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Thursday, February 09, 2012

More on 'Lofty' Cannon

The internet is indeed a marvellous tool-through this blog I've received really great rare material on Searle from generous readers to share with all the other fans of his artwork. Twitter seemed like a superfluous info feed to me until Searle's death when it became an invaluable resource of quick links to obituaries, tributes and blog posts on his life and work-often yielding better results than a Google search.

It was via Twitter that I discovered this interesting article on Leigh Hobbs on the Books For Keeps site.
I'd like to re-publish it here for posterity.  It sheds further light on Searle's relationship with Harry 'Lofty' Cannon.  Not unlike myself, Hobbs found himself in contact with Searle, initially with great trepidation and respect and a similar delight in receiving correspondence in the artist's inimitable hand.
Once one had expressed sincere interest in his work Ronald, would engage generously as exemplified in this account of Hobbs' investigation into Searle's life-changing friendship with Lofty.

This is one of the best obituaries to Ronald I've read yet.

One of the UK’s major satirical draughtsmen of the second half of the 20th century, Ronald Searle has died at the age of 91.
Best known to children as the creator of St Trinian’s School and later as the illustrator of Geoffrey Willans’ Molesworth series, Ronald Searle had a strikingly individual and unmistakable style in which he reduced his characters to matchstick legs and stiletto feet, bristling brows and hunched shoulders. It was his first wife, Kaye Webb (later to become the celebrated Publisher of Puffin Books) who, as Assistant Editor of Lilliput magazine, published his first St Trinian’s style cartoon.
In the great tradition of Gillray, Rowlandson, Cruikshank and Richard Newton, Ronald Searle created his own unique graphic world characterised by acute social observation and wit but with an underlying sense of tension and unease, perhaps to do with the impact of his years working on the death railway as a prisoner of war of the Japanese, events which he recorded on scraps of paper as Australian writer/illustrator Leigh Hobbs explains in his tribute below:


For Ronald Searle
‘Many years ago, on leaving Art College, I put away my Ronald Searle books. You see, I had this crazy but understandable notion that I could escape his influence. As a small boy growing up in Australia in the late 1950s and early 1960s, I’d pored over his books at primary school, chortling with delight at those beautiful pen drawings. And gazed with wonder at how he created atmosphere with strokes of watercolour.
Searle and the world he brought to life, if not responsible for, certainly reinforced my childhood ambitions, of which there only ever were two: to be an artist when I grew up and to go to England. Years later, when I looked through my Searle books again, I was filled with the same intense feelings of delight that I’d felt as a child. The pleasure was reignited. I knew then that I had to write to him.
Not wanting to gush, over and over again I tried to get the wording right. I’d never written such a letter, and I didn’t want to sound like a crazed fan. Finally I gave up and wrote from the heart. I believe the essence of what I said was how marvellously he had used his extraordinary gift. In any case I sent the letter to his agent in London and thought ‘that’s done’.
A month later an envelope arrived from France. It was addressed to me in that same spidery hand responsible for the hundreds of drawings in books that I had admired since childhood. It was a wonderful letter, warm and generous. I felt satisfied that that was the end of it.
However I was then, through a series of circumstances, drawn into another aspect of Searle’s life and work.
The Melbourne Age asked me to write a piece about books. I wrote how, as a boy, one of the first books to make an impression on me was my father’s copy of The Naked Island by an Australian author called Russell Braddon. In it he detailed his experiences as a prisoner of War in Changi after the fall of Singapore in World War II. It was illustrated by a fellow prisoner called Ronald Searle.
Soon after my piece was published I was contacted by a woman, Jill, who said she had some Searle drawings. She had found them among her late uncle’s belongings and ‘could she show them to me’. I agreed unenthusiastically to meet her, thinking this would be a waste of time and that I would be looking at photocopies or worse.
As I sat, Jill explained that her uncle, named Harry ‘Lofty’ Cannon had been a POW in Singapore. He had wanted to be a doctor but had never recovered mentally after the war. His experiences had been a mystery to the family but his suffering had not. She said that on reading my article in the paper, the name Searle had sounded familiar and she had made the connection to material she had found in a box after Lofty’s death and “would I like to see it?” I said yes.
First off on my lap were placed Christmas cards to Lofty from Kaye Webb and husband Ronald Searle. Then I was passed a letter to “Lofty” dated August 1946 in which Searle writes: “I know, as you do, that you helped to save my life and made my existence under the net almost bearable. Believe me, Lofty, I’ve praised the stars that brought you to that ward many times.” As I gulped, and stuttered to Jill and her husband that her uncle had in all probability saved the life of one of the most famous English graphic artists of the late 20th century she said tearfully, “there is more”.

