Tuesday, 3 January 2012

The death of a British institution

The legendary British cartoonist/satirist/graphic artist Ronald Searle died peacefully in his sleep at his home in the south of France on december the 30th, aged 91. Only last year Searle gave his first TV interview in 35 years to celebrate his 90 years, an occasion marked by another British institution Steve Bell calling Searle 'our greatest living cartoonist'. Creator of the hell-raising belles of St Trinians (before it was given a god-awful modern makeover) and Molesworth, he has also done countless illustrations for the likes of Punch, The New Yorker, Life, Le Monde, etc.

Searle was simply following in the footsteps of the greats, like Hogarth and Gilray, and indeed produced his own legion of imitators over time, or at least people heavily influenced by him (Ralph Steadman and Gerald Scarfe to name just two). He could turn his hand to any subject, and most styles although there was always a frantic energy in his drawings, even with his most haughty-toighty of creations(*1). But he was also a fantastically skilled artist who continued to evolve, fusing his artistic sensibilities, flitting between playful inventiveness and abstraction to joyously wiry cartooning, to straight (not to mention frightening/moving) reportage using whatever primitive tools he had to hand. For Searle was also a survivor of a POW camp during World War II and worked on the infamous 'Railway of Death' project initiated by the Japanese, an attempt to construct a railway between Thailand and Burma which resulted in the death of 100,000 labourers, including 16,000 Allied Prisoners. All this is powerfully recorded through Searle's drawings which are collected together in the book 'To The Kwai and Back. War Drawings 1939-1945' You can imagine the kind of influence this probably had on Joe Sacco (who has already acknowledged his debt to another British great George Orwell by doing an adaptation of TheRoad To Wigan Pier, which sadly is only available as a bonus when you spend over a certain amount on the Fantagraphics website).

Searle's influence will continue to be felt throughout the world of cartooning, art, design, and animation, for the foreseeable future. He is a man who has truly left a mark.

There are many tributes floating around the web, but I recommend this blog for a fantastic array of of Searle's best artwork.

(*1) Like Posy Simmonds, Nicolas Bentley, and Osbert Lancaster there was a particular upper-class Britishness to his drawings although Searle did it all with much less restraint and a cheerful sense of anarchy. It's also worth mentioning that Searle was one of those handful of artists who really understands the unusual relationship that British pet owners have with their pets. Searle's dogs and cats are among my favourite cartoon animals (next to B.Kliban's cats).

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