St Trinian's cartoonist Ronald Searle dies


David Sillito looks back at Ronald Searle's career. Courtesy of the estate of the artist and the Sayle Literary Agency.

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British cartoonist Ronald Searle, best known for creating the fictional girls' school St Trinian's, has died aged 91.

His daughter Kate Searle said in a statement that he "passed away peacefully in his sleep" in a hospital in France.

Searle's spindly cartoons of the naughty schoolgirls first appeared in 1941, before the idea was adapted for film.

The first movie version, The Belles of St Trinian's, was released in 1954.

Joyce Grenfell and George Cole starred in the film, along with Alastair Sim, who appeared in drag as headmistress Millicent Fritton.

Searle also provided illustrations the Molesworth series, written by Geoffrey Willans.

The gothic, line-drawn cartoons breathed life into the gruesome pupils of St Custard's school, in particular the outspoken, but functionally-illiterate Nigel Molesworth "the goriller of 3B".

Searle's work regularly appeared in magazines and newspapers, including Punch and The New Yorker.

'Unabashed ambition'

Aside from his schoolday stories, he was a savage satirist, and some of his darker material was informed by his time as a prisoner of war during World War II.

St Trinian's book cover. Courtesy of Penguin Classics. The St Trinian's girls first appeared in 1941

There, he worked on the infamous "Railway of Death" - a Japanese project to create a rail link between Thailand and Burma, the construction of which led to the death of more than 100,000 labourers, including 16,000 Allied prisoners.

Some of the work he created whilst being held captive is displayed at the Imperial War Museum in London.

Cartoonist Gerald Scarfe paid tribute to Searle, whom he described as his "hero".

He said: "He was clever and he was funny and he could draw. A lot of cartoonists come up with an idea first but Ronald could really draw."

However, he added that Searle's most famous creations were a "millstone around his neck".

He told the BBC: "He created St Trinian's, which we all loved, and he despised it because he couldn't get away from it and of course he did many, many other things."

Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell said Searle's work stood out for its "genuine wit, intelligence and unabashed ambition".

Anita O'Brien, curator at the Cartoon Museum, said Searle was "absolutely unique".

She added: "He really was one of the most important cartoonists, not just in Britain, but in the rest of the world.

"Many people were influenced by his work. He did so many things, he was so versatile, so talented, so prolific. He will be incredibly missed and there was no one else like him."

Chris Beetles, who held several exhibitions of Searle's work at his gallery, said: "He had become the yardstick by which all those professionals in his trade judged themselves, and his witty draughtsmanship was the standard to which they aspired.

"Over my 40-year collecting and art dealing lifetime, I have never encountered a cartoonist with his consistency of drawing ability, and such an inventive range of humour from burlesque to surrealism."

'Comic anarchism'

Across his career, Searle won a number of awards, including prizes from America's National Cartoonists' Society and France's prestigious Legion d'Honneur in 2007.

Ronald Searle visited an art class in a girls school in 1950 Ronald Searle continued to draw during his time as a prisoner of war

But St Trinian's was his most enduring work - spawning five films between 1954 and 1980.

After a 27-year hiatus, the series was revived in 2007, with Rupert Everett in the headmistress role.

The movie also starred Talulah Riley, Jodie Whittaker and Gemma Arterton, making her film debut.

A sequel, St Trinian's 2: The Legend of Fritton's Gold, was released two years later.

Simon Winder, from Penguin the company that published St Trinian's said: "We are all extremely sad to hear of Ronald's death. He was a marvellous, remarkable man and a great artist.

"I can think of nobody who did more to ridicule and undermine 1950s Britain and St Trinian's and Molesworth will endure forever as masterpieces of comic anarchism."

A full statement from Searle's family read as follows: "Ronald William Fordham Searle, born 3 March 1920, passed away peacefully in his sleep, after a short illness, with his children, Kate and John, and his grandson, Daniel, beside him, on 30 December 2011 in Draguignan, France.

"He requested a private cremation with no fuss and no flowers."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    My wife is fortunate enough to have a number of Ronalds' original drawings. Their powerful use of line, vitality and character are a joy to behold. Truly a great artist and a bastion of the virtues of draughtsmanship who will be greatly missed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    I remember Ronald Searle's wonderful drawings of Molesworth in my well-thumbed copy of 'Down With Skool!', obtained from my school book club for the princely sum of about 25p many years ago. The creativity and wit in his art is, for me, unparalleled and I was delighted when my local bookstore decorated the walls of their cafe with his work.

    Ronald, no chiz; you'll be missed, as any fule kno.

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    Ronald was my hero for as long as I can think back. In 2009 I met him and Monica, together with my friend Matt Jones from the R Searle Tribute blog. People say that you shouldn't meet your heroes. I'm glad I did. Ronald was a remarkable man; witty intelligent passionate and kind. I animated this 2010: CLICK

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    I had the joy of working with Ronald for the last 10 years as he did the drawings for my poetry books for children, and every moment was a pleasure. His delicious creativity never failed to enhance my words and characters, and I always knew how lucky I was to work with a creative genius. From his POW work to the present, his lines and insights dazzle.

    BBC: surely he deserves a better send off.

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    A great life, of a hero of a rare sort. Before the war, Ronald was a pupil of Gwen Raverat in Cambridge (look her up). The drawings he made of life as a prisoner of Japan, at great peril to his own life, were displayed when he came back to Cambridge, showing for the first time the hideous tortures he and others endured. His children and grandson should be massively proud - my Cambridge hero.


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