Published 08/01/2012 | 05:00
Cartoonist whose greatest legacy was laughter, despite his dreadful wartime experiences, by Russell Davies
Ronald Searle, who died on December 30, 2011, aged 91, defended himself implacably against the intrusions of the world. To divulge his address in the little hill-village of Tourtour would have been a sin. His telephone number was not circulated, so his fax-machine -- an industrial-sized apparatus capable of sending fine-line drawings to distant newspapers -- was the only way in. Children under 18 were not permitted on his premises. Nor were specks of dust, or flies (especially not flies), or the rings of moisture that champagne glasses might leave behind. Champagne was, however, plentifully dispensed. It was advisable not to bring Ronald any, since most of the well-known marques were not to his taste, and it was in any case impossible to compete with the Roederer Cristal he invariably uncorked.
If all this sounds unbearably precious, and even a mite domineering, you have to remember the state to which Ronald had once been reduced, after his wartime capture by the Japanese. A period of slavery on the Siam-Burma Railway left him in a barely viable condition, suffering from a number of diseases, including two forms of malaria. Considering how close to death his captors had brought him, he remained remarkably hate-free, reasoning that they simply came from a different civilisation, and lived by a different code.
But some of his drawings depicting the Japanese treatment of prisoners are vital documents, prized now by the Imperial War Museum. They were potentially deadly evidence at the time, hidden carefully in bamboo tubes and the like. Certain execution would have followed their discovery. Death was ever-present anyway. More than once, Ronald told me, he made a drawing of a fellow-prisoner at dawn, and found him dead of fly-borne cholera by nightfall. No wonder flies were The Enemy.
Restored to British society, Ronald drew every day (left-handed) for the next 65 years. But the seeds of his dissatisfaction with England were already sown. The St Trinian's cartoons, which he had begun drawing in 1941 for the magazine Lilliput, were the comedic strain by which he was destined to become best-known, and, to his dismay, typecast, in his own country.
Once it had lost its early dark tinges -- the gymslipped schoolgirls began as homicidal cynics -- the whole tradition became detestable to Ronald, though he admitted that the occasional request for film rights did help keep him in champagne.
His feelings for the Molesworth series were much sunnier, and in his notes he would happily lapse into Geoffrey Willans's schoolboy-speak. Enjoying the text as he did, etc, etc, he didn't attempt to compete with it, so the much-loved illustrations are among his simplest and most anecdotal. But to quote a Willans title, Ronald was "Back In The Jug Agane". He had escaped from one prison only to find another. Marriage to the children's book editor Kaye Webb brought instant twins, not easy for a recently freed slave to bond with, and a demanding domesticity closed about him. Ronald's work in Punch had brought him many devotees among fellow artists, and a few pestilential imitators, too. But perhaps he sensed that the grand old magazine's tradition was moribund. At all events, in 1961, he did the ruthless thing and severed his ties with home and family. He went to live in France, setting up home with the designer Monica Koenig -- the beloved Mo.
Tourtour was perhaps yet another prison, but it was a fortress prison, and Ronald was its governor. He learnt to love the French, even for their pernicketiness. When he declared to the tax authorities that he used 48 per cent of his domestic space for work, they came and spent two days measuring up. No, they wrote, you use 48.5 per cent. We owe you a small amount of money.
Up in the hills of the Var, he was liable to be forgotten by his old public (have you heard "Was he still alive?" uttered recently?) but he had never been interested in the standard honours of the old country. Besides, his French and German publics disdained to treat him as a fountain of whimsicality and mirth. He was seen as a kind of philosophical commentator, pursuing his arguments not phrase by phrase, but line by barbed-wire line, in gorgeously tattered inks. Harmonious and rhythmic at a distance, his work, close-up, was always snaggy and barbed.
Of course, the French and Germans are not necessarily right. As a sometime caricaturist myself, I admire Ronald's many techniques extravagantly, but what I value most is the laughter in his work. It is both hilarious and beautiful -- a rare combination. A valued possession of mine is one of "Searle's Cats", a former New Yorker cover, in which a moggy on a sun-bed is threatened by seagulls. "He must have loved cats," people often say. "No," I tell them, "he hated them. I think that's why it's funny."
Searle was awarded a CBE in 2004.
Ronald William Fordham Searle, married in 1946 Kaye Webb. They had one son, one daughter. The marriage was dissolved 1967. In 1967 he married Monica Koenig.