Wednesday 3 March 2010


Today is, indeed, the 90th birthday of the greatest cartoonist, illustrator and graphic artist of the late 20th century.

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RONALD SEARLE is universally remembered for his infamously anarchic educational establishment, St Trinian's, whose young ladies were later immortalised on film under the tutelage of Miss Milicent Fritton (first portrayed by Alastair Sim and, more recently, by Rupert Everett) and who are here seen, in one of the original drawings, turning out to greet an honoured guest on Founder's Day - could it be the artist himself? I think so...

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I first encountered Searle not on the hockey-pitch of St Trinian's but through his illustrations to the fairytale worlds of James Thurber's The 13 Clocks and the Wonderful O...

Shortly afterwards, I became acquainted with (right) Searle's graphic contribution to the academic misadventures of Master Nigel Molesworth who - "as any fule kno" - was the Curse of St Custard's.

Despite the fact that Searle's collaborator was a former teacher, Geoffrey Willans, Down with Skool, How to Be Topp and their companion volumes were widely condemned by educationalists in my day (and certainly banned from my skool library) due to their appalling spelling and grammar and, more heinously, their highly subversive content!

Today, changing social mores not withstanding, they remain an hilarious insight into the monstrous minds of small boys!

"The Molesworth-Peason lines Machine.
Runs off a hundred in one minit. (patnt pnding.)"
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During my own passage from adolescence to adulthood, I discovered Searle's many collections of cartoons and pen portraits as well as some of his illustrations to an astonishing range of books by authors ranging from Charles Dickens via Christopher Fry to Patrick Campbell.

Searle, I found, had also decorated the lyrics of Tom Lehrer, Flanders and Swann and, in the animated film, Dick Deadeye, the stories and characters of Gilbert and Sullivan.

I also stumbled across (left) his spidery 'embellishments' to a delicious oddity, The Journal of Edwin Carp.

This curiosity was written by the actor Richard Haydn (fondly recalled as Max Dettweiler in The Sound of Music) which inspired this short animated film...

Ronald Searle was an artist of enormous diversity, whose work spans over sixty years of contributions to Lilliput, Punch, Life, Holiday, La Monde and many other publications containing his idiosyncratic observations on life in Britain...

France, where he eventually made his home...

And the USA...

Searle's established brilliance as a caricaturist, led to his designing several memorable movie posters and title sequences for a number of films including Scrooge, Monte Carlo or Bust and Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines...

During WWII, Searle had undergone the harrowing experience of being a Japanese POW in Changi Gaol and having witnessed torture and death at such close range may well have contributed, obliquely, to the comic violence found in the corridors, dorms and labs of St Trinian's and St Custard's. They certainly seem to haunt many of his later, darker cartoons, but the humour always bubbles through especially in his much-loved universe of bizarre birds, preposterous pigs and corpulent, contented cats...

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The work of this brilliant artist is currently being celebrated in two major London exhibitions:

Ronald Searle - Graphic Master is on show from 3 March-4 July at The Cartoon Museum, 35 Little Russell Street, London, WC1A 2HH. Opening hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 10:30-17:30; Sunday, 12:00-17:30, Closed Monday.

This glorious exhibition celebrates the creator of Molesworth and Co and the 'Surly gurls' of St Trinian's with some memorable scholaric moments such as this one...

"Ruddy Sports Day!"

The exhibition places Searle's cartoons, caricatures and illustrations within the historical context of graphic art as represented by such predecessors as Gilray, Cruikshank and Rowlandson. It also expands our appreciation of Searle's brilliance as a master of graphic reportage as demonstrated in a wide range of works from scenes of London life (sewer-men, flag-makers, boxers, and auctioneers) made during the 1950s for the News Chronicle and which are an evocative insight into London life in the early days of the 'New Elizabethan Age', through to Searle's globe-trotting observations of other cultures, by turn, brutally harsh and wryly affectionate.

Among the exhibits (many borrowed from the artist and his family and several of them unpublished and seen here for the first time) are plenty of pictures that make you smile, chortle and laugh out loud at the follies and absurdities of human nature, as well as others that will evoke quite different emotions such as Searle's painful and horrific war-time sketches of disease and death in the Burmese jungle and his clinical post-war chronicling of the trial of Adolf Eichmann and an emotional response to the erection of Berlin Wall.

A fabulous, full-colour 160 page catalogue (right) contains - in addition to a superabundance of Searleiness - essays and art-pieces by Steve Bell, Roger Law, Uli Meyer, Arnold Roth, Martin Rowson, Gerald Scarfe, Posy Simmonds and Ralph Steadman. At £14.99 it is a 'snip'.

If you love Ronald Searle - or even if just quite like him - you must not miss this exhibition!

The Cartoon Museum, 35 Little Russell Street, London, WC1A 2HH.
Opening hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 10:30-17:30; Sunday, 12:00-17:30, Closed Monday.

'Palm Springs' from The Cartoon Museum exhibition

There is also a largely-selling exhibition, Happy 90th Birthday Ronald Searle, from 3 March - 3 April at Chris Beetles Gallery.

