Thursday, March 25, 2010



 (Brian Sibley found this in Private Eye)


Getting The Joke: Ronald Searle

Cartoonists from Gerald Scarfe to Steve Bell genuflect to the work of Ronald Searle. His illustrations have appeared in publications around the world, from Life to Le Monde. Yet in his native country, apart from by his fellow artists, he remains curiously undervalued. To mark his 90th birthday, a new exhibition (Ronald Searle: Graphic Master) at the Cartoon Museum sets the record straight.

Jack Watkins profiles ‘our greatest living cartoonist’.

In Russell Davies’s biography of Ronald Searle, he makes some barbed references to British journalists who seem to think that his subject’s work begins and ends with the St Trinian’s drawings and the film credits he drew for the cinema. The frustration is understandable. However, it’s unlikely that Davies will read this feature, and Searle himself now lives in Provence, so, with one last nervous scan of the horizon just to make sure, I think it’s safe to write that, for the great unwashed among us, it is through the TV re-runs of these films – and the equally delightful Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, and Monte Carlo or Bust – that Searle is chiefly familiar.
The fact is that the great man has resided in France for nearly fifty years, and while he is still highly regarded here by the artistic community – and received official recognition in the shape of a CBE in 2004 – his profile in Britain remains low, and the wider artistic merit of his work has, until now, been somewhat overlooked.
Searle turns 90 this month and his prolific career, which has already lasted some 75 years, is ongoing. Anita O’Brien, the curator of the Cartoon Museum’s retrospective exhibition, recently visited him in Provence, and saw in his meticulously organised studio a reflection of his approach to his work. His appetite for life, his remarkable curiosity, and the intelligence and wit that informs his drawings are all seemingly undimmed.
It’s not enough, of course, to say that all great artists have an immediately recognisable stamp; even mediocrity can wear a badge of identity. But a Searle picture is certainly unmistakeable. The human figures are bird-like – stork legs, beaky noses, and pop-eyes that are often shifty or bewildered – their distortions and wispy lines suiting the mood of feverish anarchy. They are drawings whose skill is perhaps concealed in a feeling of rapidity, an impression that they were quickly set down.
When Searle was eighteen he received a one-year scholarship to the Cambridge School of Art, enabling him to become a full-time art student. He later recalled: “It was drummed into us that we should not move, eat, drink or sleep without a sketchbook in the hand. Consequently the habit of looking and drawing became as natural as breathing.” Perhaps this fast sketching on the move so imprinted itself that it became his signature.
Searle had, in fact, been honing his distinctive style long before that. His background was modest. His father was a porter at Cambridge railway station and his mother took in lodgers to help pay the household bills. Young Ronald had a curious mind, however, devouring books on natural history and archaeology, and haunting the Cambridge museums. Here he encountered caricature art for the first time, in the work of the author and cartoonist Sir Max Beerbohm.
His interest grew in the great cartoonists and satire masters of the past, such as James Gillray, Thomas Rowlandson and George Cruikshank. The Cartoon Museum exhibition includes some examples of their output, as well as Searle’s medals dedicated to the ‘Fathers of Caricature’, designed for the French Mint in the 1970s and 1980s.
Leaving school at fifteen, he took a succession of low paid jobs in order to scrape together money for art classes, succeeded in having a series of weekly cartoons published in the local Cambridge Daily News, and nursed ambitions of a career in Fleet Street. He had an aunt who lived in Bromley, from where he would walk to the then centre of the newspaper industry to try to engender editor interest. “If I took the bus then I couldn’t eat,” he explained. Finally someone listened, and his first illustration in a national newspaper was featured in the Daily Express in 1939.
By now, though, the War had begun and Searle was to enlist with the Royal Engineers. He was stationed in Singapore, but that fell to the Japanese in 1942, and he spent the rest of the war as a prisoner, including time in the brutal Changi Prison and working as enforced labour on the Burma Railway. Among a long list of maladies, Searle suffered beri-beri, malaria, dysentery, boils, ulcers and insect bites – yet, heroically working by fire-light, made drawings of the grim realities of camp life. Some of these fragile ‘secret’ sketches, which he’d concealed from his gaolers by hiding them under the beds of friends dying of cholera, are present in the exhibition. The experience had transformed Searle’s artistic motivations, and suddenly he felt the need to draw “to justify the death of your friends.”
His first collection of St Trinian’s drawings came out in 1948. Enchanting as they and subsequent ones of the delinquent girls are, he also cast his net wider. His caricatures accompanied theatre reviews in Punch, and drawings on current affairs appeared simultaneously in the politically opposed Tribune and the Sunday Express. Searle covered the trial of the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann for Life magazine in 1961, around which time he moved to Paris. His watercolours from his travels to places such as Morocco, and his story illustrations for books, show a marvelous sense of detail and atmosphere, and in France – where, up until 2008 he was still drawing a weekly political cartoon for Le Monde – Searle is accorded as a true artist.
It’s a measure of the feeling for him that many illustrators have penned words of appreciation for the 160 page catalogue that accompanies this exhibition. Gerald Scarfe writes of wanting to draw like him. “His pen was always searching, exploring very nook and cranny of his subject. His exciting, electric style fascinated me.” Posy Simmonds argues that he belongs with the masters such as Rowlandson and George Grosz. Perhaps Steve Bell, current upholder of the satirical line in The Guardian, puts it best: “To say he is an artist is no more than the truth, but he is more than that: he is our greatest living cartoonist with a lifelong dedication to his craft… His work is truly international, yet absolutely grounded in the English comic tradition.”

