Ronald Searle obituary
Artist and cartoonist best known for St Trinian's and Molesworth
The Guardian, Tuesday 3 January 2012 / http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/jan/03/ronald-searle
The artist Ronald Searle, who has died aged 91, will always be associated with St Trinian's, the anarchic girls' boarding school he created in pen and ink in the 1940s, which inspired a long-running series of films. Searle and St Trinian's go together like Petruchio and Kate; except that Searle created his own shrews and lived with their reputation for the rest of his life.
Before he left for second world war service, during which he would be held captive in Changi jail, Singapore, Searle posted off several cartoons to Kaye Webb, the assistant editor of Lilliput magazine. One of them showed a group of schoolgirls clutching hockey sticks gathered around a noticeboard; the caption read: "Owing to the international situation, the match with St Trinian's has been postponed." This is only obliquely about St Trinian's, but is always known as the first in the genre and has some of the characteristics of the mature version: flesh showing between the girls' black stockings and tunic, specs, pigtails, pointy noses. Searle thought no more about it until he picked up a tattered copy of Lilliput on a street in Singapore as the Japanese were invading and found his cartoon in it.
The first full-blown St Trinian's cartoon in Lilliput came after his release from Changi and was based on a real school (now defunct), St Trinnean's, in Edinburgh, which Searle had heard of when he was posted to Scotland during the phoney war. Much later, he turned down an invitation to stand for rector of Edinburgh University because, he said, he had done enough damage already to the city's academic reputation.
Searle was born in Cambridge, the son of a railwayman. He left full-time education at Cambridge central school at the age of 14 and started work as an office boy with a firm of solicitors. Doodling on legal documents proved a retrograde career move; Searle was sacked, but his new job packing boxes at the Co-op brought a handsome advance in salary with which he was able to pay for evening classes at Cambridge School of Art. Later, he won a scholarship and became a full-time student. He was 15 when the cartoonist of what was then the Cambridge Daily News left for Fleet Street, and Searle immediately sent in some drawings on spec; the editor was taken with the boy's talent and took a cartoon a week from him at half a guinea a time.
They were much better than the average evening newspaper cartoon, quite edgy about local politics and its pomposities, but there was nothing to suggest Searle's blazing graphic talent. In the April before the war broke out, Searle, who by now added commissions from the university magazine Granta to his growing experience, joined the Territorial Army.
Called to the colours with the Royal Engineers on the outbreak of hostilities in 1939, he spent a relatively relaxed period in Norfolk as a camouflage artist and then Kirkcudbright before embarking on a troopship to an undisclosed destination. The voyage took the Engineers, including Sapper Searle, filling sketchpads all the way in an already totally mature graphic style, to ports of call in Cape Town, Mombasa and the Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean. Finally it became clear that they were bound for Singapore. They arrived just as General Yamashita's Japanese army came pouring down out of the Malayan jungle and across the straits to Singapore island. With calm obliviousness to his situation, Searle drew the new imperial conquerors even as they arrived in tanks, armoured trucks and cars, and on motorbikes and sidecars. It was the start of an astonishing enterprise.
From Changi, Searle embarked with other PoWs on a forced march to work on the death railway in Siam (now Thailand). He suffered variously beri beri, dysentery, ulcerated skin, and repeated bouts of malaria not much helped by a Japanese guard who drove a nail attached to a pickaxe handle into his body. A fellow PoW, the Australian writer Russell Braddon, remarked that they would only have known that Searle was dead if he had stopped drawing. "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 are not revolting," Braddon wrote, "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."
The sketchbooks Searle brought home from Changi constitute a remarkable document of survival in the face of the grossest inhumanity and are probably the best visual record of war in the Imperial War Museum; they formed the basis for a book, To the Kwai and Back: War Drawings 1939-45 (1986). His mastery of the fine balance between description and expression was by now fully achieved. He had become, almost incidentally, one of the finest topographical artists of the century.
