Cartoonist, screenwriter, art director, costume designer, animator
Ronald William Fordham Searle, CBE, RDI, (born 3 March 1920, Cambridge, England) is an influential English artist and cartoonist. Best known as the creator of St Trinian’s School (the subject of several BOOKS and seven full-length films). He is also the co-author (with Geoffrey Willans) of the Molesworth tetralogy.
Searle was born in Cambridge where his father was a porter at Cambridge Railway Station. He started drawing at the age of five and left school at the age of 15. In April 1939, realizing that war was inevitable, he abandoned his art studies to enlist in the Royal Engineers. He trained at Cambridge College of Arts and Technology, currently Anglia Ruskin University, for two years, and in 1941, published the first St Trinian’s cartoon in the magazine Lilliput. In January 1942 he was STATIONED in Singapore. After a month of fighting in Malaya, Singapore fell to the Japanese, and he was taken prisoner along with his cousin Tom Fordham Searle. He spent the rest of the war a prisoner, first in Changi Prison and then in the Kwai jungle, working on the Siam-Burma Death Railway.
The brutal camp conditions were documented by Searle in a series of drawings that he hid under the mattresses of prisoners dying of cholera. Liberated late in 1945, Searle returned to England where he published several of the surviving drawings in fellow prisoner Russell Braddon’s The Naked Island. Most of these drawings appear in his 1986 BOOK, Ronald Searle: To the Kwai and Back, War Drawings 1939-1945. At least one of the drawings is on display at the Changi Museum and Chapel, Singapore, but the majority of these original drawings, approximately 300, 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 Jack Bridger Chalker, Philip Meninsky and Ashley George Old.
He married the journalist Kaye Webb in 1947; they had twins, Kate and Johnny. 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, and 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; and did animation in Hollywood and worked on advertisements and posters. Searle also drew the title backgrounds of the Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder film The Happiest Days of Your Life.
In 1961 he moved to Paris, leaving his family and later marrying Monica Koenig, theatre designer and creator of necklaces. In France 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 produced 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 popular comedy Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines. In 1975 the full-length cartoon Dick Deadeye was released. Animated by a number of artists both British and French, it is considered by some to be his greatest achievement, although Searle himself detested the result. Since 1975 he and Monica have lived and worked in the mountains of Haute Provence.
In 2010 he gave about 2,200 of his works as permanent LOANS to Wilhelm Busch Museum Hannover (Germany) now renamed Deutsches Museum für Karikatur und Zeichenkunst, the ancient Summer palace of George 1st, that holds Searle’s archives Searle received much recognition for his work, especially in America, including the National Cartoonist Society 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.
His work has had a great deal of influence, particularly on American cartoonists, including Pat Oliphant, Matt Groening, Hilary Knight and the animators of Disney’s 101 Dalmatians. In 2005 he was the subject of a long BBC documentary on his life and work by Russell Davies. In 2007 he was decorated with France’s highest award, the Légion d’honneur and in 2009 he received the German Order of Merit.