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Cartoonist Ronald Searle dies at 91


St Trinian's cartoonist Ronald Searle has died aged 91, his family said today.

Searle, whose drawings of the anarchic girls' school inspired a series of films, died at home in France.

A family statement said: "Ronald William Fordham Searle, born 3 March 1920, passed away peacefully in his sleep with his children, Kate and John, and his grandson, Daniel, beside him on 30 December 2011 in Draguignan, France, after a short illness.

"He requested a private cremation with no fuss and no flowers."

Searle was born in Cambridge and started drawing at the age of five, selling his first sketch at 15.

He learned his trade in the city before the Second World War intervened and he joined up.

Searle was serving in the Royal Engineers when he sold his first St Trinian's cartoon in 1941.

That same year he was captured during the fall of Singapore and spent the rest of the war as a prisoner of the Japanese, surviving malaria and vicious beatings by the guards.

His graphic drawings of the horrors of camp life were later published, but it was the exploits of the girls of St Trinian's that made him a household name.

They inspired a series of books and films and survived his attempt to kill them off by blowing up the fictitious school with a bomb.

The latest St Trinian's film was released two years ago and starred Rupert Everett, Colin Firth and Girls Aloud star Sarah Harding.

Searle, who moved to France in 1961, was prolific and continued to draw as well as paint, design medals and work as an animator.

Searle also illustrated the best-selling Molesworth books set in another fictional school - St Custard's - and populated by a similarly gruesome cast.

Cartoonist Gerald Scarfe paid tribute to Searle, whom he described as his "hero".

He said: "He 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.

"He was an extraordinary man. He was in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp and survived all that and kept drawing, which gives you an idea of what an extraordinarily strong-willed person he was."

Scarfe said that when he was a young artist, he regularly cycled to Searle's home in west London to ask his advice but never summoned up the courage to speak to him.

He said: "I couldn't bring myself to ring his doorbell - it was like some kind of mental block - and I would end up cycling home with all these questions I meant to ask him.

"Many years later, my wife arranged a secret lunch for me and Ronald in Provence where he lived. I remember walking into this very small restaurant and there at the table were Ronald and his wife.

"There was a small box with a little bow around it at my place at the table and I opened and it was a bell with a small note saying 'Please ring anytime'."

Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell said Searle's work stood out for its "genuine wit, intelligence and unabashed ambition".

Writing in 2010 ahead of an exhibition of Searle's work, Bell said: "His work is truly international, yet absolutely grounded in the English comic tradition.

"It is the highest form of conceptual art, but devoid of any of the pretence that usually accompanies such a notion. Which is to say, it is extremely funny, but not all the time. It cuts to the essence of life."