August 05, 2020 at 06:09PM
Ronald Searle created his own style of graphic art
TWENTIETH-CENTURY Britain produced no greater nor more distinctive graphic artist than Ronald Searle. He was born 100 years ago, in March 1920, and lived to be 91, publishing to the very end of his long life and leaving behind a body of work astonishing in its richness and variety. Even people who don’t know his name would probably recognise his style—its combination of comic exuberance and rococo, quasi-gothic seediness—and may well have bought some of it in greeting-card form.
Searle was not easily roused to complaint. He had survived the horrors of prison camps in the second world war without subsequently nursing bitterness towards his Japanese captors. But he occasionally let slip his frustration at one thing: that he was best known in the UK for what he considered the least of his creations, the delinquent schoolgirls of St Trinian’s. (Calling him “St Trinian's creator Ronald Searle” is rather like summing up Leonard Cohen as “the composer of talent-contest favourite ‘Hallelujah’”, or T.S. Eliot as “the originator of ‘Cats’”.) This most brilliantly British of artists was knighted not by his own country, but by France, where he spent the latter part of his life and where he was appreciated as a genius rather than as a fellow who accidentally spawned a titillating film franchise.
In 1939, with war looming, the teenage Searle had given up his art studies and enlisted in the Royal Engineers. Three years later he was taken prisoner in Singapore, working on the so-called “death railway” made infamous by the film “The Bridge On The River Kwai” (he rejected the movie’s depiction of camaraderie among captives). He drew what he saw around him, not expecting to live and hoping to leave a record. Fellow inmates would remember him as one more emaciated figure, like them separated from death by only a fine line, distinguished by a preternatural aura of calm as he sketched his hellish surroundings.
But he did survive, having seen “all the people we loved and knew and grew up with simply [become] fertiliser for the nearest bamboo”. The unflinching pictures Searle had drawn would become the foundation of his career: they revealed a flair for the grotesque that would underpin his work thereafter. Something sinister always squirmed beneath the jocular surface. His nearest peer in this regard was Mervyn Peake, the author and illustrator of the “Gormenghast” fantasy trilogy, who was deeply affected by the atrocities he witnessed entering the newly liberated Bergen-Belsen concentration camp as a war artist. Searle himself would be an official courtroom artist at the Nuremberg trials, and later at the trial of Adolf Eichmann.
In 1953—the same year that he tried in vain to kill off the belles of St Trinians in a nuclear conflagration—Searle launched his greatest creation: Nigel Molesworth. The “Molesworth” tetralogy was written with delicious wit and invention by Geoffrey Willans, who died in 1958, and illustrated with dazzling, macabre brio by Searle. A slovenly and baleful prep-school pupil, Molesworth’s jaundiced, semi-literate observations stand among the best in English humour.
In what was then (as now) a country riven by class, ruled by the products of Eton and Harrow, Searle turned his wry gaze upon the subject by dishing up schoolboy japes at St Custard’s, a minor private school. It was populated with superbly realised character studies, many of them still recognisable: future Bullingdon Club bullies, never doubting they are born to rule; a succession of hidebound masters and headmasters; and Molesworth himself, a surly, wily underachiever. The “Molesworth” books capture Britain undergoing a familiar struggle to recover from a series of crises and adapt to strange new times.
Searle was always funny but he was seldom frivolous. He excelled at caricature, at capturing and exaggerating not just the look but the essence of a thing. He skewered types rather than individuals: you can see it in his themed collections about bibliophiles, wine buffs, cats and anything else that caught his eye or to which he was assigned. His greatest strengths were reportage and satire. He drew wonderful travelogues for magazines in the 1960s and 1970s and was a regular contributor to Punch, for whom he ingeniously updated William Hogarth’s “The Rake’s Progress”, and the New Yorker.
He would exert as strong an influence upon British comic satire as Hogarth, James Gillray and George Cruikshank had done upon him; the extravagance of cartoonists Ralph Steadman, Gerald Scarfe and Martin Rowson, in particular, owe much to Searle. His art, in its wildness, energy and skill, as well as its absurdity and morbid sensibility, has been much imitated. But it has never been bettered. Searle remains the master of a mode he invented.
Author: | Post link: https://www.economist.com/prospero/2020/08/05/ronald-searle-created-his-own-style-of-graphic-art
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