For the young Ronald Searle, art was a means of survival. Held in appalling conditions as a prisoner of war in southeast Asia between 1942 and 1945, he drew scenes of camp life with whatever materials were to hand, hiding his work under the mattresses of cholera victims to avoid discovery.
Against the odds, Searle endured and went on to enjoy a remarkably long and varied career. Perhaps best known for St Trinian'sand Molesworth, his drawings have appeared in innumerable books, newspapers, magazines, and advertisements. Guardiancartoonist Steve Bell has described Searle's work as “the highest form of conceptual art, but devoid of any of the pretence that usually accompanies such a notion. Which is to say it is extremely funny, but not all the time. It cuts to the essence of life.”
The essence of life is the subject of Les Très Riches Heures de Mrs Mole. Its title is a play on Les Très Riches Heures du Duc du Berry, the 15th-century book of hours that illustrates the milestones of the year. Every one of Searle's 47 pictures represents a milestone, too: they were produced to mark each chemotherapy session that his wife, Monica, had after her diagnosis with breast cancer in 1969. These images were never intended for publication or display; Searle brought them to his wife's bedside in Paris, whilst their new house in Provence was renovated. During building work, the Searles had made the unexpected discovery of an extensive cellar. Combining this subterranean world with Monica's nickname—“Mo”—Searle created his wife's alter ego, Mrs Mole.
Mrs Mole is a round, happy creature whose snout curves naturally into a smile. She is mostly seen in a patchwork apron; she has a bob of black hair, and her green eyes are framed by dark lashes. In Searle's depiction of her day-to-day life, Monica's medical treatment is only alluded to obliquely. In one charming image, a white rabbit, equipped with a doctor's bag (labelled “First Rabbit Aid”), binds up an injury on Mrs Mole's foot. Yet the experience of illness, and the physical restrictions it brings, is central to the drawings. Informed by his own experience of ill-health and curtailed freedom, Searle constructed an existence Monica could enjoy vicariously. “I would lie in bed”, she later said, “living the life he created in the pictures”. It is a life consisting of simple, mainly solitary pleasures. Mrs Mole sweeps the floor, swims, sews, gathers flowers, and enjoys tea on the terrace. The images celebrate the things Monica enjoyed before her illness and anticipate future pleasures. In one picture, Mrs Mole waters a cedar Searle and his wife planned to plant in the garden; in another, she sips champagne, a daily indulgence Searle promised himself during his days of incarceration, and which, it was hoped, Monica would one day enjoy again.
These drawings are some of Searle's best work. His use of colour is bold and assured. It is reminiscent, at times, of those other artists inspired by the landscape of Provence: Vincent van Gogh, Raoul Dufy, and Paul Cézanne. The most striking images are those of spring; and this may be because, with their budding flowers and emerging butterflies, these are the pictures that represent new hope. The final picture is not part of the main series: it forms a sort of epilogue. 16 June 1967—16 June 1975. The Beautiful Dream—Come True xxx was produced just before the Searles took up permanent residence in Provence. Mr Mole, in patchwork trousers, stands with open arms, preparing to catch his wife as she falls from the sky; it is as if Heaven has returned her. There really was a happy ending to the Searles' story. Monica beat the odds and survived her cancer. Now aged 85, she and Ronald, 90, live in their house in Provence where he continues to enjoy—and draw inspiration from—pink champagne. The planned cedar never took, despite two attempts. A sturdy fig tree, however, sprung up in its place, and continues to flourish. Rich hours indeed.