Scion of a noble line
As an artist he's been compared to Hogarth, yet in Britain the comic genius who created St Trinian's is largely forgotten. Stephen Moss on the former Japanese PoW who left England because he found it too parochial and now, at 80, finds himself feted on the continent, where he has turned his satirical eye on French politics
"In England, they think I'm dead," says Ronald Searle. This comes in the course of a meandering meal in his local restaurant in the mountains of Provence, where he and his wife, Monica, have lived for the past 25 years. He says it without rancour, but then the glorious views of southern France from this self-proclaimed "village in the clouds" do not readily permit rancour. It is just a fact, one that Britain's foremost "graphic satirist" (his preferred term), who is 80 this year, has gradually come to accept.
Next week, Penguin publishes a collection of Searle's classic drawings from the 50s: St Trinian's, his best-known creation; Molesworth, that glorious collaboration with Geoffrey Willans; The Rake's Progress, a series of such significance that the British Library bought it in its entirety last year; and many other acutely observed, superbly drawn vignettes that established him as one of the key literary and comic influences of the 50s. But the tribute is double-edged: by focusing on the 50s, it again poses the question - what became of Ronald Searle?
In reviewing Penguin's collected Molesworth last year, the London Evening Standard said he was "living in retirement" in the south of France. Again, not true: retirement would be another form of death for the workaholic Searle. Drawing has always been an obsession, and he hates the fact that a recent cataract operation is currently restricting him. He is as proud of the illustrations he has done for the Paris daily Le Monde over the past five years as of anything in his career.
Britain thinks Searle is dead because in 1961 he left the UK to live first in Paris, and then, from 1975, in the village of Tourtour, Provence. His work now appears in France, Germany and the US, but rarely in the country of his birth, which, if it remembers him at all, recalls him as a madcap figure from the 50s, part of that zany burst of post-war humour that culminated in the Goons and prepared the way for TV satire in the early 60s. While it celebrates Searle the cartoonist, it ignores Searle the artist. Gags can be restrictive.
"Cartoonists are not given their due in this country," says Nicholas Lezard, in his introduction to the new Penguin anthology. "They encourage condescension or scorn not only by the deliberate pitch of their art - calculatedly low, demotic - but also by the very fact of their often prodigious fertility, the way it looks as though they can knock things out, day after day. Searle's line tickles the boundary between cartooning and art."
After 1961 there was less cartooning and more art, and Britain failed to keep up. The French gave him a major retrospective at the Bibliothèque National in 1973, and the French Mint commissioned him to design commemorative medals. The Wilhelm-Busch museum of graphic art in Hanover last year bought his large collection of books on caricature and his collection of drawings by artists such as Hogarth, Gillray and Rowlandson which he began when he was 14: it is creating the Searle Room, where his own work will sit alongside his collection. But Britain failed even to acknowledge his 80th birthday in March, though we do love his schoolgirls.
Searle, who abandoned St Trinian's in 1953, seems resigned to being forever associated with the gymslip guerrillas. "In a way I've got over regretting St Trinian's," he says. "One reason I left England was that attitudes there were so parochial. People like putting you in a pigeonhole and, as far as the English are concerned, you are locked in it forever. All this mystery that surrounds me over why I left England is actually very simple: I felt stifled. I had been churning it out for myself at night and for other people by day. I was tired of hearing 'I want, I want, I want'."
He has one powerful advocate in Britain, Frances Carey, deputy keeper of the department of prints and drawings at the British Library. She oversaw the purchase of The Rake's Progress, his mid-50s homage to Hogarth, in which he portrays the rise and fall of 16 characteristic types of the time (including actor, soldier, trade-union leader, politician, poet and painter). "Searle's drawings are dependent on Hogarth, but every bit as brilliant and inventive," says Carey. "He is a major satirical draughtsman of the second half of the 20th century. We have the greatest collection of British satiri cal drawings in the world - Gillray, Rowlandson, Cruikshank, Richard Newton - and Searle is in that great tradition." She says his influence has been enormous - notably on Gerald Scarfe and Ralph Steadman, but in less predictable quarters too. Matt Groening, creator of the Simpsons, is a Searle fan and in a recent TV programme acknowledged his debt to St Trinian's and the appeal of the dark side of its founder's imagination.
