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

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
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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.