I was then passed a folio scrapbook full of Ronald Searle drawings done in the POW camp. Some showed Searle himself, bespectacled, waving to Lofty. All were inscribed to him. Apparently Lofty would sometimes show these drawings to his mates at the pub and the army repatriation hospital. The connection with Searle was a revelation to his family who had struggled to understand him. I suggested that the family write to Searle to see if he could fill in the gaps in Lofty’s life.
Meanwhile two weeks later, on my doormat was a parcel from Searle. It was an inscribed copy of his latest book and a lovely letter. He had seen my Melbourne Age piece.
Soon after that Searle wrote to Lofty’s family saying: “What I say in my 1946 letter to him is absolutely true”.
The letters and all of Searle's artwork have since been given to The State Library of Victoria, Australia, by Lofty’s family with the blessing of Ronald Searle himself, as a memorial to all those who suffered in the camps. How wonderful that Searle was able to fill in the gaps and complete that circle.’
Leigh HobbsLeigh Hobbs is the author/illustrator of such popular series as the ‘Old Tom’ series (Happy Cat Books), ‘Horrible Harriet’ (Bloomsbury) and Mr. Chicken books.








Further researching Lofty I found this article online which explores Hobbs' story even more.  Like the authors of these pieces I find it fascinating and moving to learn more about the bond formed between these two men as POWs.


Remembering a forgotten survivor

Most war memorials are made from stone. This one is made from paper: ten original sketches drawn in ink, pen and coloured pencil and stuck in a velvety leather autograph album with cornflour-and-water glue, three Christmas cards, four letters and nine black-and-white photographs the size of football cards. This modest memorial honours an anonymous World War II Australian field ambulance man, Sergeant Henry (Lofty) Judge Cannon, and the life-saving care he gave to British artist Ronald Searle and many other near-dead prisoners of war at Kanchanaburi, a jungle camp at the Bangkok end of the Thai-Burma railway.The Japanese Imperial Army decided to build the railway in 1942, the year Singapore fell. It needed to get food and weapons to soldiers fighting in Burma. Prisoners of war and Asian labourers cut the railway through mountains and jungles, starting in Ban Pong in Thailand and going up through Tamuang and countless settlements to Hellfire Pass and more before terminating 415 kilometres later at Thanbyuzayat. By October 1943, the impossible track had been built by 55,000 Allied prisoners of war and 135,000 Asian labourers, including men, women and children. It is estimated that a hundred thousand of these starving and cholera-ridden people died on the job. Forty years later Ronald Searle wrote in his war memoir, ‘If the men who died building it were laid end to end, they would roughly cover the 273 miles of track they built that year.'
Searle was one of these tortured labourers and the pictures he drew in the jungle slave camps and back in Singapore's Changi goal are a rare and valuable record of a particularly cruel episode in a cruel war. Three hundred of Searle's war drawings are held in London's Imperial War Museum and a selection published in his account of that time, To the Kwai – and Back: War Drawings 1939-1945 (Collins, 1986). His drawings also illustrate an early edition of Australian soldier Russell Braddon's classic POW memoir, The Naked Island(Werner Laurie, 1951).
Ten other Searle war drawings have never been published. Instead they were hidden for decades in a shoebox kept in the pantry of a family home in Coppin Street, East Malvern, in Melbourne's comfortable eastern suburbs. ‘I think Dad didn't know what to do with it,' Jill Parkes said of the album of drawings that Searle had given to the man she called Uncle Harry. ‘He put it away. It was too hard, too sad.'