Searle, while clearly not dead, is like a figure from another age: that inter-war period when the arts were not divorced, when painting, sculpture, music and literature were coeval. As well as working as an illustrator, he has produced sculpture, stage designs and animated films. In the 60s, when most of his work was drawn reportage for American magazines, he also produced the text to go with the pictures. One of his regrets is that he didn't do more photography. He has the all-round artistic facility of a Picasso, the magician's eye, and an unshakeable belief in his gift. "He cannot touch a piece of paper without improving it," says Monica, who, clearly still besotted with her husband after a partnership lasting 42 years, may be biased.
It is the self-belief that is really striking, and he appears to have been born with it. There was nothing in his background to suggest an artistic career. In Ronald Searle In Perspective, his 1985 collection of his own favourite work, he said he had no idea where his love of illustration came from: "Quite suddenly I began to draw. I had been scribbling for ever. Now it took shape and I became, first fascinated, then obsessed, with what it was possible to do with pen and pencil. No one paid much attention to this, nor to the fact that the drawings were immediately grotesque. This was assumed to be one of the penalties for being 'cack-handed', local dialect for mocking a left-hander, which is what I am."
He was born in Cambridge in 1920. His father, who had been gassed in the first world war, worked for the post office repairing telephone lines - a job that in the harsh East Anglian climate was eventually to kill him. His mother had been in domestic service in Ireland. The East Anglian background is significant, as Searle acknowledges in the brief memoir that serves as an introduction to Ronald Searle In Perspective. "It was my good fortune that I got off to such a suitable geographical start. I had the inborn advantage of the eccentric, the abnormal seeming to me, as well as to most of those around me, perfectly normal . . . In addition, nobody suggested that there was anything ludicrous in the fact that, for the first time since the Searles had plodded their way through the bogs to escape the Vikings, a left-handed Searle was proclaiming that he had to be An Artist, instead of a gravedigger, or whatever."
Searle has always been the outsider, the observer, detached from situations - domestic and social - and able to lampoon them. He joined the Labour Party in the 50s, but, according to Russell Davies's 1990 biography of Searle, came to regret it because it compromised his independence. He has sought to preserve his artistic freedom, even when that has meant killing off his most lucrative creations - the girls from St Trinian's, the Lemon Hart rum advertising campaign that turned him into a hot commercial property in the 50s when he produced a highly successful series of posters for the product.
Searle started drawing at the age of five, and by 11 was producing highly proficient caricatures. He left school at 15 - he says he was hopeless academically but may be exaggerating - and took evening classes in art before doing a year at the Cambridge School of Art. He had cartoons published in the Cambridge Evening News and became illustrator for the university newspaper Granta, where he worked alongside Charles Wintour, later to be editor of the Evening Standard, and the historian Eric Hobsbawm.
Though very much town rather than gown, the fact that Searle grew up in Cambridge was important in his evolution: as a teenager, already sure of his vocation, he spent hours poring over the Fitzwilliam Museum's collection of Blakes and Turners. It deepened his love of art, and he started collecting himself, using his pocket money to take the train to London and buy art books in Holborn. He received little encouragement from his bemused family, though his younger sister Olive was happy to be dragged round the Fitzwilliam.
Photographs of Searle in the late 30s show a sharply dressed young man in standard-issue round spectacles mixing easily with Cambridge's finest brains to bring out the weekly Granta. There is no evidence of the deference that might have been expected from the elementary school-educated Searle. Again, his inner confidence, the unwavering belief in his talent, shine through the sepia tints. Hobsbawm, Granta's last editor before the war, confirms that Searle was one of a group of editorial equals. "We all knew he was very talented, very professional, and he was accepted as one of the team. He had skills we didn't have, and was the only one of us who couldn't be replaced."
When war broke out, Searle enlisted immediately, a perfectly logical decision in the anti-fascist ferment of late-30s Cambridge. "Everyone had a very positive political attitude," he recalls. "Everything was very black and white. You were anti-Mussolini; you were anti-fascist. When Chamberlain came back waving his piece of paper saying 'peace in our time' everyone started digging trenches like mad. No one believed it for one second."
