Prisoner of war who created St Trinian’s dies at 91

Cartoonist Ronald Searle has died, after a career that made him one of the best loved humorists in the world. His work was inspired by horrors witnessed in a Japanese labour camp.

The world has lost one of its great cartoon geniuses. Ronald Searle, renowned for his spidery illustrations and cutting social commentary, has died at the age of 91.

The cartoons Searle produced range from the Molesworth books, about a cheeky schoolboy with terrible grammar, to advertisements for rum, and even a popular series of funny-looking cats. All carry a dark sense of sometimes violent comedy: according to cartoonist Steve Bell, they ‘cut to the essence of life.’

His most famous creations, though, were the rebellious schoolgirls of St. Trinian’s, who inspired a series of hit films with not just naughty but murderous antics. Under Searle’s pen, even England’s treasured private schools were transformed into dens of sordid – but viciously funny – cruelty.

The artist’s formative years, though, were shaped by something much darker than English boarding schools. Imprisoned during the second world war in brutal Japanese work camps, Searle developed his drawing skills while struggling through brutal starvation, backbreaking labour and constant outbreaks of malaria and dengue fever.

On his release he was just seven stone and close to death, but he had created a body of work – kept hidden, sometimes, under the mattresses of dying comrades – that preserved the memory of the horrors of the camps for the world.

The experience would never leave Searle: its darkness can be seen in many of his later drawings, and his later move away from England. Despite being born there – and taking much of his inspiration from the country’s class system – Searle felt pigeon-holed in the UK, and often said he felt he had never left his prison cell. In Provence, France, he worked unstoppably – and quaffed gallons of expensive Champagne – until his final years.

Funny – but important?

Compared to his prison drawings, some say, Searle’s later work seems frivolous and unimportant – much like all cartoons. Unlike painting and poetry, their simple, slapdash form communicates only straightforward messages and idle ideas: they are designed to be glanced over with a chuckle, not to deliver profound truths.

Their ability to make people laugh, others argue, is exactly what gives cartoons their unique power. The best cartoons conceal complicated, difficult ideas within a simple, engaging image. Like so much comedy, Searle’s funny pictures shed light on dark and troubled places within the human spirit. His cartoons deserve to be taken as seriously as any great works of art.

You Decide

  1. Which area of Searle’s work do you think was more important – his drawings from the prison camp or the light-hearted pictures which made him famous?
  2. Do cartoons make a valuable contribution to our understanding of society or politics?

Activities

  1. Research a cartoonist, and create a presentation of some of their best work. What kind of drawing styles do you prefer? What is the subject matter of the cartoons? Are they funny, or serious?
  2. Create your own cartoon to communicate a message about society or politics. How can you share your message using pictures or just a few words?

Some People Say...

“If you want people to take a message seriously, make them laugh.”

What do you think?

Q & A

How have Searle’s cartoons actually influenced the world?
His work camp drawings have been put on display in the Imperial War Museum, so they still play an important role in our understanding of WWII. And later cartoons also tell us more about our world – in their portrayal of English society, they have influenced our perception of British culture.
But what about actually changing things?
Searle was not the most political cartoonist, but other illustrators have always influenced opinion and provoked debate by satirising political leaders and situations. When a Danish newspaper carried a cartoon of the prophetMohammed in 2005, the offense caused to the global Muslim community caused a heated debate on freedom of speech.

Word Watch

Steve Bell
Steve Bell is a British political cartoonist, whose work appears in The Guardian, a left-leaning British newspaper.
Work camps
In wars, it is common for soldiers who have been captured to be imprisoned in prisoner of war (POW) camps, where they are often forced into hard labour. During the Second World War, British prisoners in Japanese POW camps had a mortality rate of 24.8% – i.e. one man in four did not survive.
Dengue fever
Dengue fever is infectious tropical disease, transmitted by mosquitoes, which causes headaches, muscular pain, bleeding and possible death.
Mohammed
The Islamic prophet and founder, deeply revered within the faith. It is said that God made revelations, which later became the Koran, to Mohammed on Mount Hira, in what is now Saudi Arabia, around the year 610 AD. Some Islamic scholars believe that all depictions of Mohammed are unholy, and should be forbidden.

Subjects

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