WE STOOD BEFORE the Searle original as if before an altar.
The beguiling work, titled “National Brotherhood Week” — from the book “Too Many Songs by Tom Lehrer With Not Enough Drawings” — is a brilliant swirl of motions and textures and expressions and liquid line-weights. The original, like some movable visual feast, hangs on a dining-room wall in the Northern Virginia home of “Cul de Sac” creator Richard Thompson — where it is primed, the cartoonist jokes, “to offend an unsuspecting diner.”
In that moment last spring, as we gazed upon the Searle, Thompson allowed that it was his one artistic indulgence, perhaps even the only artwork he’s ever bought. That is both economic and aesthetic testament to the genius of Ronald Searle.
Last week, the genius breathed his last.
Searle’s family said Tuesday that the legendary illustrator died “peacefully in his sleep” Friday in southern France’s Draguignan after a short illness — and just months after his second wife, Monica, died in July. He was 91.
Searle will surely be best remembered for his St. Trinian’s boarding-school girls gone bad; through their brazenly wicked behavior, the artist was sending up the “proper” British school system. These dark-humored hellions debuted in the magazine Lilliput the same year — 1941 — that Searle was captured by Japan and endured brutal conditions as a World War II POW (he drew with whatever he could find during this time, later publishing “To the Kwai — and Back: War Drawings 1939-1945”).
The Cambridge native would draw for Disney and the pages of Punch, Le Monde, TV Guide and the New Yorker, as well as the sometime ad graced by his sly wit. And his Molesworth-book cartoons rightly enhanced his resume further still.
“No question, one of the great cartoonists of any time, any country,” comics scholar and SPX executive director Warren Bernard tells Comic Riffs.
“Ronald Searle was the greatest cartoonist that ever lived. Period,” Nick Galifianakis — author and cartoonist for the syndicated Carolyn Hax column — tells us.
To illuminate just how much Searle’s line and legacy mean to countless cartoonists, Comic Riffs invited the Reuben Award-winning Thompson to share how the great man influenced him. He writes:
For a long time, Ronald Searle's work exerted a tidal pull on me, as it has at some point for a lot of cartoonists. The first time his stuff hit me hard was in 1978, when I got a big, lovely art book titled “Ronald Searle,” and it was like a window opened.
His drawings were so potent and dense and alive with comic energy. His pen could do anything; it went curling and spiraling all over the paper, describing a world that was ugly, bitter, grotesque, hilarious and sometimes, briefly, quite sweet. It made me suddenly aware of how liquid ink is, how it skips and splotches and pools when it hits the paper. It was also obvious Searle had a deep appreciation for the history of the graphic arts and an awareness of how he fit into it. This was heady stuff for a generally clueless 20-year-old semi-cartoonist to be exposed to, and it took a few years for me to put my own eyes back in my head.
Searle's style was so powerful that any other artist who mimicked its effects was pretty quickly overwhelmed by it and exposed as inferior. I think Searle himself was a little intimidated by his chops. There's a bit in his biography that tells of him taping the fingers of his drawing hand together to slow himself down and avoid becoming too facile. I've heard that he planned his work pretty carefully and his wiry, sprung lines were laid down with a lot more control than might be apparent.
Pat Oliphant said something to the effect that going through a Searle period is good for cartoonists, as long as they pull out of it before it's too late. The best way out, of course, is to draw and draw some more, as far away from the source of inspiration as possible and under circumstances that don't allow for cheating — i.e., a deadline.
It's hard, but think I managed it.
Rest in peace, Master Searle. Your towering legacy is safe in such hands.