{Ronald Searle} - 1920 - 2011

The graphic arts mourns the loss of a true great.
Ronald William Fordham Searle died December 30th 2011 at the age of 91.

His life was remakable. Captured by the Japanese during the Second World War, he was placed within the notorious Changi Prison Camp in the Kwai Jungle where he contracted malaria and beri-beri along with beatings that left him weighing 40 kilograms at the time of his liberation.

In postwar Britain, Searle resumed a career as an illustrator achieving fame with his St. Trinian's School illustrations. It was a legacy from which he took little satisfaction later in his career.
His style was singular and distinct: it centered on his remarkable draughtsmanship and most notably his unique mastery of Line. Color work was costly within the publishing industry before the dawn of digital reproduction so most illustrators had to develop a strong black and white, pen- and- ink style and there were none more distinct or effective than Ronald Searle's.

His influence was immense on illustration and cartooning: you could accept him or avoid him but you had to work through him. I accepted. I gleaned what I could [usually at used books stores which were a treasure-trove of hardcover Searle books]. His technique and materials were as idiosyncratic and individualistic as the man himself: he worked on very porous paper influenced by his drawings on rice paper during his internment. According to his compatriot and fellow-illustrator Paul Hogarth, Searle found traditional inks clogged his pens and impeded the speed and flow of his drawing so he turned to floor stains sold at hardware stores for his inking.

All of this I absorbed in stages: first the obvious idiosyncratic line of Searle but what was more profound and long lasting was his determination to avoid a 'labored' drawing style. Pencil underdrawing followed by a faithful and painstaking transcription in pen or brush was the accepted procedure for most illustration - like someone slowly entering a pool of water by first dipping a toe then foot until you were slowly immersed. Searle dove right in, pen on paper. The result was an intensity and spontaneity that made his work fresh and vital. This was perhaps the greatest influence I received from him. His other lasting influence for me was Searle's determination to take risks and avoid complacency. Easy to take risks early in your career; much more difficult when you have established yourself. Yet Searle did just that when he was at the 'peak' of his career following the St. Trinian's series.

Russell Davies notes in his biography that the 'mature' Searle style was the result of a series of experimentation not unlike Abstract Expressionism in pen and ink: pre - wetted paper and dripping ink experimentation lead to a more anarchic and barbed line effect that provided a very graphic linear style that was bold and quite radical. It was a marked break from the tight, cute, St. Trinian's style. Some clients were not willing to accept this shift. Others were found. Credit to the man's creativity that he chose to re-invent himself and his art. He avoided the 'easy' road and displayed remarkable creative integrity. The result was his greatest creative output and the work that had the most lasting influence on Illustration and Cartooning. Ralph Steadman, Gerald Scarfe, Patrick Oliphant, Jeff MacNelly, and Matt Groening, are but a few of the greats who owe a nod of gratitude to Ronald Searle.

Late in his life, Searle created a series of commemorative coins for the Monnaie de Paris [Paris Mint]: bas-relief sculptures in clay that were cast and sold. Searle's was an eclectic group to be sure: British war hero Horatio Nelson joins anti-war print-maker Otto Dix, and his compatriot, John Heartfield, as well as Mexican caricaturist Jose Guadaloupe Posada to name but a few. I proudly own casts of the Otto Dix and Jose Guadaloupe Posada coins [see below].

Searle was an amazing creative force. He will be truly missed.

[photos of coins: sebastian]


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