Monday, April 15, 2013

Ronald Searle sketching from Life

Ronald Searle, a very important artist and cartoonist, had an instantly recognizable style. Searle (1920-2011) produced thousands of drawings in his long and productive lifetime.

Searle had been a British prisoner of war of the Japanese, captured after the capitulation of Singapore in early 1942. He had been one of the men unlucky enough to have to work on the Burma Railway. The story, highly fictionalized (and criticized heavily by Searle himself), became a famous novel by Pierre Boullé, and film directed by David Lean, The Bridge On the River Kwai. In real life over 13,000 prisoners of war and 80,000 to 100,000 civilians died during the building of that railway.

During his years as a prisoner Searle was able at times to add to his sketchbooks what was around him. He did it to provide an historical record, and to that end it’s a miracle — considering the conditions under which his art was created — that it survived the war. One way he was able to keep the drawings (some of which would have been enough for his captors to put him to death) was to hide them with the men who had cholera. The Japanese had a fear of cholera and wouldn’t go near a sick prisoner.

He did the book, To the Kwai — and Back, War Drawings 1939-1945 in 1986. I’ve scanned the cover and a couple of pages. The sketches show how, even in the face of overwhelming adversity, he was able to use his artistic eye to capture the moments for posterity.

I believe most people who know Searle’s work immediately think of his cartoons, especially his illustrations for the Girls of St. Trinian’s books. Here are three representative drawings I found by just googling Searle’s name:

An excellent blog is called Perpetua, Ronald Searle Tribute. I have added it to my links list on the right.

In 1957 Searle did the courtroom illustrations for a murder trial at the Old Bailey. Life magazine used several pages to tell the story, prominently featuring Searle’s sketches, which remind me more of his POW drawings than his cartoons.

Copyright © 1957, 2013 Time-Life

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