Feature: ArtScene

ArtScene: Ronald Searle

By , Columnist

Peaceable Kingdom

Paris. Solly the Ragman rang from Draguignan. Did I know Searle was dead? Ronald Searle? Yes. What other Searle is there? Was there? And there we have it. There was only one. He invented St Trinian’s School, that establishment for smoking, drinking, straw boatered, skinny legged, black and bare laddered stockinged, knicker peeping school girls with more attitude than Mac Cobb’s great aunt at the height of her bootlegging days.

Those naughty and not always nice English school girls first appeared in 1941 and then in 1954 as the black and white movie, The Belles of St Trinian's, with the unforgettable, lugubrious-faced Alastair Sim dragged up as Millicent Fritton. Funny? Blue Murder at St Trinian’s was even funnier. Still is, more than half a century on.

computer-bug.jpgComputer Bug

But don’t get lost in that humour. St Trinian's was a millstone because Searle was an uncompromising satirist. Look up his cartoons in The New Yorker. Look at his non-St Trinian's work: "Computer Bug" and "Gay & Sprightly" as examples. Look also at his war record. He was a prisoner of war for the Japanese and they put him to work on the ferocious ambition to build the dark historic monument, the Thai-Burma railroad. Maybe 120,000 died on that beast-minded project. Searle survived.

gay-and-sprightly.jpgGay & Sprightly

Did it make him different? Of course it did. None survived intact. What made him different? After all, there were great cartooning ideas after that post-World War II horror.

st-trinians.pngSt Trinian's

First and foremost, Searle could draw - not a fashionable art form nowadays as the recent appointment of Tracy Emin as professor of drawing at London’s Royal Academy suggests. I heard that other wicked genius, Gerald Scarfe, say Searle 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." The St James’s gallery owner, Chris Beetles, reckons that Searle was a yardstick for other cartoonists. “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."

Searle turned 90 last March. Some, sadly so, may even remark that he’d had a good innings. A good age. Maybe. There’s a big, weepy piece of me that says we can’t afford to lose an anarchist like him. Scarfe’s still there. Steve Bell too. But there aren’t many.

On a sitting room wall in my studio, there’s a self-portrait of Ronald. He’s lying on a couch, smoldering cigarette, whisky glass at hand. The long thin legs are high on the wall and he’s painting a face on one dirty bare foot. The title? "Artist at Work." Solly always tries to get me to sell it to him. Never. Certainly not now. It’s all I have of a genius.

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Fiona Graham-Mackay, is London's newest royal portrait painter. She is also recently back from painting in the Pakistan-Afghan border. She studied at London's Royal College of Art, had a studio in Paris before returning to the UK to paint and teach in London, Spain and Italy. Her next assignments areā€¦

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