The art of Ronald Searle, 1920–2012


Undertakers. From Punch magazine (undated).

I started trying to draw like Ronald Searle when I was about eight. So there was Jabberwocky and Ronald Searle I was turning into by the time I was thirteen. You know, I was determined to be Lewis Carroll (giggles) with a hint of Ronald Searle.

John Lennon, 1968

Does the late Ronald Searle need any introduction? Everyone knows he created the anarchic schoolgirls of St Trinian’s in the 1940s, although their exploits had the greatest audience in the films based on Searle’s cartoons rather than the original drawings. Searle’s work first came to my attention through reprints of the Molesworth books he produced with Geoffrey Willans in the 1950s—Down with Skool! (1953), How to be Topp (1954), Whizz for Atomms (1956) and Back in the Jug Agane (1959)—a masculine riposte to St Trinian’s which allowed for a broader range of humour than the slapstick and short-skirted salaciousness the films drifted into. The Molesworth books are perhaps best appreciated at age 11 as this LRB review notes; looked at with older eyes all I see is a portrait of a rigidly class-bound nation whose boarding schools, gowned masters, “maters” and “paters” could only inspire affection in the Etonians currently attempting to govern Britain. But the drawings remain a treat: wiry and mordant with flashes of a viciousness that make Searle the godfather of Gerald Scarfe and Ralph Steadman.


The girls of St Trinian’s, Lilliput magazine, December 1949.

Given Searle’s influence on generations of newspaper cartoonists it’s no surprise that the British papers are being free with the plaudits. Links to various stories follow. The images here are taken from earlier posts or pulled from my bookshelves. The illustration of Engelbrecht below is from the Savoy Books edition of Maurice Richardson’s The Exploits of Engelbrecht which I designed in 2010.

Guardian obituary | Telegraph obituary | NYT obituary
• Ronald Searle in pictures: Telegraph | Guardian
Ronald Searle: a life in pictures by Steve Bell.
Mike Leigh: ‘Ronald Searle was my inspiration’.
Ronald Searle: Now let’s have some fizz: Gerald Scarfe remembers his friend and childhood hero.
Ronald Searle was our greatest cartoonist – and he sent me his pens, says Martin Rowson.

Other links:
Perpetua, the Ronald Searle tribute
Searle at VTS
Winespeak at BibliOdyssey


Engelbrecht versus Grandfather Clock. From The Exploits of Engelbrecht (1950) by Maurice Richardson.


“A trap for dere Santa”. From How to be Topp (1954) by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle.


The Coming of the Great Cat God (1968).

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The illustrators archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
Engelbrecht lives to fight another day
Ronald Searle book covers
Engelbrecht again

Engelbrecht lives to fight another day


The beat Engelbrecht had drawn for the early morning rise was a stretch of jet black water between the Jubilee Gasometer and the Municipal Slaughter House. A dank mist lay over the canal. The vampire bats were out in swarms. The bot-fly waltzed in virid clouds. You could hardly have had a better surrealist fishing day.

Thus Maurice Richardson in The Exploits of Engelbrecht, newly-printed copies of which I picked up this week from the Savoy Books’ office. This is the reprint of the Savoy edition which was published in 2000 and would have been out two years ago had various problems not intervened. As a result it’s inadvertently become an anniversary edition which is fitting since Engelbrecht was the first title in the line of books from Savoy’s publishing relaunch ten years ago. I’ve mentioned before that I was dissatisfied with my original design so it was a pleasure being able to rework the book slightly in a manner which better suits Richardson’s marvellous stories. The main change is a completely re-designed dust jacket done in three colours printed on textured paper; this has made the book a nice thing to handle as well as look at. A few new illustrations were added courtesy of Savoy artist Kris Guido. Kris is a far better cartoonist than I and his drawing of Engelbrecht facing one of his broomstick-riding foes adorns the front board.


Another cartoonist, Martin Rowson (currently at the Guardian), reviewed the earlier edition for The Independent on Sunday:

Far more obscure, but for my money the best book of the year, is The Exploits of Engelbrecht by Maurice Richardson. Richardson, who died in 1978, was one of the old school of hacks; he later became a stalwart infester of the Colony Rooms and the sordid pubs round Soho that teemed with pissed-up talent in the 1940s and 1950s. The Exploits of Engelbrecht, the dwarf surrealist boxer, and his adventures shooting witches, boxing grandfather clocks, playing football on Mars and games of surrealist golf which last for infinity, originally appeared in Lilliput when it was at its post-war zenith. The stories were illustrated by, among others, Searle and Hoffnung. Ah, God, those were the days.

This edition is lavishly illustrated and comes with endorsements from artist James Cawthorn (who provided some illustrations and an introduction), Michael Moorcock (who provided the afterword), and JG Ballard (who provided a blurb). Since its original publication in 1950 Engelbrecht had been one of Ballard’s favourite books; I wish he could have lived long enough to see this latest edition.

Engelbrecht isn’t on sale yet as I don’t think a price has been decided on but since this is a limited run it’ll be around £25 + p&p. Any queries should be directed to Savoy Books who have a PDF of the first chapter (plus illustrations) available to read. Next up is the enormous Moorcock tome; more about that soon.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Ronald Searle book covers
Engelbrecht again
Mervyn Peake in Lilliput