Ronald William Fordham Searle, CBE, RDI (3 March 1920 – 30 December 2011 ) was an English artist and satirical cartoonist, comics artist, sculptor, medal designer and illustrator. He is perhaps best remembered as the creator of St Trinian's School and for his collaboration with Geoffrey Willans on the Molesworth series.
Searle was born in Cambridge, England, where his father was a Post Office worker who repaired telephone lines. He started drawing at the age of five and left school (Central School – now Parkside School) at the age of 15. He trained at Cambridge College of Arts and Technology (now Anglia Ruskin University) for two years.
In April 1939, realizing that war was inevitable, he abandoned his art studies to enlist in the Royal Engineers. In January 1942, he was stationed in Singapore. After a month of fighting in Malaya, he was taken prisoner along with his cousin Tom Fordham Searle, when Singapore fell to the Japanese. He spent the rest of the war as prisoner, first in Changi Prison and then in the Kwai jungle, working on the Siam-Burma Death Railway. Searle contracted both beriberi and malaria during his incarceration, which included numerous beatings, and his weight dropped to less than 40 kilograms. He was liberated in late 1945 with the final defeat of the Japanese. After the war, he served as a courtroom artist at the Nuremberg trials and later the Adolf Eichmann trial (1961).
He married the journalist Kaye Webb in 1947; they had twins, Kate and Johnny. In 1961, Searle moved to Paris, leaving his family; the marriage ended in divorce in 1967. Later he married Monica Koenig, a painter, theatre and jewellery designer. After 1975, Searle and his wife lived and worked in the mountains of Haute Provence.
Searle's wife Monica died in July 2011 and he himself died on 30 December 2011, aged 91.
Although Searle published the first St Trinian's cartoon in the magazine Lilliput in 1941, his professional career really begins with his documentation of the brutal camp conditions of his period as a prisoner-of-war of the Japanese in World War II in a series of drawings that he hid under the mattresses of prisoners dying of cholera. Searle recalled, "I desperately wanted to put down what was happening, because I thought if by any chance there was a record, even if I died, someone might find it and know what went on." But Searle survived, along with approximately 300 of his drawings. Liberated late in 1945, Searle returned to England, where he published several of the drawings in fellow prisoner Russell Braddon's The Naked Island. Another of Searle's fellow prisoners later recounted, "If you can imagine something that weighs six stone or so, is on the point of death and has no qualities of the human condition that aren't revolting, calmly lying there with a pencil and a scrap of paper, drawing, you have some idea of the difference of temperament that this man had from the ordinary human being."
Most of these drawings appear in his 1986 book, Ronald Searle: To the Kwai and Back, War Drawings 1939–1945.In the book, Searle also wrote of his experiences as a prisoner, including the day he woke up to find a dead friend on either side of him, and a live snake underneath his head:
You can’t have that sort of experience without it directing the rest of your life. I think that’s why I never really left my prison cell, because it gave me my measuring stick for the rest of my life... Basically all the people we loved and knew and grew up with simply became fertiliser for the nearest bamboo.
At least one of his drawings is on display at the Changi Museum and Chapel, Singapore, but the majority of his originals are in the permanent collection of the Imperial War Museum, London, along with the works of other POW artists. The best known of these are John Mennie, Jack Bridger Chalker, Philip Meninsky and Ashley George Old.
Searle produced an extraordinary volume of work during the 1950s, including drawings for Life, Holiday and Punch. His cartoons appeared in The New Yorker, the Sunday Express and the News Chronicle. He compiled more St Trinian's books, which were based on his sister's school and other girls' schools in Cambridge. He collaborated with Geoffrey Willans on the Molesworth books (Down With Skool!, 1953, and How to be Topp, 1954), and with Alex Atkinson on travel books. In addition to advertisements and posters, Searle drew the title backgrounds of the Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder film The Happiest Days of Your Life.
After moving to Paris in 1961, he worked more on reportage for Life and Holiday and less on cartoons. He also continued to work in a broad range of media and created books (including his well-known cat books), animated films and sculpture for commemorative medals, both for the French Mint and the British Art Medal Society. Searle did a considerable amount of designing for the cinema, and in 1965, he completed the opening, intermission and closing credits for the comedy film Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines as well as the 1969 film Monte Carlo or Bust!. In 1975, the full-length cartoon Dick Deadeye, or Duty Done was released. It is based on the character and songs from H.M.S. Pinafore.
Searle designed the 1992 delegates medal for the FIDEM XXIII Congress London. It depicted a half-length bust of the renaissance medallist Pisanello and was struck by the Royal Mint. Other notable medals were "Searle at Seventy" (1990) and "Kwai 50th Anniversary" (1991) Medal both struck by Thomas Fattorini Ltd, and "Charles Dickens" (1983) struck by the Birmingham Mint.
In 2010, he gave about 2,200 of his works as permanent loans to Wilhelm Busch Museum, Hanover (Germany), now renamed Deutsches Museum für Karikatur und Zeichenkunst. Previously the summer palace of George I of Hanover, this museum also holds Searle's archives.
Searle received much recognition for his work, especially in America, including the National Cartoonists Society's Advertising and Illustration Award in 1959 and 1965, the Reuben Award in 1960, their Illustration Award in 1980 and their Advertising Award in 1986 and 1987. Searle was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2004. In 2007, he was decorated with one of France's highest awards, the Chevalier de la Légion d'honneur, and in 2009, he received the German Lower Saxony Order of Merit.
He was an early influence on John Lennon's drawing style which featured in the books In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works. Anglia Ruskin has named the Ronald Searle Award for Creativity in the Arts in his honour.
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