He joined the Royal Engineers and spent two years training in the UK, including a spell in the town of Kirkcudbright in Scotland, where he became friends with a local artist and his two young daughters, to whom he dedicated some drawings. The girls, Cécilé and Pat Johnston, were pupils of a progressive school called St Trinnean's and a legend was born. Kaye Webb, assistant editor of the London-based literary magazine Lilliput, printed the first St Trinian's drawing in 1941, just before sapper Searle left for the Far East. (The real St Trinnean's closed in 1946, when its founder retired. Searle cannot be held responsible, though, according to Davies, its alumni were ribbed mercilessly about their alleged delinquency.)
Searle's brigade reached Singapore in January 1942, just in time to witness the capitulation of the supposedly impregnable fortress to the Japanese. Searle, along with more than 100,000 allied troops, was imprisoned by the Japanese, and sent to help build the notorious Siam-Burma railway. The experience marked him, and everyone else who went through its horrors, for life. It also changed him as an artist: he had started to sketch army scenes as soon as he joined up, but now he had a sub ject that called not just on artistic ability but on his capacity to bear witness.
"I thought it was important to record what was going on, even if the drawings were only found later," he says. "To know what it was like to have been cut off in the jungle thousands of miles from anywhere." He bartered with other prisoners to get drawing materials, and risked death to capture the savagery and squalor of camp life. He kept the drawings - 300 survived, though many rotted in the heat of the jungle - under the beds of prisoners suffering from cholera, because the guards were loath to enter their rooms.
"These drawings were not a means of catharsis. Circumstances were too basic for that," he says in To The Kwai - And Back, the collection of his war drawings, which was published by Collins in association with the Imperial War Museum in 1986. "But they did at times act as a mental life-belt. Now, with the perspective and detachment that a gap of 40 years or so can achieve, they can be looked on as the graffiti of a condemned man, intending to leave rough witness of his passing through, but who found himself - to his surprise and delight - among the reprieved.
"When you are shut up in the jungle, your body is so disgusting that you can only live in your head," he says now. "I remember when we were doing the basic slave labour of carrying stones from one point to another and throwing them over the edge, everyone was chanting nursery rhymes. It was stupid and banal, but it was a way of forgetting what was going on around you. If you had enough imagination to realise what was really happening to you, you'd drop dead immediately. One thing that saved me was a total lack of imagination."
There is a much-told story that, while in the camp, Searle vowed that, if he escaped, he would drink champagne every day for the rest of his life. He does, indeed, adore champagne and drinks it as often as possible, but his love of it dates from his move to France, not his experience in the camps. There, he says, his dreams were reserved for a good, crunchy Cox's apple.
In a brilliant review of Davies's biography of Searle in this paper, the novelist JG Ballard, who was also imprisoned by the Japanese, pinpointed his incarceration as the key to his bleak humour. "In many ways," wrote Ballard, "Searle's world reminds me of Max Wall - his twitchy clubmen and crazed headmistresses reveal the same ferocious impotence, and a desperate humour that has nothing to do with comedy. This is tragedy that has opened the wrong door and found itself on a burlesque stage with a few baffling props - a samurai sword, a schoolgirl's gymslip and a bottle of Lemon Hart rum. Out of these materials Searle has created a unique graphic universe, intensely English - though he might dislike anyone saying so - but enormously deepened by his years as a Japanese prisoner."
Searle admits his experiences as a PoW have never left him, and have coloured everything he has done. "When you have gone so low, you have a marvellous measuring stick. What doesn't matter is very visible. I retain my prison cell mentality and want to remain free. I've never really escaped from being in prison, and maintain contact with one or two former prisoners. The experience is so terrible that you can't place it in terms of compre hension for anybody who didn't experience it. With one - a simple farmer - we have a relationship where I phone him up and ask how his cows are. We don't have to talk."
Emaciated and clutching his precious drawings, Searle was liberated in 1945 and demobbed the following year. Cambridge University Press published a selection of his PoW work, and he was propelled on to the London literary scene. He quickly began a relationship with Kaye Webb, his editor at Lilliput, who was five years his senior. In 1947, she and Searle had twins, called Johnnie and Katie, and were obliged to marry, but though they stayed together all through the 50s it was never easy.
