Friday, March 05, 2010

Ronald Searle

This past Wednesday, March 3rd marked the 90th birthday of the great British artist/cartoonist, Ronald Searle.  I'm not going to attempt in this blog to write a history of Searle's work, others have already done wonderful tributes to Searle in their blogs (see but I did want to honor the man by showing some examples of his work and to talk about how I first came to know of him.

I think my first exposure to him was when I bought the soundtrack to the film "Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines."  Searle had done the artwork for both the one-sheet poster and the soundtrack cover (see image at right with detail below).   I was around 11 when this film was released in 1965 and though I don't think I saw the film until it was later shown on television, I bought the soundtrack (probably from a sale bin) mostly because I was fascinated by Searle's sketchy caricatures of the actors in the film (Stuart Whitman, Sarah Miles, James Fox, Terry Thomas and Gert Frobe).  Going through some of the sketch books I kept in my teens, I can see that at the time, I was heavily influenced by his style.

I think my next exposure to Searle's work came during high school, when the musical "Scrooge" starring Albert Finney was released in the early 1970s.  To promote the film, a book was published about the making of the movie.  The book was a combination of text, stills from the film and artwork by Ronald Searle (Unfortunately, I was unable to find my copy of this book or I would have posted some images from it).

Around the same time that I bought the "Scrooge" book, I bought another book at a library benefit sale, that contained artwork by Ronald Searle.  This book was put out in conjunction with the film "Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies," which was a sort of follow-up film to the more successful, "Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines."  Although I don't think this film was considered a direct sequel, it did share a couple of the same actors, namely Terry Thomas and Gert Frobe.  The leading man was played by Tony Curtis opposite Susan Hampshire, the lovely star of Disney's "The Three Lives of Thomasina," and the original version of "The Forsyte Saga."

It wasn't until only recently that I learned some background on Ronald Searle.  I knew that he had created the bad school girls of St. Trinian's, which to his dismay, came to be what most people knew him for, but I had not known of his WWII experiences in a Japanese prisoner of war camp.  After hearing about this, and learning that a book had been published containing drawings he made while in captivity, I sought out a copy.  The book is titled "To the Kwai - and Back, War Drawings 1939-1945," and it is an amazing book.  It is also at times gut-wrenching, horrifying and sad.  The images in the book are accompanied by Searle's own account of what happened while in captivity.  Together they add up to an unforgettable portrait of a 21-year old man who lived to tell the tale of a dark period in recent world history, a period that as the veterans of that war (my father was one of them) grow old and die, will soon be relegated to the history books and will sound as far off as those stories we learned in school about the civil war (I have to admit - that last phrase was paraphrased from a James Michener quote in his "Tales of the South Pacific)."

While in captivity, Searle took great risks to create some of these drawings. They only survive because he was helped in hiding them by men who were sick and dying of cholera.  Searle knew that his captors were terrified of the disease and would not dare search the beds of the dying men who were just days away from death.
This sketch was done on a form that Searle and his fellow captors were forced to sign, promising that they would not attempt to escape.

 "Dawn parade."

"Prison headgear, 1944."

"Siam 1943: Man dying of cholera."
A plane drops leaflets over the camp announcing the end of the war (right).

Here is what Searle has to say in his own words about these drawings:
"These drawings were not a means of catharsis.  Circumstances were too basic for that.  But they did at times act as a mental life-belt.  Now, with the perspective and detachment that a gap of forty years or so can achieve, they can be looked on as the graffiti of a condemned man, intending to leave rough witness of his passing through, but who found himself - to his surprise and delight - among the reprieved.  This book - these drawings for what they are - belong to those who were not.

Happy Birthday Ronald Searle.

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