The Terror of St Trinian’s and Other Drawings

By Ronald Searle with Geoffrey Willans, Timothy Shy & others (Penguin Modern Classics)
ISBN: 978-0-141-91285-1 (PB)

Britain has a fantastic and enviable history and tradition of excellence in the arts of graphic narrative and cartooning. Whether telling a complete story or simply making a point; much of the modern world’s most innovative, inspirational and trenchantly acerbic drawing has come from British pens powered by British hearts and minds.

If you’re quietly humming Rule Britannia or Jerusalem right now, and or heavy breathing and fingering a flag, pack it in. This is not the tone we want. I’m just stating a few facts.

3 March 1920 Ronald William Fordham Searle was one of a very gifted few (in modern times I’d number Ken Reid, Leo Baxendale, Murray Ball and Hunt Emerson among them) who can actually draw funny lines. No matter how little or how much they need to say, they can imbue the merest blot or scratch of ink with character, intent and wicked, wicked will.

Born in Cambridge on March 3rd 1920, Searle studied at Cambridge School of Art before enlisting in the Royal Engineers when WWII broke out. When he was captured by the Japanese in 1942 he ended up in the infamous Changi Prison. The second St Trinian’s cartoon was drawn in that hell-hole in 1944 and it survived – along with his incredible war sketches – to see print once peace broke out. Searle was a worker on the Siam-Burma Railroad (a story for another time and place) and risked his life daily both by making pictures and by keeping them.

He became a jobbing freelance cartoonist when he got home, acerbically detailing British life. Perhaps that why he moved to France in 1961 and became a globe-girdling citizen of the wider world.

By the 1980s he was established – everywhere but here – as not only a cartoonist and satirist but as a film-maker, sculptor, designer, travel-writer and creator of fascinating reportage. This man was a capital “A” Artist in the manner of Picasso or Hockney, and Scarfe and Steadman notwithstanding, he was the last great British commentator to use cartooning and caricature as weapons of social change in the caustic manner of his heroes Hogarth, Gillray, Rowlandson, Cruikshank and the rest.

This volume includes selections from assorted previous collections and includes political illustration, social commentary, arcane mordant whimsy and some of the most surreal, sardonic and grotesque funny pictures of the 20th century.

I won’t spend too much time on his other achievements as his work should be seen and his thoughts and opinions should be understood in his chosen language: Art. At least, he still has enough fans to fill the internet with all the information you could need, so go search-engining after you read this if you wish.

Why his creations are so under-appreciated I do not know. Why this book is out of print: Ditto. That he will remain a relative unknown despite the clutch of movies about his St Trinian’s girls… Not if I can help it.

Anyone who considers themselves a devotee of the arts of graphic narrative should know of Searle’s work, even if not necessarily love – although how could you not? Just be aware of the tremendous debt we all owe to his vision, dedication and gifts.

This compilation traces the rise of his star following his POW years. Post-war, his mordantly funny cartoons appeared in venues such as Punch, Lilliput and The Sunday Express, and in hugely successful collections like Hurrah for St. Trinian’s!, The Female Approach, Back to the Slaughterhouse, The St. Trinian’s Story, Which Way Did He Go?,Pardong m’sieur, In Perspective and The Non Sexist Dictionary.

Searle’s work has influenced an uncountable number of other cartoonists too. His unique visualisation and darkly comic satirical cynicism in the St. Trinian’s drawings as well as his utterly captivating vision of boarding school life as embodied in the classically grotesque Nigel Molesworth quartet: influencing generations of children and adults, and even playing its part in shaping our modern national character and language.

And have I mentioned yet that his drawings are really, really funny?

This superb collection of monochrome cartoons samples choice cuts from a number of his book collections, all delivered with stunning absurdist candour and the peculiarly tragic passive panic and understated warmth that only Searle could instil with his seemingly wild yet clearly-considered linework.

Fronted by an impassioned Introduction from fan and proper grown up journalist/columnist Nicholas Lezard, this paperback and digital collection offers a sweet taste of dark design in haunting and hilarious images culled from a number of sources, opening (un)naturally with macabre treats from St Trinian’s: blending the comforting traditional bonhomie of a girl’s boarding school with the accoutrements of a sex dungeon, the atavists of a charnel house and the fragrant atmosphere of The Somme two days after all the shooting stopped…

Having proved that for some crime Does pay, focus shifts to Merry England, etc., where class, toil, occupations, hobbies, and the ardours of life are ferociously scrutinised before diverting into mirthful metaphysics with a damning disembodied judge dubbed The Hand of Authority

Mare satirical body-blows from Souls in Torment lead delightfully to a montage of misspelled madcap moments of terror-tinged nostalgia as Molesworth extracts snippets of sheer genius from the books he co-created with Geoffrey Willans for Punch and which were subsequently released to enormous success as Down With Skool!, How to be Topp!, Whizz For Atomms! and Back in the Jug Agane.

As I said, Searle was a devotee of satirist William Hogarth and in 1956 adapted the old master’s series of condemnatory cartoons (painted in 1732-34 and released as staggeringly popular engraved prints in 1735) to modern usage and characterisation. Included here in its entirety to conclude our fun, The Rake’s Progress follows the rise and fall of a number of contemporary figures – The Athlete, The Girlfriend, The Soldier, The Poet, The Trade Union Leader, The Actor, The Painter (he based this one on himself), The Don (an English academic, not an American gangster but such confusion is easy to understand), The Dramatic Critic, The Doctor, The MP, The Clergyman, The Novelist, The Humourist, The Master of Foxhounds and The Great Lover – with all the excoriating venom and wit you’d expect from a master of people watching…

Brilliant, Brilliant, Brilliant stuff! See for yourself, whatever side of the battle lines you cower behind…
© 1948, 1951, 1952, 1953, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1959 by Ronald Searle.

This selection © Ronald Searle 2000, 2006. Introduction © Nicholas Lezard, 2000. All rights reserved.