Friday, January 23, 2009

Meeting Ronald Searle Part 2: Illustration & Cartooning

Upon entering Mr Searle's house I was quite nervous, I was shown in by his hired helper & she went off to inform him of my arrival while I waited in the kitchen. On the walls of the vestibule were prints by the likes of Cruickshank & Gilray, I couldn't immediately identify them, but I assume they're choice examples of his collection of caricatures. Bequethed to the Wilhelm-Busch museum in Hannover the archive consists of work by Caracci, Gillray, Cruickshank, Vernet, Rowlandson & Newton.

Aware of Mr Searle's scholarly knowledge of the history of caricature & political cartooning I enquired who he rates in the field these days. I couldn't resist asking him what he makes of the artwork of Ralph Steadman & Gerald Scarfe, perhaps the two most influenced by him. He admires them both, saying Steadman's drawing is very strong & Scarfe has become an annual visitor to the Searle home. He holds British cartoonists Steve Bell & Martin Rowson in high esteem. (Rowson produced the 2006 documentary 'Searle's Progress'). But his favourite contemporary cartoon is Garry Trudeau's 'Doonesbury'.
Modern political cartooning in America has been killed by syndication he believes, with cartoonists afraid of being black-listed for anything too racy. Likewise he feels the New Yorker has slid in recent years with its cartoon count dropping steadily since its heyday.

In fact Searle laments the loss of a whole generation of satirical artists that he feels hasn't been succeeded by younger artists. He & contempories like André François, Roland Topor & Sempé set the standard decades ago but Searle was puzzled why no one had followed who equalled their ability -perhaps a tad unfair since they set the bar impossibly high! They were all part of a golden age of cartooning that pushed the envelope graphically & in subject matter. Searle was friendly with most of them & he said their individual talent both inspired him & made him realize his own short-comings as an artist.

As a young man Searle had been chiefly inspired by the great German Expressionists Otto Dix and George Grosz. In later years he came to know the families of both artists when he created a series of commerative medals for the French Mint.
He would also design a memorial plaque for the house where Grosz died for which he was rewarded with a drawing from one of Grosz's sketchbooks by the artist's son Peter Grosz.

Picasso too was a prime influence on Searle. His eyes twinkled when recalling the fire in his belly after seeing a Picasso exhibition that really made him want to draw. He felt 'Picasso may never have finished anything but he opened all the doors for us to go forward.' Searle acknowledged the influence of Picasso on his own work in this special cover for Punch, October 1954.

He was impressed by the maestro's prodigious output right up until the end of his life. The exhbition in 1970 at the Palais des Papes in Avignon left Searle energised but bewildered by the town's refusal to accept the artist's offer of donating the collection!

Turning to the subject of the artist's sketchbook he of course sees it as a vital repository of experiences, thoughts & observations. However he told me that there comes a point where it's all lodged in the brain anyway as a result of drawing. The details he had noted over the years found their way into his illustrations by second nature. Like any pre-Google 'old school' commercial artist he used to have an extensive library of reference material to help too. He used the example of referencing an Indian elephant which coincidentally I had a job on at the time designing exactly that!

Here's a relevant quote from the man from another source:

'There really is no secret. There is no other answer than to slog away, whilst turning oneself into a walking encyclopaedia. Of course one has to assume that, like any pianist who has ploughed away for years on his scales and exercises to become a concert pro, or a super jazz man, that the training has been thoroughly academic so that one is totally free to become classic or jazz- that is, an illustrator without chains. Also, apart from being the fly on the wall, the illustrator has to conceal the mechanics and technicalities and lead the observer to think that the whole achievement is effortless.'

Searle holds little regard for modern digital illustration & cartooning preferring work where the artist's hand is visible. I wouldn't presume to say he may be out of touch but rather that the modern media is. Beautiful, wobbly, inky hand drawn work like Searle's is actually probably viewed as old fashioned, ugly even, by today's ad agency creatives.
Despite this Mr Searle's giant reputation persists. High profile Searle collectors like Jeffrey Archer & Robert Forbes have recently hired the artist to illustrate their books & at 88 years old Searle is still in demand.
Above collaborator & Searle collector Robert Forbes

He implied that he still must work to pay the bills & never really made great sums of money from his career. But I suspect he really can't help himself & still finds drawing daily as compulsive as he did as a a young man, regardless of any financial renumeration. He told me he still gets excited to rise every day & get to his drawing board to see what will come out of his pen. It was humbling to see this great artist, who has gone through so much in his life, still with such great discipline.
A true inspiration & a constant reminder to me that there's really no excuse to not be drawing . . .


mike fontanelli said...

It's impossible to get enough information about this influential cartoonist, who's inspired artists on both sides of the pond; from Chuck Jones to Gerald Scarfe to Erich Sokol. Lucky you - getting to meet a true legend!

Jesse Hamm said...

Long live Searle! Thanks for blogging this stuff.

Elliot said...


Pete Western said...

A belated happy new year to you, Matt and thanks for putting the second part of your interview with Searle on the blog.

It's interesting to hear he doesn't like digital illustration - I was looking through an illustators' contact book the other day and must say I found most of it sterile and bland, utterly lacking any personality. However, I feel a judicious use of software like Photoshop is a real boon.

Leo Ríos said...


Anonymous said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you. I have not checked out this Blog in way too long. You are doing a great service to all that have fellen in love with Searle's work. Can't thank you enough.