Searle believes this marriage of two egoists was doomed from the start. He was wedded to his art; Webb to her magazine work and later, even more passionately, to her role as editor at Puffin, the Penguin children's book imprint, which was phenomenally successful. "I was married to a Puffin, and she was married to someone who was obsessed with drawing and didn't want to do anything else," he says, "I'm not a family man at all. I realised that quite early on in the marriage. I married too young; I had barely come to terms with having come back to civilisation."
Searle kept up a punishing schedule in the 50s: St Trinian's and Molesworth; drawings to accompany the theatre reviews in Punch - he would join the theatre critic, Eric Keown, in the stalls and sketch the drama unfolding on the stage; cartoons for the Sunday Express, Tribune and the News Chronicle; travel books with Alex Atkinson (the joke being that the latter had never visited the countries he was describing); advertise ments; animation for Walt Disney. He also designed the posters for the four highly successful St Trinian's films, but had no hand in what appeared on the screen and thinks them (Alastair Sim excepted) crass and witless. Where comedy is concerned, his preference is for the sophisticated and elliptical, and he thinks "humour today is medieval, almost Greek: stick your tongue out, cross your eyes, fart - the subtlety has totally gone".
At the end of the 50s, Searle collapsed in the face of what was being asked of him. "I was doing Punch theatre work, so I was in the theatre almost every night until 10 o'clock. Then I would get home and be drawing until two or three in the morning, even though I had to be in the office by nine. Suddenly I stopped; I was dead. I thought this is absolutely ridiculous."
He also disliked the fact that he had become, thanks mainly to St Trinian's, too famous. "I'm not a public person," he says. "I don't like it at all. My work is public, that's splendid, but I don't want to be swallowed behind it. In the 50s I was absolutely engulfed." As the introduction to The Penguin Ronald Searle put it in 1960: "Nobody hasn't heard of Ronald Searle; mid-century Britain is a Searle-haunted land. From the small girl who has stepped straight out of St Trinian's to the man at the end of the platform who is the fat man in the rum poster, you can't escape him."
The combination of work pressures and domestic unhappiness made him move on. "I waited until the children were 14 years old, and at least could be slightly more adult, and I packed my bag and left," he says. Not even Davies, who is sympathetic to Searle, can exonerate him for walking out on his wife and children (he left them while they were away for the weekend, leaving a note by way of explanation). Webb never forgave him. "She wouldn't come to terms with it and wouldn't give me a divorce," says Searle. "It also influenced the children's attitude towards me." Relations with the children did eventually improve and they made regular trips to Searle's apartment in Paris, where he lived with Monica Koenig, whom he had met on a visit for Punch in 1958. Monica was a stage designer who did some interpreting on the side, and she had been accompanying a reporter from French radio who was interviewing Searle and Keown.
In 1967, Searle finally secured his divorce, and he and Monica married. Their mutual affection and delight in each other's company are immediately apparent. "If you're stuck in a village with 150 people who only want to talk about sheep, which is admittedly a fascinating subject, you have to be on pretty good terms with the person you're with for 48 hours a day," says Searle. "This is what we do and it has worked."
They spent the 60s travelling the world together, doing reportage for US magazines, principally Life and Holiday. For the latter, the Searles made memorable journeys across Canada and Alaska, taking flights virtually every day and producing colour drawings in hotel rooms in the evening. Money was - indeed has always seemed to be - tight. Searle had signed over the Molesworth copyrights to the widow of his collaborator, Geoffrey Willans, and was handing over most of his fees to Kaye Webb to support his own children. He and Monica had a small allowance to live on, and came to depend on the expenses paid by the American magazines. They spent half the year in their rent-controlled flat in the centre of Paris (from which they were eventually evicted), and the other half travelling.