LOFTY CANON RETURNED TO MELBOURNE in 1945 but didn't really survive the war. He spent most of the last twenty years of his life in Bundoora psychiatric hospital, in a ward for veterans with war-related mental illness. He died there in 1980, demented and alone. It was three days before his estranged wife Peg, Jill Parkes' aunt, was told of his passing.
Postwar, Lofty Cannon shrunk while Ronald Searle grew to become one of the most famous illustrators of the century. Between 1946 and the early 1978, Searle published fifty books. He is most famous for his subversive St Trinian's pictures about monstrous British private school girls, but these stockinged, hockey-stick-wielding horrors are just a small part of an extraordinary career that includes animation, sculpture, painting, magazine and newspaper illustration. His pictures have been on the cover of The New YorkerPunch and Lifemagazines. In 1961, he covered the trial of Nazi Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem for Life. Between 1958 and 1960, his work included reports on refugees for UNICEF and coverage of two American presidential campaigns, travelling first with Nixon, then Kennedy.
Searle's output has been so great that many people have a private exhibition space of his work in their heads. Mine is the spidery, gothic illustrations he did for a hard-cover edition of Dickens' A Christmas Carol. My parents owned the book and every December I would get it out and make myself cry.
Searle is still alive, aged eighty-seven and living in a village in the south of France. He is a private person but I was given his address and fax number. No email, no phone number. When I began this research, I wrote a letter asking for an interview. Then, panicked about my poor handwriting, I sent a typed fax. As the machine beeped transmission success, I noticed that the word ‘Searle' appeared on the screen. ‘Look, Searle!' I said, hardly believing it myself.
Ronald Searle is famous, Lofty Cannon is a nobody, yet without Lofty's care, the artist would not have survived the war. The drawings kept in the shoebox for so many years are now in the State Library of Victoria, along side the men's correspondence and background material compiled by Jill Parkes and her husband John. The library considers ‘The Lofty Cannon Collection' one of its archival treasures.

FOR EVERY ITEM IN EVERY ARCHIVE there are two stories: the story embedded in the object and the story of how the object got there. This essay is about both stories, and the chance encounters that gave these illustrations a new life. Stories arrive from the most unexpected places. I learnt about Lofty and Ronald from Melbourne artist Leigh Hobbs, creator of the Old Tom children's books. Old Tom is a diabolical, self-centred young child disguised as a cat who lives with his neat freak mother Angela Throgmorton. Searle is famous for his drawings of cats. One wonderful image shows a fat black cat sitting on a wooden chair in front of a table laden with a sumptuous spread of jellies, cakes, profiteroles and fruit. A thought bubble above the cat's head is filled with fish: ‘They're all against me ...'
Hobbs loves Searle and each time he has spoken publicly about his influence something significant has happened. First, in a 2001 profile in The Age Hobbs explained how, as a child, he had pored over Searle's works: The Rake's Progress, the Changi drawings and, of course, the St Trinian's books, drawings that critics have described as being concerned with three themes: torture, confinement and forced labour. After the article appeared a reader contacted Hobbs. She wanted to give him her collection of Searle first editions and a book he autographed in 1953, the year Hobbs was born.
In 2002, Hobbs wrote a personal piece for The Age explaining why Searle was so special to him. This time, John and Jill Parkes got in touch. Jill's mother Fay had died two years before and when they cleaned her house, Jill discovered the shoebox of Searle drawings. The Parkes had no idea what to do with them and called Hobbs and asked if he would like to see them. ‘I thought, oh no, the whole Searle thing has been laid to rest,' Hobbs recalled. ‘I didn't want to go over the Searle stuff again. I went grudgingly to meet them.'

