Best known to children as the creator of St Trinian’s School and later as the illustrator of Geoffrey Willans’ Molesworth series, Ronald Searle had a strikingly individual and unmistakable style in which he reduced his characters to matchstick legs and stiletto feet, bristling brows and hunched shoulders. It was his first wife, Kaye Webb (later to become the celebrated Publisher of Puffin Books) who, as Assistant Editor of Lilliput magazine, published his first St Trinian’s style cartoon.
In the great tradition of Gillray, Rowlandson, Cruikshank and Richard Newton, Ronald Searle created his own unique graphic world characterised by acute social observation and wit but with an underlying sense of tension and unease, perhaps to do with the impact of his years working on the death railway as a prisoner of war of the Japanese, events which he recorded on scraps of paper as Australian writer/illustrator Leigh Hobbs explains in his tribute below:
For Ronald Searle
‘Many years ago, on leaving Art College, I put away my Ronald Searle books. You see, I had this crazy but understandable notion that I could escape his influence. As a small boy growing up in Australia in the late 1950s and early 1960s, I’d pored over his books at primary school, chortling with delight at those beautiful pen drawings. And gazed with wonder at how he created atmosphere with strokes of watercolour.
Searle and the world he brought to life, if not responsible for, certainly reinforced my childhood ambitions, of which there only ever were two: to be an artist when I grew up and to go to England. Years later, when I looked through my Searle books again, I was filled with the same intense feelings of delight that I’d felt as a child. The pleasure was reignited. I knew then that I had to write to him.
Not wanting to gush, over and over again I tried to get the wording right. I’d never written such a letter, and I didn’t want to sound like a crazed fan. Finally I gave up and wrote from the heart. I believe the essence of what I said was how marvellously he had used his extraordinary gift. In any case I sent the letter to his agent in London and thought ‘that’s done’.
A month later an envelope arrived from France. It was addressed to me in that same spidery hand responsible for the hundreds of drawings in books that I had admired since childhood. It was a wonderful letter, warm and generous. I felt satisfied that that was the end of it.
However I was then, through a series of circumstances, drawn into another aspect of Searle’s life and work.
The Melbourne Age asked me to write a piece about books. I wrote how, as a boy, one of the first books to make an impression on me was my father’s copy of The Naked Isle by an Australian author called Russell Braddon. In it he detailed his experiences as a prisoner of War in Changi after the fall of Singapore in World War II. It was illustrated by a fellow prisoner called Ronald Searle.
Soon after my piece was published I was contacted by a woman, Jill, who said she had some Searle drawings. She had found them among her late uncle’s belongings and ‘could she show them to me’. I reluctantly agreed to meet her, thinking this would be a waste of time and that I would be looking at photocopies or worse.
As I sat, Jill explained that her uncle, named Harry ‘Lofty’ Cannon had been a POW in Singapore. He had wanted to be a doctor but had never recovered mentally after the war. His experiences had been a mystery to the family but his suffering had not. She said that on reading my article in the paper, the name Searle had sounded familiar and she had made the connection to material she had found in a box after Lofty’s death and “would I like to see it?” I said yes.
First off on my lap were placed Christmas cards to Lofty from Kaye Webb and husband Ronald Searle. Then I was passed a letter to “Lofty” dated August 1946 in which Searle writes: “I know, as you do, that you helped to save my life and made my existence under the net almost bearable. Believe me, Lofty, I’ve praised the stars that brought you to that ward many times.” As I gulped, and stuttered to Jill and her husband that her uncle had in all probability saved the life of one of the most famous English graphic artists of the late 20th century she said tearfully, “there is more”.
I was then passed a folio scrapbook full of Ronald Searle drawings done in the POW camp. Some showed Searle himself, bespectacled, waving to Lofty. All were inscribed to him. Apparently Lofty would sometimes show these drawings to his mates at the pub and the army repatriation hospital. The connection with Searle was a revelation to his family who had struggled to understand him. I suggested that the family write to Searle to see if he could fill in the gaps in Lofty’s life.
Meanwhile two weeks later, on my doormat was a parcel from Searle. It was an inscribed copy of his latest book and a lovely letter. He had seen my Melbourne Age piece.
Soon after that Searle wrote to Lofty’s family saying: “What I say in my 1946 letter to him is absolutely true”.
The letters and all of Searle’s artwork have since been given to The State Library of Victoria, Australia, by Lofty’s family with the blessing of Ronald Searle himself, as a memorial to all those who suffered in the camps. How wonderful that Searle was able to fill in the gaps and complete that circle.’
Leigh Hobbs is the author/illustrator of such popular series as the ‘Old Tom’ series (Happy Cat Books), ‘Horrible Harriet’ and Mr. Chicken books (Bloomsbury).