Optima magazine 5th March 2010

Ronald Searle: Graphic Master, Cartoon Museum, London

Reviewed by Tom Lubbock  The Independant  Thursday, 25 March 2010

Scratch, scribble, scrawny, scruffy, scrape, scrawl – Searle's lines often begin with scr-, conveying an abrasive feeling. He is also a comedian, and can fill up a body like a bag of sugar, a helpless sagging blob that swells and slops and spreads. This mixture became his signature mode, the savage and the genial together, and it hasn't failed him in almost seven decades. His retrospective at the Cartoon Museum, "Ronald Searle: Graphic Master", marks his 90th birthday.
His beginnings were first as a juvenile cartoonist, then an art student, then a Japanese POW. He took pen and paper to the verge of death. His image of an emaciated man – Prisoner dying of Cholera, Thailand 1943 – is one of the greatest drawings of the 20th century. And it might have promised a career in serious art. But Searle refused to stick to "seriousness". His most famous works of the 1950s are his illustrations of St Trinian's and St Custard's, where pain is sublimated into a schoolchild's wicked naughtiness. How could the same hand do both?
Another artist might have decided limitation was compulsory; Searle pursued ever more, and ever more confident, variety. The range is amazing: invention, observation, lightness, darkness. Look at the grim and sober reportage of Eichmann's trial in Jerusalem, early 1960s. And then, pretty well simultaneously, there's a Punch cover; a picture of beautifully, innocently absurd birds, with stick-on fluff-ball popping eyes, and a man with a "lobster-claw" head, a long pointed nose one pincer, a long pointed chin the other.
People sometimes ask: can he or she draw? The implication is that there's a single secret. But Searle's performance shows how multiple the matter is. There are so many different ways of being accurate – and then, even more strangely, these different registers can interbreed. The Cartoon Museum is a small space. Its highlights are well chosen, and examples from the history of caricature are added, to show his ancestors. But ideally Searle's work would have a more complete survey, and with wider comparisons. Then we might wonder if there's any clear distinction between cartoon and art.
Meanwhile, we can talk about his diverse originalities. There are his wildly grotesque transformations of the human head and body, which have influenced Scarfe and Steadman. Or there are his smart conceptions, often in the form of art-about-art jokes. A Bigger Slash: Hommage à David Hockey has a row of scrawny naked gents, peeing up arcs of multi-coloured piss into a West Coast pool – an exact bit of visual-verbal wit. Or there's a genre that is almost unique to Searle's practice, caricatural documentary: the draughtsman-witness-journalist visits Las Vegas or East Berlin, takes scenes with his pen, acid but humorous. The sour face of the border guard can't quite conceal the smirk of Nigel Molesworth.