At their house the couple started piling things on his lap: Christmas cards from Searle and his first wife Kaye Webb, a founding editor of Puffin Books. One on pink cardboard with a black and white sketch of a St Trinian's girl – a single black garter flashing – stealing presents from Santa's sack. Another big yellow card with a couple dancing in an empty ballroom to a song played by a beggar on a violin. Disguised in the swirls of the rococo roof are voluptuous naked dancing girls. Then there were the 1943 pictures: a lithe Thai dancing girl, barefoot ‘natives' walking up the jungle path, elephants hauling logs in a jungle clearing.
Six sketches featured Lofty. As Australian nicknames go, Lofty was either very short or very tall. He was six foot six. The most affecting image ‘Ronald Searle the Beauty of Ward 5' shows the artist naked and startled, his skin pocked with purple sores, ‘a foul, creeping skin disease,' his knees drawn up to his chest and sitting on a bamboo platform. In front of him are two soldiers, a short man with a moustache and Lofty, so tall that his chest, shoulders and head are missing. ‘Hmm – now here's a pretty thing, wardmaster!' Lofty says. The perspective is like that of a child who draws adults with fantastically long legs and pinheads. A similar and much warmer image is simply captioned ‘Thanks Lofty!' depicting a bespectacled Searle peeking out from under a mosquito net to shake hands with his gigantic, stooped carer: Lofty as solid and mountainous as his name suggests, Searle a tiny child.
In To Kwai – and Back Searle wrote: ‘I have one or two memories of a great hut in Kanchanaburi in which I lay, no longer able to move. High, endlessly long and crammed with skeletal-looking bodies sprawled on raised bamboo platforms, it was a luxury hotel compared with what we had just left in the jungle.' Searle weighed almost nothing. Like all the other prisoners, he lived on boiled rice supplemented by whatever they could catch and kill, everything from snakes to kittens. Lack of vitamin B12 meant most men had ‘happy feet' and ‘rice balls'. Happy feet caused stabbing, burning pain in the soles. Rice balls described an affliction by which the skin of the genitals split and peeled. Searle also had dysentery, malaria, fever and his legs were puffed up with beri-beri. ‘Large areas of my body were decorated with a suppurating crust from some exotic skin disease and one of my ankles was eaten to the bone by a large tropical ulcer. Apart from this, my three-weekly bouts of malaria had left what was still visible of my skin between scabies and ringworm, a pleasing bright yellow.'
Russell Braddon was also at Kanchanaburi. ‘I remember there was nothing much of him, that he was like a baby or a monkey or something. We thought he was dying and we – some of his remaining friends – used to put him out on a groundsheet in the sun. I don't know why but we felt that the sun would do something.' Each day, other prisoners expected Searle to die but he didn't. He kept on drawing. Braddon writes: ‘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 left 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 his man had from the ordinary human being.'
Searle drifted in and out of a coma; his left, drawing hand was ‘holed with ulcers' so these delicate, grateful pictures were all done with his right. A dying man doesn't waste his strength recording the mundane or meaningless. He records what is important and monumental. Half-dead, he chose to draw Lofty at his bedside, Lofty conversing with a Dutch patient, ‘Oh ja, ja, ja – oh ja, ja, ja', his long, spotty legs and arms folded around themselves as he smokes a cigarette, listens and chats. In every picture, Lofty is distinguished by his height and by the Red Cross bandage on his arm. There is Lofty bandaging a soldier's leg in the hut they called Ward 5, Lofty ‘at his sheep dip', the place where patients bathed and, finally, a gigantic, weeping Lofty waving off a Changi-bound train. ‘Ward 5 says farewell to Thailand – land of romantic jungles! (and ‘Lofty'), Searle wrote.

Hobbs looked at the pictures then he read a letter from Searle to Lofty, dated August 30, 1946. ‘Can I read it to you?' he asked when we met.
Dear Lofty, I've just received your letter of June 22. It's funny (peculiar) that my letter didn't reach you. I did answer your first letter and as far as I remember I sent it to the hospital where you were still a patient. Well I am glad you are out anyway, and I hope it this time it is for good. I have been keeping fairly well these days, I suppose it will take quite a long time to get over the experiences completely – especially from the mental side, but bodily all I need is a little more weight. My war beauty hasn't disappeared completely, I still come out in purple patches when I go swimming! I managed to bring back practically all of my drawings and the pick of them (the serious ones) are going to be published as a book later on in the year by Cambridge University Press. I am glad all my drawings weren't enjoyed by the rats (two and four legged) and that you have some left for yourself. I don't really think I ever properly thanked you for your great kindness to me ‘up country' in that stinking hospital. I know, as you do, that you helped to save my life and made my existence under that net almost bearable. Believe me Lofty, I've praised the stars that brought you to that ward many times.
As Hobbs read this his voice started to crack. He had been even more upset when he read the letter for the first time with Jill and John Parkes. ‘I said, do you realise one of the blokes who was the greatest graphic draughts-man of the century was saying your uncle saved his life?' They had not, and they too were upset. Searle's 1946 letter ended with best wishes for the man who had saved him: ‘Well, enough of this and I hope you are getting all the best out of life. You deserve it. Let me know how you get on. Yours, Ronald.'

RONALD SEARLE CLUNG TO HIS IDENTITY as an artist throughout the war. His pen was his lifeline, the thread that connected his pre– and postwar self. What did Lofty have? The man who had pushed aside his own suffering to nurse the sick now could not get well. The ‘doctor' became the patient.
In 2002, Jill and John Parkes wrote to Searle to tell him about Lofty's life and discuss what should happen to the pictures. Searle wrote back: ‘Lofty was a remarkable man. Remember, he was a POW too, yet somehow he found the energy and devotion to look after we "survivors" of the Thai-Burma jungle camps. He was inspiring in his care and his splendidly forthright, Australian, no-nonsense attitude, kept us from feeling too sorry for ourselves. Under dreadful circumstances he was superhuman – and he was loved by all.'


