected to illustrate the listings of forthcoming programmes. The illustrations were wholly imaginary, drawing upon the artist’s observations and draughtsmanship. This art shows Searle learning to foreground his characters so as to stand out from the scenery, and to embody dramatic actions and attitudes not merely poses. Even when a noted actor was performing in a role, the artist would draw the character, never the actor’s likeness. It was always an independent and imaginary representation of a scene from the drama or documentary broadcast portrayed with all due verisimilitude as if copied from the life. They also demonstrate Searle’s growing confidence in contrasting black forms and employing heavier outlines against white spaces for theatrical effect, as he discovers the discipline of clarity, since clutter would be wasted in the limited space available.
By the late 1940s Searle had started to bring together his cartooning and his illustrative skills together to create a more realistically arranged style of humorous illustration and cartooning. He was still producing his St Trinian’s cartoons. Rationed at a rate of one a month for “Lilliput”, they chart his development, as the backgrounds become more realistic and the characters also more solid. He no longer has to rely so heavily on the brute fact of the gag. The blatant yet rudimentary cartoony funny figures vitiated the humour, whereas when executed with a greater degree of character, the effect and power of gag are both more lasting as well as distinctive and unusual. The overwhelming presence of a lifelike hippopotamus being led through cobbled corridors by a little girl elevates the gag leaving a much more formidable impression.
His ability to effect a corresponding comic style of illustration is demonstrated by his work to accompany the humorous journalism of Patrick Campbell. Campbell’s anecdotes presented himself as a somewhat hapless figure often caught in situations of befuddlement and farce. Searle employs compositional skills developed at “The Radio Times” to execute comic scenes which get the most out of Campbell’s situations. There is the now to-be-expected attention to detail, but his figures are now cartoony. Searle’s stretches his realistic human forms into a deliberately cartoony figure, which allowing for comic exaggeration, is as expressive in attitudes and action, deportment and features as any actual person. In his Campbell illustrations, one can finally point to characters who are recognisable as Searle’s people, as he establishes and elaborates upon the model for his cartoon humans.
The figure Searle devised for his Patrick Campbell figure would be the archetypal Searle man. There is a spindly quality with every extremity slightly extended. The foreshortened flattened head with low brow slopes into the nose looming from the face like a third, lost foot. Most conspicuous is the stalactite chin and jaw dropping over the collar. An expectedly lengthy torso dwindles into the hips from which extend lanky, spindly, rigidly angular legs, concluding in his trademark winkle-picker feet. It only required the addition of a moustache for this creation to become famous throughout Britain in the 1950s as the figure of a successful advertising campaign for Lemon Hart Rum. In a period when most English cartoons employed a simple, smooth blocky style, Searle’s art was distinctive. Not always to everyone’s tastes though, as a letter from one magazine reader complained of “a nauseous feeling just glancing at Ronald Searle’s ridiculous illustrations. Who on earth ever saw people with such large bodies, thin legs, tiny feet and elongated shoulders as those he depicts each week?” Except in the case of his fatties whose jowls billow out from lip to chest, Searle’s men are distinguished for their chins which his women almost never possess. His women come in a variety of distinct styles: haughty matrons, etiolated spinsters, gamines, schoolgirls and overripe ingénues. Yet when attired in assorted costumes and class signifiers, his women have an almost infinite variety.