Searle can do so many things, and blend them. But if there is one thing that he does essentially, and all through, it is to animate. He fills his subjects with a life. He finds it and then exaggerates it. Keats, in a letter, writes: "I go among the Fields and catch a glimpse of a stoat or a field-mouse peeping out of the withered grass – the creature hath a purpose and its eyes are bright with it – I go amongst the buildings of a city and I see a Man hurrying along – to what? The creature hath a purpose and his eyes are bright with it."
This is Searle's vision – a counterweight, perhaps, to the early death he saw closely and narrowly escaped. He brings out the vitality, and not only in creatures, whether human or animal, but in furniture, cars, architecture. Whether it's a jalopy, a shark-finned gas-guzzler, a rickety shantytown or a cathedral, he finds the action in the shape. His world is gesture. His eyes are still bright with it.

Ronald Searle – a great affirmation of the human spirit

Ronald Searle encompassed both the tragic and the blissfully comic in his drawings, says Charles Spencer.

One of Ronald Searle's Molesworth illustrations - Ronald Searle - a great affirmation of the human spirit
Marvellous: one of Ronald Searle's Molesworth illustrations
As a boy I was a huge fan of the Molesworth books, among them Down with Skool! and How to be Topp, written by Geoffrey Willans and illustrated, with grotesque relish, by Ronald Searle.
I loved them not only because they were funny and subversive, but because I was briefly sent to a hellish prep school myself, where the Dickensian headmaster, Mr Hancock, liked nothing better than putting small boys over his knee and giving them a ferocious spanking with an old gym shoe.
I assumed Searle was long dead, but, as any fule kno, he is alive and well and earlier this month celebrated his 90th birthday. He lives with his wife Monica in Haute-Provence, drinks champagne, or “engine oil” as he calls it, copiously, and is still working.
The Cartoon Museum in Little Russell Street, London WC1, is celebrating the great man, who is long overdue a knighthood, with a superb retrospective of his work over 75 years, beginning with his first cartoons as a teenager.
St Custard’s and St Trinian’s are both present and correct (“Hand up the girl who burnt down the East Wing last night”), but there are also many superb examples of his reportage. Chief among these are his visual record of his time as a Japanese prisoner of war after the fall of Singapore in 1942, including a period on the infamous Thai-Burma railway. His sketches, drawn secretly and hidden under the mattresses of dying men to prevent their discovery by Japanese guards, convey terrible suffering and cruelty with eloquence and economy. The study of a prisoner dying of cholera, in particular, strikes me as a masterpiece, seeming to catch the very moment when the last flicker of life departs the body.
The fact that after experiencing such horrors, Searle could produce work of such frivolity and fun is startling. Look out in particular for the picture of St Trinian’s girls dragging a lawn-roller in preparation for sports day that is clearly modelled on an earlier study of POWs hauling logs.
This is an exemplary exhibition, not only in the quality of the drawing, and the constant pleasures of Searle’s baroque imagination, but in its moving demonstration that the human spirit can survive the worst traumas mankind can inflict upon it.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

I've written a brief statement of intent linked above with 'About'.  Also I've updated the following sections:

Advertising pt. 2

The King's Breakfast

Monday, March 15, 2010

I'll be talking about Ronald Searle's work in animation & film titles at the Cartoon Museum on the 30th March.  I'll be screening rare animation and showing material passed on to me by Mr Searle.

Tickets cost £5 and are onsale at the museum.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

A Life In Pictures

Steve Bell in the Guardian.   Thanks to (S. Nadler)

Martin Rowson's contribution to the Cartoon Museum catalogue (via the Bloghorn)

Libby Purves in the Times.

Jeffrey Archer reports on the Chris Beetles exhibition on his blog. 

 "Some things are just depressing and here is one. Consider this: just how rich is Lord Archer? Last week the rogue peer attended a party to mark the 90th birthday of his friend, the illustrator Ronald Searle. Searle himself was absent. He rarely leaves his home in France, and in the normal run is only contactable by fax. Archer supplied a gallery in central London with 30 of his Searle masterpieces for the occasion but, reports the scribe from the Camden New Journal, the author's enthusiasm for his friend's achievements got the better of him. "On two occasions, he insisted: 'I must have it'," records the onlooker. "Only to be told: 'You already own that one, Jeffrey!'"