If success seemed to come easily to him after his return to Britain, no one could begrudge it. Searle had drawn the second St Trinian's cartoon in Changi ("Hands up the girl who burnt down the east wing last night"); it was published in Lilliput in 1946 and established the school as a home of little monsters, wicked as sin.
Webb was still at the magazine, and soon Searle and she married. St Trinian's became a national institution, to the point where Searle began to hate his creation. He said later that he had never drawn that many St Trinian's cartoons but that the impression was abroad that he did little else. In fact, after the popular success of the novel The Terror of St Trinian's (1952), Searle balked at producing another in the sequence and instead, with his friend Geoffrey Willans, a BBC journalist, he devised Nigel Molesworth, semi-literate antihero of Down With Skool (1953) and its sequels; the gentler humour (some said whimsical) seemed to suit Searle better and his public lapped it up.
Other magazine work followed and Punch became his bread and butter; he repaid it well by helping to move the magazine on from the 19th century with covers of controlled extravagance, such as a clever birthday tribute to Picasso in October 1954. Then there were the Lemon Hart rum advertisements dominating the hoardings.
Searle himself was on his way to becoming one of the first media stars, but success became cloying as he found himself being drawn into appearances on television shows such as This is Your Life, so he threw it all up and went to start again in France. The decision was moved along a bit by a chance meeting in Paris with a pretty divorcee, Monica Koenig, later the second Mrs Searle. This gave him the steel to leave Webb when she was away with the children one weekend.
There was an angry divorce, in 1967, which probably confirmed Searle's decision to return to Britain only for visits to his ageing parents. In France he worked for Le Figaro Littéraire, and there were constant commissions from the US, where the fine glossy magazine Holiday and Henry Luce's Life competed for his work. Life opened the way to reportage with commissions to illustrate the John F Kennedy 1960 presidential campaign and to cover the trial in 1961 in Israel of Hitler's henchman Adolf Eichmann.
And then Searle accomplished a long-held ambition, to work for the New Yorker. Some of his fans saw a decline from now on, and it is true that there was a rococo prettiness about some of his work, though its manic qualities eschewed cosiness. He graduated in the 1960s from cartoons to colour covers such as the one of a man alone on a beach with his head buried in a newspaper as a sun rises, gorgeous as a Tiffany lamp; and there were his pet cats, as pampered, avaricious, ugly and dissatisfied as their owners. This work retained to a high degree a sense of poisonous unease which was his legacy from the war, and which he had felt in danger of losing at the Punch round table.
In 2004 he was appointed CBE and in 2006 was made a chevalier of the Légion d'honneur. Monica died in July 2011; he is survived by his son John and daughter Kate from his first marriage.
Stephen Moss writes: In 2000, to mark his 80th birthday and a new Penguin anthology of his drawings, I visited Ronald Searle at his home in the gorgeous hill-top village of Tourtour in Provence. He hadn't been interviewed for years, and said most people in Britain thought he was dead or retired, even though he was still cartooning regularly for Le Monde. He disliked the insularity of Britain and rarely returned, but his house was full of carefully alphabetised videos of films and television programmes, as well as innumerable books his agent sent him, so I assumed he wanted reminders of home.
We ended up conducting the interview over two extended lunches at a nearby Michelin-starred restaurant, which he adored and where his adoration was reciprocated. We were joined at lunch by his garrulous wife Monica and Eamonn McCabe, the Guardian photographer, who had come to do the portrait for the article. I ended up with almost seven hours of tape, though Monica did about 90% of the talking.
The interview appeared in early December 2000, and a few weeks later a Christmas card arrived drawn by the great man, with Christmas and new year wishes in three languages inside, written in Searle's spidery script. He had added a PS: "Since your article appeared, both our letterbox and fax have overfloweth with enthusiastic reactions." He was surprised to find how much he was still admired and loved.
• Ronald William Fordham Searle, artist, born 3 March 1920; died 30 December 2011