Saturday, 19 February 2011


It's funny how often happy things emerge out of adversity. A recently-reveled instance of this is Les Très Riches Heures de Mrs Mole, a set of forty-seven drawings by the world's greatest living cartoonist, Ronald Searle, published by Artist's Choice Editions and currently being exhibited at The Cartoon Museum in London.

The title parodies that of the famous 15th century French illuminated prayer book, Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, 'The Very Rich Hours of the Duke of Berry' (right) featuring exquisitely painted and incredibly detailed scenes of daily life in the Duke's court and in the fields around his castle worked by the peasants.

Searle's pictures tell the story of the domestic chores and recreations of the delightful Mrs Mole, busying herself in and around her house in Provence: gathering flowers and herbs, sewing a patchwork quilt, making mince pies, swimming, playing badminton, dancing in the snow,
walking through autumn leaves.

Forty-two years ago, in 1969, Ronald Searle's wife, Monica (or Mo) was diagnosed with breast cancer. With a doomful prognosis of only a few months to live, she embarked on a course of, what was at the time, experimental chemotherapy treatment.

The distraught Ronald, not knowing any other way to support Monica through her ordeal, began creating drawings of his wife in the persona of the calm and contented Mrs Mole pottering around in her in diamond-patterned harlequin apron. "I have only my talent for drawing," he later said, "So, I drew."

The inspiration of the mole as a character had come about when Ronald and Monica were renovating their house in a Provencal village and came across a particularly stubborn rock in the floor which, on excavation, turned out to be the keystone to an arch in a subterranean level of the building of which they were previously unaware. This started them imagining the goings on of a possible mole community beneath their floors.

Devotees of Searle's legendary penmanship will relish the artist's use of colour, his depictions of summer sunlight and winter snowscapes and his knack of combining the immediacy of the sketch with the inclusion of precise, minutely observed detail.

For Monica, the drawings brought her comfort and encouragement over the six years she underwent treatment in Paris: "I would lie in bed," she has said, "living the life he created in the pictures."

Although on each hospital visit, her specialist would make a point of asking to see Ronald's latest drawing of Mrs Mole, these
highly personal drawings were never intended for publication.

That the Searles have now decided that they may be shared with the world reflects the fact that whilst a cancer diagnosis today is, fortunately, not necessarily a death sentence, cancer research has still a long way to go. The
sale of prints of these delightfully witty drawings will raise money for the charity Macmillan Cancer Support as well as The Foundling Museum and the Cartoon Museum.

They are also a reminder that the will to survive can be infinitely encouraged by a little love and a lot of hope.

The exhibition continues at The Cartoon Museum only until 20 March, so if you're anywhere near the capital, make sure you don't miss it!

The Cartoon Museum is at 35 Little Russell Street, London, WC1A 2HH and is open Tuesday-Saturday 10:30-5:30; Sunday 12:00-5:30 (Admission £5.50 Adults; £4.00 Concessions; £3.00 Students; Free to Under-18s, Art Fund Members and Friends of the Cartoon Museum)

Copies of
Les Très Riches Heures de Mrs Mole (signed by Ronald and Monica Searle) and prints of the individual drawings (similarly signed) can be ordered from the Museum or from Carol Manheim of Artist's Choice Editions,, 0208 994 9740.


On Wednesday 9 March, Cartoon Museum Curator, Anita O'Brien will give a talk Ronald Searle and the Tale of Mrs Mole from 6:30-7:30. To book tickets (£5.00, Concessions £4.00; Friends £3.00) phone 0207 580 8155.


You'll find more on Mrs Mole (and much, much more on Mr Searle) on Matt Jones' Ronald Searle Tribute blog.

Images: Illustrations of Mrs Mole and photograph © Ronald Searle 2011, courtesy of the artist and the Sayle Literary Agency.


Matt J said...

Fab! Linked to the blog already!

Brian Sibley said...

Thanks, Matt; I have linked to your blog, too!

SharonM said...

What a lovely blog and inspiring story!

Suzanne said...

What a delightful story, which has a particular resonance with me these days. I am currently trying to help a friend in the clutches of cancer...