Hugh Muir      The Guardian, Wednesday 10 March 2010

Searle's a rarity: a cartoonist who can draw
I was at the Bath Literary Festival on Tuesday helping to promote a book of cartoons from The Oldie magazine. I pointed out to the audience that there were basically two schools of cartoonists: those who can draw and those who can't.
The most famous of the can't-draw school was the American cartoonist James Thurber, who invented an entirely new type of cartoon not only badly drawn but surreal in inspiration. "That's my first wife up there and this is the present Mrs Harris," says a party host pointing to a female figure crouched on top of his bookcase. Thurber's editor at The New Yorker, Harold Ross, was baffled and demanded to know if the woman was alive or stuffed.
The best example of the cartoonist who can draw is Ronald Searle who this week celebrated his 90th birthday at his home in France. Appearing on Channel 4 news he looked alert and lively and is still hard at work. Searle's drawings from a Japanese POW camp drawn on any bits of paper he could find show his skill as a master draughtsman. As for his cartoons he will always be remembered for St Trinian's and for Nigel Molesworth, however much he may want us to appreciate the rest of his massive output. 
-Richard Ingrams in the Independent

‘I went into the war as a student and came out as an artist’

Ronald Searle, who turned 90 this month, talks to Harry Mount about being captured by the Japanese, chronicling the 1950s and inventing both St Trinian’s and Molesworth
Even after St Trinian’s had been bombed to smithereens, Searle’s publisher, Max Parrish, wanted more. Searle suggested an alternative. His friend Geoffrey Willans, of the BBC Foreign Service, had already written several skits on a boy’s prep school for Punch, and had suggested that Searle might do some illustrations. And so Nigel Molesworth, the curse of St Custard’s, ‘the goriller of 3B’, nemesis of Basil Fotherington-Thomas, was born.
‘Geoffrey and I just sat together in a room for hours, days on end, swapping ideas. He had been a schoolteacher, and had been to public school, I went to an elementary school. So he set up the framework but he gave me space to make it visual: to work out what animal the gerund would look like; how the Romans and the Gauls looked; the feel of the foopball ground, as Molesworth called it.’
Despite bewitching several generations with St Trinian’s and Molesworth, it is his reportage that Searle is most proud of, much of it in the Cartoon Museum show: sewer men and street sweepers in 1950s London, horse auctions and the funeral of George VI for the News Chronicle; commissions for the American magazines, Life and Holiday, including, in 1961, the newly built Berlin Wall and the Adolf Eichmann trial in Jerusalem.
‘Reportage is much harder, you’ve got to get behind what’s going on, to locate the atmosphere people are living in,’ he says, ‘Anyone can do a cartoon and make people laugh.’
Millions of devoted fans will disagree; no one can do it quite as well as the new nonagenarian.

Harry Mount  The Spectator Wednesday, 10th March 2010

Friday, March 05, 2010

Ronald Searle: Graphic Master

The opening night of the exhibition at the Cartoon Museum was a triumphant return of some of Searle's finest work to the country of his birth. Museum Curator Anita O'Brien & her team in collaboration with Steve Bell & Mr & Mrs Searle have assembled an outstanding collection. The accompanying catalogue is equally impressive & essential for all fans of Searle's art, reportage, cartooning & illustration.

Bear-like Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell cools the mob thronging the tiny gallery.

Photo courtesy of Uli Meyer.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Happy 90th birthday Ronald!

The celebrations for Mr Searle's 90th birthday are in full swing from today & Searle fans in this country haven't had so much on offer in 50 years!  Last night I previewed the exhibitions at the cartoon Museum and at Chris Beetles' gallery-both shows are packed with stunning examples of Searle's work.

At the Cartoon Museum opening I finally met writer & Searle fan Brian Sibley.  We've corresponded through Blogger for several years so it was a pleasure to meet in person.  Brian has a fine original Searle included in the Beetles show.  He'll be doing a lecture on Searle's work at the Cartoon Museum as part of a series of talks that I shall be part of too (details to follow soon).  Brian has posted a great overview of Searle's career on his blog.

Inky Parrot Press have published a limited run of 2 new books on Searle at 90-'What! Already?' and 'Watteau More Scaps'.


Drawn on Searle.
Richard Thompson

Mike Leigh on Searle's influence.

Searle on the telly!