Among the exhibits that are on loan (rather than for sale) in the Beetles show - which traces Searle's draughtsmanship from Lilliput to his illustrations, a year or two back, for Jeffrey Archer's Cat O'Nine Tales - is our very own Searle original: a classic St Trinian's cartoon showing the long-suffering headmistress and one of the little devils in her charge...

On a blog post of a few years back, you can read more about this picture and about some of Searle's other work.

Chris Beetles Gallery, 8 & 10 Ryder Street, St James's, London, SW1Y 6QB.
Opening hours: 10:00-17:30pm Monday-Saturday. Closed Sunday.

And, after all that, all that remains to be said is....

Many Happy Returns, Mr Searle!

Several of the illustrations in this post have been 'borrowed' from my good friend, artist and animator, Matt Jones' blogs: Perpetua - Ronald Searle Tribute and Ronald Searle Tumblog, which are the places to go to read and see more - a lot more - about the work of this incomparable artist.

And check out Matt's other blogs:
Matt Jones' Sketchbook
Matt's Morgue
Mis-en-scene and others.

Incidentally, Matt will be giving a talk about Searle's work with animation at the Cartoon Museum on Tuesday 30th March. A month later (more or less) on Wednesday 28 April, I will be speaking about Searle's illustrations. There will be a number of other talks during the run of the exhibition and I'll give details as soon as they are available. All talks will begin at 6:30.


Suzanne said...

What a load of memories! I remember, in my boarding school (here in Belgium, believe it or not!) that in the room where we used to wait before to took the bus to go swimming, there was a massive cartoon drawing of what we always took to be St Trinians'. Retrospectively, I realise that it must have been a real smack in the teeth for the nuns charged with our Education... I must try & go back to visit some time...
fracan: the noise made by 150 girls in an enclosed space

Matt Jones said...

Happy Birthday Mr Searle! Great to meet you last night Brian-the Cartoon Museum show is indeed excellent as is the fine catalogue. See you at Maggs tonight!

Brian Sibley said...

SUZANNE - I suspect that (whilst rooted in a very British boarding school tradition) the kids of St Trinian's are fairly universal in their ruthlessness and obnoxiousness! I certainly interpreted Molesworth's fellow students, teachers and parents with those I knew from my humble Sec. Mod!

MATT J - Great to meet you - at last - and to know that, like me, you are going to be speaking about Searle at the Cartoon Museum. And before that, I see you at tonight's show.

SharonM said...

What a talent Ronald Searle has!

I hope that he has a wonderful 90th birthday (1920 must have been a good year, because my Dad was born then as well).

Blue Floppy Hat said...

And of course, a very happy birthday to Mr Searle! I understand he lives in the South of France now- hope it's good weather up there.

Blue Floppy Hat said...

Ah, St Trinian's...they tried to remake the movies a couple of years ago with a load of young Brit It-girls and it didn't really work.

But the cartoons are glorious. They always were, and they were my favourite reading when I was 13 and looking for material to put in fantasies about how to get revenge on my own teachers and dull Catholic girls' school.

Brian Sibley said...

SHARON - Hope you've told your Dad, he shares his birthday with the Founder of St Trinian's!

BLUE FLOPPY HAT - Welcome to my blog! I was very fearful about the new film, but thought Rupert Everett (whilst not being Alastair Sim - who could be?) did an excellent job as the headmistress. Actually, of course, the films (old and new) are a bit of a distraction really because the brilliance of St T's is, as you say, in the cartoons.

Yes, Mr Searle lives in Provence. I would dearly love to have met him, but that is now unlikely, although - like all his fans - I have met him through his art...

Steven Hartley said...

Ronald Searle's work was influenced on Disney's 101 Dalmatians, and I believe that during the war he was prisoned by the Japanese (I think).

However, I like his drawings on St. Trinians, and they are very charming, and they did a film series in the '50's I believe, and did a poor remake some few years ago.

I've seen most of his work at the Cartoon Musuem in London - BRILLIANT!!!

Brian Sibley said...

Yes, Searle's style was very influential on the work of Disney artist, Ken Anderson, and can be seen in the look of 101 Dalmatians. In fact, in the scene where Pongo is sitting on the window-seat of Roger's house at the beginning of the film, there are copies of the British magazine, Lilliput in which Ronald Searle's drawings regularly appeared.

As you say, the exhibition at the Cartoon Museum in London was excellent.

miketoons said...

2010 has been a feast for fans of Ronald Searle! Having seen the Cartoon Museum exhibition and the work on show at the Bettles gallery earlier in the year, last week I went to Hannover to see the Searle exhibition at the Wilhelm Busch Museum.

Stunning! Room after room of drawings. His work for Le Monde in the last decade shows that his powers are undiminished. Huge bonus: the museum also had an exhibition of Gerald Scarfe: Heroes and Monsters.

Brian Sibley said...

Thanks for the update, MIKE, really wish I could get to the WBM!

Thanks for dropping by – I've had a quick peep at your blog and I will definitely be doing some exploring there!!