At the end of the 60s, Searle's life again changed decisively. Monica was diagnosed with breast cancer and, almost overnight, the reportage work dried up. Colour television was asserting itself and the golden age of the colour magazine was at an end. They stopped travelling and bought the medieval four-storey ruin in Tourtour that, over a period of six years, they turned into their home. Monica successfully fought her illness, though its side-effects have lingered, and her husband resolutely supported her. "He is a very forward-looking person, and always assumes that things will go well," she says. "He has great common sense and a wonderful, insanely wild mixture of solemnity and lightness."
Searle worked for the New Yorker under William Shawn and became close to its alumni - especially S J Perelman, with whom he collaborated on books. He did almost 40 covers for the New Yorker, but worked for them far less after Tina Brown became editor in 1992. He also drew for the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune, produced books of wine-related drawings, published his illustrations of Paris in the 60s, and started to draw crazed cats, snails, pigs, crocodiles and rhinoceroses - a confused, put-upon animal kingdom not far removed from that of man.
Some find the latter too cute. Steve Bell, the outstanding graphic satirist of the current generation, admires Searle's "individual comic style and exquisite draughtsmanship", but thinks the animal drawings whimsical. "The elaborate, jokey cat drawings do not test him, when in the early days he did test himself," says Bell. But the illustrator Posy Simmonds thinks that, when he wishes, Searle can still show his claws. "He's capable of doing sharp political things, as he has in Le Monde," she says.
Simmonds is a Searle fan, and exchanges letters, Christmas cards and books - always beautifully packed - with him. "When I was a child I saw his ads for Lemon Hart rum and then St Trinian's, and I loved his drawings for Molesworth," she says. "I thought he did the most wonderful pointy shoes. He is easily as good a draughtsman as Hogarth and Rowlandson, and his social observation is just as acute. He is a master and nobody can draw like him."
Her long-distance friendship with Searle is characteristic of the way he conducts his social relations. Ernest Hecht, who runs Souvenir Press, has published Searle for almost 30 years but never met him. His London agent, Rachel Calder, has only encountered him once. He never answers the telephone and can only be contacted, via Monica, by fax. "When I work I shut myself away and I don't want to see anyone," he says. "It's not autocratic; it's just the only way of staying free with your work. I find work much more difficult at my age than it was when I was dashing around doing 50 jobs a day. I'm very slow now: it takes me a week to find the idea for a drawing, though execution is still quite quick - a day, or a day and a half."
Searle is, however, a paradox - a gregarious recluse. Over lunch, in his usual seat at his favourite, Michelin-starred restaurant, he is animated and seems to enjoy recounting his life. With his beard and spare frame, he has the look of an ageing actor, and a beautifully modulated voice to match. His French, he says, is only passable.
When Martin Amis visited the Searles in Paris in 1977, he wrote that he was "greeted as if my presence were a key part of some rare and complicated treat they had long promised themselves". They are indeed very welcoming, and appear entirely at ease. Yet they are still anxious to protect their privacy and their routine: they cannot be disturbed before midday; the name of the village can be printed but please don't say precisely where the house is.
Searle's detachment is partly professional - the belief that the artist and satirist must retain a distance and protect his freedom. But there also appears to be some residual fear of people just turning up and imposing themselves. He dislikes people making demands on him: he needs to be in control of his work and his life. The house in Tourtour testifies to a passion for order: there are roomfuls of books, carefully sorted by subject; a huge video library of films and TV programmes; a magazine rack with all the latest English-language publications. All his correspondence is filed carefully into boxes, and he has a collection of nibs - annotated in minute writing - attached to a sheet of card on the wall.
He reads prodigiously, watches the news in three languages, has his London agent send over all the books that interest him. When you consider the way he absorbs information, and the intellectualism of his approach, the fact that it takes him a week to conceive an idea and a day to draw it starts to make sense.
It is the illustrations for Le Monde by which he now wishes to be judged, and he hopes they will appear next year in an English- language version of a book already in print in France. They are simple, stark and highly political: condemnations of political chicanery and double-dealing, corporate greed and global inequality. "I love the work I am doing for Le Monde," he says. "Producing gags and making people laugh is fine. One has done that forever, or tried to do it for ever. But at last one is applying the line to something that is of real value." It was worth waiting a lifetime.
Guardian Saturday December 2, 2000
Photos by Eamonn McCabe