Ronald Searle granted an extremely rare television interview to Channel 4 news-watch it online here.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Mike Leigh on Searle

(From the Daily Telegraph via Fred Egg blog & Matthew Davis)

Monday, March 01, 2010

The Grand Old Man of St Trinians

Aged 90, Ronald Searle recalls the bad girls of St Trinian's

The great cartoonist reveals that champagne is the secret to a long life and that he has no regrets about leaving his wife and children

Self Portrait,Ronald Searle

Ronald Searle is alive and well and about to be 90. He is used to people thinking him long dead. This is a man who, in 1945, came out of Changi prison after four years as a Japanese prisoner of war, beaten, starved and tortured on the infamous Railway of Death. Skeletal, weighing 6st (38kg) — the after-effects of malaria and beriberi — he was ready to take the world of illustration by storm. Within 15 years the Penguin book of his collected cartoons declared: “Mid- century Britain is a Searle-haunted land.”
Yet in 1961 he fled these shores to live, first in Paris, then in the South of France. He is a walking advertisement for this voluntary exile. He has a hearing aid, and his voice fades by evening, but his blue gaze exudes contentment, as does the unlined complexion of his domed forehead. Trim, alert and spry, he is brimming with bonhomie and hospitality. Each decade or so, an interviewer is granted a rare audience and, as Martin Amis rightly put it in 1977, gets greeted by Searle and his wife, Monica, “as if my presence were a key part of some rare and complicated treat they had long promised themselves”.
Our rendezvous was 90 minutes’ drive from Nice, at the Michelin-starred Les Chênes Verts, his favourite restaurant. In one room every wall is hung with Searle drawings presented to the patron, mostly on the theme of truffle-hunting. Truffles are the specialité de la maison; Searle discourses eruditely on their pervasive smell, their mysterious resistance to cultivation. His favourite rosé champagne, Billecart-Salmon, is poured at once. We are to enjoy a feast, he says, and then drive one mile to his house where we shall consume more Billecart-Salmon, which he stocks in quantity. It is his “engine-oil”. “People say, my God, all this champagne,” he says, “but I point out that we have no car, and they spend more on their cars than we do on champagne.”
What does Searle mean to the British public today? He is resigned to the ineradicable association of his name with the St Trinian’s schoolgirls (“Hands up the girl who burnt down the East Wing last night!”) who have entered the language. My generation revere him for his Molesworth books. Old actors display the Punch caricatures of themselves. Wine buffs cherish his wine books, cat-haters his cat books; and the 300 drawings he brought home from Changi and the Kwai would ensure his immortality, even if he had done nothing else.
For 35 years he and Monica have lived in Tourtour (population 150), the medieval “village in the sky”, with its 16th-century château , old stone fountain, and winding cobbled lanes. “You see the village at its best time,” Searle says. “When it’s dead.” It is cold and snowy. There are British expats about, but the Searles don’t see them.
Their hidden-away home is a labyrinthine tower with twisting staircases that would defeat most octogenarians. In 1966 the Searles could just afford the house, a ruin, with £19,000 thanks to his title sequence for Scrooge, the musical, starring Albert Finney.
For two years I have been receiving Searle’s faxes from Tourtour — always a thrill to see the inimitable spidery handwriting — while writing the biography of his first wife, the children’s publisher Kaye Webb. Before they met, Kaye took his cartoons for Lilliput, the monthly humour magazine, and he wrote her sweet letters. Their magazine alliance was happy and productive for a decade, in their Lasdun-designed Bauhausian house with its vast studio in Bayswater. But what happened next is a painful memory for all concerned. In October 1961, while Kaye and their teenage twins were away, Searle vanished. He flew to Paris and to the glamorous Monica (theatre designer and painter, whom he had met in 1958), leaving a letter for his wife saying that he had gone for good.
Apart from shockwaves and domestic misery, he left behind an enormous reputation and a punishing workload. Along with the theatre caricatures for Punch that kept him drawing half the night, there were his books, illustrations, advertising posters, theatre designs, film animations, his publishing company Perpetua Books, travelogues and serious newspaper reportage (the Eichmann trial, the JFK-Nixon presidential campaigns of 1960). His output was prolific, but the quality of the work never faltered: he was the foremost graphic artist of his time, with a distinctive style that already influenced younger practitioners such as Quentin Blake and Gerald Scarfe. He left all this behind, baffling colleagues, who missed his presence at the Punch table — at which he never sat again.