Even though he had been diagnosed as ‘psychopathic', Lofty's remaining letters are lucid. In 1966, he wrote to Searle. The letter was on Australian Red Cross Society paper, the address is the Returned Soldiers Psychiatric Hospital Bundoora.
Dear Ronald Searle, I take the liberty to bridge the years, because if you will remember there comes a time when a man needs an encouraging word from a friend and that is what I need right now. My eyesight is going fast and I keep thinking I am chained to the Burma Railway and so to set my mind at rest my own people have locked me up again. I know all this seems a bit harrowing but it's unburden or burst. My wife took me to see the ‘Magnificent Men', although I know that your work has changed a lot, I could see the Ronald Searle I knew so well, peeping out now and again from under his mosquito net and it warmed my heart and I laughed and so I will close wishing Ronald Searle, the ‘Spotted Wonder of Ward V' a still brighter future. If you find the time and in your goodness answer this, would you post it to my wife?
That letter was dated January 28, 1966 and refers to the 1965 film ‘Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines' for which Searle produced still and animated sequences. In October, Lofty wrote another letter.
Dear Ronald, I was unfortunate enough to lose your letter which I wanted to give to my son, and I wondered if you would drop him a brief line and say hello. I would like him to remember, that his father, although a nut, had at least one sane and famous friend. Regards, Lofty Cannon.
It is hard to imagine that Searle ignored this request but the letter has not survived. Lofty died in 1980; a year later David was killed in a car accident. David had married by then and had one daughter; another daughter was born after his death. Peg died in 1994 and Jill's parents both died recently. ‘Thus we believe ourselves to be the sole custodians of Harry's memory,' John Parkes wrote.

THERE IS ONE OTHER LIVING PERSON, though, who could be described as a custodian of the memory. Although the trajectory of the men's lives has been so different, there is an unusual symmetry. In 1960 Lofty Cannon withdrew from family and farm life and went to a psychiatric hospital. In 1961, after covering the Eichmann trial, Ronald Searle became deeply depressed. He was convinced that his ‘increasing disgust with most activities of the last fifteen years was more than justified'. He left his wife Kaye and their young twins, abandoned his life in London, his fame and success to live in France. He later married stage designer Monica Koenig and continued to travel the world, reporting and drawing. In 1968 he was stuck in his Paris apartment during the student riots and ‘produced 100 variations on the snail'. His first New Yorker cover was published the following year and in 1973, two hundred and fifty of his pictures were displayed in a one-man show at Paris' Bibliotheque Nationale. In 1978, French critic, Pierre Dehaye noted the elements of horror and ridicule in Searle's sketches but suggested that if viewers looked closely enough they would also find tenderness: ‘His satire is not of the cut-and-thrust variety; it is at one remove from the battle front: he acts as stretcher bearer, he takes oranges to the wounded in hospital.'
The day after my fax to Ronald Searle, I received a red and blue airmail letter from a small village in France. The hand was delicate and beautiful and the stamp depicted a stone angel.
Your letter has arrived but I am embarrassed to say that it has arrived too late. My memory is now totally unreliable and I would hesitate to recall with any guarantee of accuracy, events that passed well over sixty years ago. All I can say is that ‘Lofty' Cannon was the epitome of kindness and devotion under circumstances that were medieval and barbarian. He was a nurse that pushed himself beyond the level of endurance and comfort to care for the miserable survivors that we were, from the jungle, to the relative misery of Kanchanaburi.
As you know, he gave at the expense of his own sanity. When you ask why did I write: ‘Lofty helped to save my life', if I and the rest of us in that primitive hut had not had Lofty's care, most of us would have died. The background to some of this is in my book ‘To the Kwai – and Back'. Sorry not to be more helpful. But there it is. The flutterings of the past in an 87-year-old head are not ice-cold sharp – or even vividly Dickensian! Sincerely, Ronald Searle.



From Griffith REVIEW Edition 18: In the Neighbourhood
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.

4 comments:

docnad said...

Fascinating.

What is the origin of that expression "under the net?" I assume it's in common use in the U.K., since Iris Murdoch used it as a book title. Does it refer to having no safety net to catch you should you slip?

UM said...

Very moving post Matt! This made me teary-eyed but also very happy.

Matt J said...

Thanks guys-I've added another article to the post -revealing more of this story and Searle's full letter to Lofty. I've always assumed 'under the net' referred to Searle's convalescence in Lofty's make shift ward where he would've been presumably lying under some kind of improvised mosquito net?

Elliot Cowan said...

Leigh Hobbs is good friends with my university illustration lecturer, who was a very influential fellow on me.
How odd to see this international circle of names.