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 34.

    The best as any fule kno

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    A sad loss of a very talented man.

  • 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.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    Now he is someone who is definitely worthy of a state funeral.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    A grate artist, sadly unappreciated.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    I remember seeing the first St Trinians at our local cinema! The thing was a bunch of us got in via the emergency exit door (a regular thing we did as kids). I must have been about 7 or 8 years old and just followed the older kids. It was a great film and I have watched it many times since!
    RIP Ronald. You have now taken St Trinian to heaven.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    dogshank is quite right. Ronald Searle was one of the most important British artists of the 20th century. The range, quality and quantity of his output was extraordinary. To reduce him to just St Trinian's and Molesworth is lazy, ill-informed journalism.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    This should be higher up in your news priorities. Searle was the greatest cartoonist of the 20th Century and one of the greatest artists full stop.

    He did more that just St Trinian's although this article seems to concentrate on just that. He survived the building of the Death Railway, drawing all the while. His reportage drawings are second to none. He drew the trial of Adolph Eichmann.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    He Illustrated Molesworth.....any fule kno that

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    Comment number 25.

    The subtle curve of a cartoon lip or raised eyebrow could convey a whole range of emotions. The term "cartoonist" is sometimes used to infer a lesser type of artist, but Searle's portrayals were works of pure genius, worthy of a Royal Academy Fellow.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    I knew Ronald and his late wife Monica. I had been brought up with Molesworth and the St.Trinian's films and so was delighted when our paths crossed in the 80's. They were devoted to each other and despite crippling chemotheraphy Monica survived against all odds until last summer. I suspect Ronald could not see any future without his beloved wife by his side. Ave atque vale.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    A sad loss, his cartoons are as funny today as they always were. As a lad I loved Molesworth - and I still do.

    How appropriate: the book cover image is a Penguin book, and Penguin is now owned by Molesworth's grate frend Peason...

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    RIP Mr Searle. I recently wrote and staged a musical based on St Trinians and it was an enjoyable task translating the confident, mischievous, yet endearing characters into a musical, stage version. The artwork Mr Searle created has the ability to inspire and amuse each generation. Many of the images inspired by his wartime experiences are also deeply moving. He will be greatly missed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    Dr JG - also a shame that the BBC couldn't feature this story like they used to before the new dumbed-down website became all about pretty pictures. I only found about this because it was trending on twitter and had to dig deep through the website before finding this story. A great shame that a great man's death is ignored in favour of advertising iPlayer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    Ronald Searle's artwork constantly inspired me! From his Oddbin's work to the Molesworth books to his sketches as a PoW. Btw, many examples of the latter can be found on the Imperial War Museum website: (links to collections search for Ronald Searle)

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    And don't forget his wonderful cartoon cats. I have in front of me his Big Fat Cat Book and each image is a delight. There is also Winespeak which has wine tasting phrases such as " Somewhat Lacking in Finesse" illustrated by a rather uncouth character in a vest drinking straight out of the bottle. Genius.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    I grew up with the Molesworth books and by old battered copies are still taken out every now and then for a read. Now I have children of my own I will not hesitate to buy them the books when they are old enough. Ronald Searle you were a legend, as any fule kno.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Severian #10:
    "It's a shame that the BBC couldn't even be bothered to check the spelling on someone's obituary, "Ronald Searle won a number of awads...." The BBC obviously is employing too many ex-Guardian journalists these days."

    Or else the Obit riter is chanelling Molesworth and his terribul speling.

    Sad news, chiz chiz, RIP Mr Searle, and condolences to your family.

  • Comment number 16.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Rest in peace Mr Searle. My family still talk - at this time of year - about writing "Nigel Molesworth all purpose thank-you letters".


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