Was it really because he felt swamped by demands, deadlines, domesticity, imprisoned by his life? Or was it perhaps (as I suspect) that at 40 he had simply fallen in love?
“Would you like me to go away?” interceded Monica. Searle: “Why?” “Well, I didn’t want to be indiscreet.” “I’m not being indiscreet, I’ve nothing to hide.” So Monica stayed. “After I came out of prison in 1945, I had to slog every day to try to sell a drawing — I got £5 for a St Trinian’s — to pay the rent. Little by little, it advanced. Then I suddenly had children, became married, and from then on I was always running to pay the bills to keep a family. For me it became a treadmill. I never really loved London: being born and brought up in Cambridge, a condensed jewel, containing, for an art student, the whole history of architecture, from Saxon churches to Giles Gilbert Scott, London was, for me, bleak — the equivalent of poor old Dickens’s blacking factory.”
But was there nothing you missed, in an emotional sense?
“No, not at all, really. I’d made up my mind to leave some years before. Finally I decided to pack up and go when the children were 14. I don’t regret one second of it. A brutal decision, as I said to Sue Lawley (“Yes, totally egotistical,” he said on Desert Island Discs in 2005). But at 14 I was practically working myself. At 14, you are big enough to make your own life.” (A statement his twins, now 62, would dispute.) His relationship with his children remains, at best, distant and sporadic. Kaye never got over his leaving and for the rest of her life talked about him as if he had gone yesterday. The truth is, he was never a family man.
For years he and Monica travelled the globe. She, too, is a survivor: she was treated for breast cancer in 1970. They remain as interdependent as newlyweds, their 50-year togetherness reflected in their symbiotic duologue, finishing each other’s sentences. “If our relationship hadn’t worked so beautifully,” he says, “you couldn’t spend 24 hours a day here. We both respect our own corners.” They meet at 6.30pm to watch a “ghastly” TV quiz, Questions Pour Un Champion. Monica cooks. “An ideal life, because I am a solitary person, and Monica lets me concentrate on my work.” “The phone hasn’t rung in this house for 20 years,” Monica says. “He chose that it should never ring again, and had the bell switched off.” Yet they are clearly gregarious; they send Christmas cards, and welcome friends.
This week they should have been on their annual escape to Paris, at the Hôtel l’Aiglon in Montparnasse, which names rooms after creative artists. “Suite Searle” is on the fourth floor. “Suite Searle ... could have been put to music by Louis Armstrong,” he muses. They should be lunching daily at their favourite Paris restaurant, Le Duc. But their doctor — who visits every Monday to reassure them that they are alive — has forbidden all travel this year.
On March 3, his birthday, they will unplug the fax machine and open another bottle of Billecart-Salmon, à deux.
Meanwhile, in London, Searle devotees will gather at exhibitions celebrating his work. New editions will be launched.
“Dear old Ernest Hecht” has never met Searle, but his Souvenir Press has published him for 40 years, including To the Kwai – And Back, with its drawings, “the graffiti of a condemned man”. “I wrote it as a clear factual account, not an indictment. It’s not an emotional book. I adore our Japanese friends.” In fact, Nobuko Albery, who lives in the Alpes-Maritimes, helped him with Japanese words. But when the Imperial War Museum exhibited the drawings in 1986, Searle stayed away. “I couldn’t go and accept this accolade for myself, when all my friends were fertilising the jungle. Kids of 19 or 20, destroyed.” He still feels guilt to be among the few who survived. And he remains grateful for Australian fellow prisoners. “I loved their camaraderie. They couldn’t care a damn. The Japanese beat me up, and tried to crush my right hand — they didn’t know I was left-handed — but an Australian surgeon bandaged me in banana leaves, and my hand was saved.”
