Published on 3 Jan 2012 Sections

St Trinian’s cartoonist Searle, 91, dies

British cartoonist Ronald Searle, best known for his drawings of the tearaway pupils at St Trinian’s, has died aged 91.

Searle, whose anarchic St Trinian’s characters spawned a series of movie adaptations, died on 30 December at a hospital near his home in Draguignan, in France’s south eastern Var region.

One friend said of him: “His bite and his bark were ferocious, but always delivered with a wink.”

Some of his work was influenced by his years as a Japanese prisoner of war and his privations working on the Siam-Burma “railway of death”.

His spindly schoolgirl creations, which first appeared in 1941, hit the big screen in 1954 as The Belles of St Trinian’s, with Alastair Sim starring in drag as headmistress Millicent Fritton.

His creation became an industry almost in its own right, and on one occasion Searle hoped he had put paid to it by blowing up his fictitious academy with an atomic bomb. But such was the cartoon’s popularity, even this act of destruction failed to kill off St Trinian’s.

The film franchise was revived in 2007, with Rupert Everett taking over the headmistress role, with a follow-up, “St Trinian’s 2: The Legend of Fritton’s Gold”, appearing in 2009.

Searle’s cartoons also appeared in magazines and newspapers, including Punch and The New Yorker.

Other comic illustrations included 1950s Molesworth satires on British private school education, written by author Geoffrey Willans, including Down with Skool and How to be Topp.

Searle was born in Cambridge in 1920 and attended the Cambridge School of Art.

He became the cartoonist for the Cambridge Daily News and began a series of 195 weekly cartoons, each of which paid more than a week’s salary at the parcel packing business where he had earlier worked.

In 1941 he published the first St Trinian’s cartoon in the magazine Lilliput. That year he was posted to Singapore, but one month after his arrival, Singapore surrendered to the Japanese and he spent the rest of the hostilities as a prisoner of war.

During captivity he secretly made sketches of the hardship of camp life, hiding the drawings under the mattresses of prisoners suffering from cholera.

‘Strong-willed’

Searle published the drawings after his liberation, with many of the pictures now kept at the Imperial War Museum in London.

In 1971, he became the first non-French living artist to exhibit at the Bibliotheque Nationale.

Cartoonist Gerald Scarfe paid tribute to Searle, whom he described as “extraordinary”.

He said: “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.”

“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.”

Mr 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.”

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, Mr 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.”