Master of St Trinian's: The death of Ronald Searle

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

The cartoonist who parodied British life from scurrilous schoolgirls to curmudgeonly colonels, has died aged 91. John Walsh looks back at the man who defined the fine art of the satirical sketch

The man who gave the world St Trinian's and St Custard's, who depicted the anarchy beneath the English school system, and whose scratchy, satirical pen skewered a throng of national stereotypes that included egomaniacal teachers, spindly aesthetes, clueless debutantes, droopy-moustached colonels, black-stockinged schoolgirls and ink-stained scholars, is no more. Ronald Searle, perhaps the greatest British graphic artist of the last 100 years, died on 30 December, aged 91.

To the post-war generation, in need of reassurance that British values of decency and fair play continued unscathed, Searle was a bracing shock. In a flood of cartoons, collected in five books, from Hurrah for St Trinian's (1948) to Souls in Torment (1953) he offered the prospect of a girls' boarding school where schoolgirls smoked Woodbines at late-night poker sessions. and sixth-formers smuggled alcohol in their tuck boxes ("Hell – my best Scotch!" says a disconsolate teen holding the jagged remains of a bottle). Small dark bundles of hair, straw boaters and uniforms concocted witchy spells in the chemistry lab, sports matches with rival academies were deadly pitched battles, cheating was endemic and authority long abandoned for pragmatism (in one cartoon, two girls about to inject a visiting lacrosse player with a sedative are rebuked by the headmistress: "Play fair girls – use a clean needle...").

This was a brilliant attack on the old public-school system, how amoral, ingrown and septic it could become. It was also, of course, a reversal of the image of young British girlhood, newly worldly-wise and frightening. It was a Zeitgeisty blast; just a year after the last St Trinian's book came out, William Golding published Lord of the Flies.

Searle based St Trinian's on his sister Olive's school in Cambridge. He himself dropped out of school at 15, but his youthful experiences provided a rich soil for his imagination. From 1953, with a schoolteacher called Geoffrey Willans, Searle produced the Molesworth books: Down with Skool!, How to be Topp, Whizz for Attoms, and Back in the Jug Agane.

Willans's text, atrociously spelt, explained to the world the habits and behaviour of the assorted oiks, cads, swells, bullies and swots that lurked inside the castellated walls of St Custard's, while Searle's spindly ink drawings perfectly caught the blotchy, spotty, evil-smelling quality of the scholars, especially the book's specky-but-sophisticated hero, Nigel Molesworth, and the school's fey, golden-curled dreamer, Fotherington-Thomas.

If Willans invented a lexicon of phrases that entered the language ("Hello clouds, hello sky," "... as any fule know,") Searle created a style that joyfully subverted figures of authority. His long, spidery lines and emphatic inking had a messy schoolboy-ish quality, a delight in the macabre and a love of grotesque that reminds one of Hogarth.

The main inspiration for Searle's view of human nature was his wartime incarceration in a Japanese POW camp and on the Siam-Burma Death Railway. Afflicted with malaria and ulcers, starving and close to death, he kept drawing his emaciated fellow prisoners, to leave behind a record of their experiences; he was obliged to hide them under the mattresses of those dying of cholera (the guards would not go near, for fear of infection). Most of the pictures are now in the Imperial War Museum.

Searle was immensely prolific in the 1950s and 1960s, drawing for scores of magazines including Punch, The New Yorker, Life and Holiday. His unmistakeable figures, now in Edwardian garb, could be found in the credit sequence of the movies Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965) and Monte Carlo or Bust (1969) and he published several books of drawings – his favorites subjects were cats and the streets of Paris – over the next three decades.

The most enduring of them is The Illustrated Winespeak (1983) in which British drinkers, in all shapes and sizes, are slyly matched to certain clichés heard at wine-tastings. "Over-ripeness coupled with some tartness" is represented by a pneumatic, champagne-toting blonde, losing her scanty clothing on a divan. "Should remain in the cellar for two or three years" is embodied by a scary-looking wretch, chained to a dungeon wall surrounded by empty bottles. "Unpretentious" accompanies a picture of a bull-necked geezer with trouser braces over his grubby vest, holding a fag and a glass of wine.

Like so much of Searle's work, they're timeless, as are Molesworth and the St Trinian's girls in their gymslips and suspender belts. And so are the drawings from Changi Jail that darkened the vision of this brilliant draughtsman and made him a masterly subverter of the British character.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR Manager

£36000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, - 1 Year contract

£50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, Stock...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Human Resource Officer and Executive Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join one of...

Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events business) - Central Manchester - £20K

£18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events busi...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'