No one who has been taken prisoner ever really comes out of his cell, he says. “But in a way, I’m grateful, because at the formative age of 20, you realise what losing liberty means. You take freedom for granted, then suddenly you’re 1,000 miles from civilisation, in the jungle, with a fire to keep snakes away, trying to do your drawings, thinking perhaps someone might discover them one day. This is what made me an artist, because it gave me a purpose. As a student, you spend days on the folds of a sleeve, but without purpose. Suddenly, you have a way of applying it, a subject that matters. Those four years were my formation. A God-sent gift.”
In the 1980s, when he drew for Le Monde and The New Yorker, and sculpted medals for La Monnaie, the French Mint, and was lauded and honoured in Europe and the US, a British TV director, Patrick Boyle, proposed a Searle film. The BBC turned it down. Then Tina Brown stopped commissioning New Yorker covers. But in 2005, when Sue Lawley flew over for Desert Island Discs, his gentle voice and modest good humour charmed the audience. Latterly, the art dealer Chris Beetles (who Searle won’t meet) got his friend Jeffrey Archer, a Searle collector, to commission brilliant illustrations for his prison stories.
He has yet to watch the DVD of Rupert Everett’s new St Trinian’s film. He killed off St Trinian’s in 1952 (with an atomic bomb), but they refused to die. Now he’s glad of it. He got £300 for the first “cretinous” film, but the latest deal netted £100,000 — “enough to keep us in champagne this year!” Those wartime cartoons were inspired, first, by his sister and her friends (including P. D. James), but chiefly by two schoolgirls, evacuated from St Trinnean’s in Edinburgh, whom he met while stationed in 1940 in Kirkudbright.
A fellow soldier in Kirkcudbright was the historian Eric Hobsbawm, who published Searle’s drawings when he edited the Cambridge magazine Granta in 1939. I brought a greeting from Hobsbawm, signed “from another survivor, now about to be 93!” I delivered Searle a book by his late friend Feliks Topolski, written and drawn in 1948, when Topolski, Searle and Paul Hogarth attended a political congress in Poland. Searle peered at Topolski’s portrait of Picasso.
“I watched Feliks drawing that. The idea of seeing Picasso — to me a god, who’s opened so many doors, if you go to an exhibition of Picasso, you rush home and want to work — and there he sat! Feliks, whom I greatly admired, began sketching away. It’s a good likeness, only took him two minutes, real reportage. He got Picasso to sign it — Feliks was very pushy — then we were told to more or less clear off.”
The Searles are both squirrels. Monica’s atelier has 1,022 drawers, full of bright beads and gems for the necklaces she designs. Ronald’s study and library are lined with books, box-files, ink bottles, a nail from the Kwai railway, 20 Stilton jars of pencils and pens. Max Beerbohm’s wife, Elizabeth, turned up one day saying she had brought something special, all the way from Rapallo — a blank sheet of Beerbohm’s drawing paper. “I wrote on the corner of it, ‘piece of paper from Max Beerbohm’. ”
Everything will be bequeathed to the Wilhelm-Busch Museum in Hanover, whose Searle exhibition will run till next January. It holds Searle’s archive, his sketchbooks from 1938, and the books and drawings he has collected since the age of 15. Why Hanover, not the British Library? “They weren’t interested,” he says. “Until wonderful Frances Carey worked like mad to buy my Rake’s Progress.”
Searle does not want his collection scattered piecemeal. The Wilhelm-Busch “offered the space, and the money. They even photographed my bookshelves in the same order, and rebuilt my library in the museum — very Germanic. I don’t have a conscience about it. We are Europeans, not parochial. I don’t think I am betraying anyone by letting my work go to Germany.”
A section of his library is devoted to books on Cambridge. After I returned home, Searle sent me another fax. “I unthinkingly said that I missed nothing in England. Actually, I do miss Cambridge. Although my sister warned me that so much had changed, that should I be tempted to return, I would be seen on Clare Bridge, sobbing into the Cam.”
People have always wondered how such an amiable person could produce sometimes scabrous, cruel drawings. When I asked Searle what inspired him, he replied: “Inspired? Drawing is just slog, slog, slog ... until what you have in your head approximates to what emerges on the drawing-board. Like writing, I suppose.”
In a new anthology, Quentin Blake rejoices that Searle is still “at his drawing board and still brilliantly with it”. In the same book Searle writes of his “creaking, asthmatic body, older than Mickey Mouse ... Being old is a drag.” Then he remembers his friends, dying in the jungle of the Kwai, and concludes: “In fact, being old is lovely!”

February 20, 2010