Ronald Searle, 'St. Trinian's' Cartoonist, Dies at 91

Ronald Searle St. Trinian's Cover Split - P 2012
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Ronald Searle St. Trinian's Cover Split - P 2012

His series about the antics at a girls boarding school influenced everything from "101 Dalmatians" to Matt Groening's "Life in Hell."

Cartoonist Ronald Searle died in France on December 30 at age 91. The death was announced by his daughter Kare Searle, who said in a statement that he "passed away peacefully in his sleep with his children, Kate and John, and his grandson, Daniel, beside him." 

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Searle is best known for creating St. Trinian's and co-authoring the Molesworth books with Geoffrey Willans. His antic line drawings profoundly influenced illustrators from Ralph Steadman to Matt Groening. He also contributed cartoons to the New Yorker.

Searle was born in Cambridge, England on March 3, 1920. He joined the British Army in April 1939, becoming part of the Royal Engineers. While in the army, he published the first St. Trinian's cartoon in Lilliput in 1941.

He was transferred to Singapore in 1942 and became a Japanese prisoner when the country fell. He spent the next three years in various prisoner-of-war camps. The secret illustrations he did during that period are now part of the collection of the Imperial War Museum in London. They were also published in his 1986 book Ronald Searle: To the Kwai and Back, War Drawings 1939-1945.

After the war, Searle became a full-time professional cartoonist, producing work for such British magazines as Life and Punch, as well as the New Yorker.

He remains best known for St. Trinian's, a cartoon series about life at an upper-class British boarding school. Although Searle drew the first cartoon in 1941, he did not develop it fully until after returning from the war in 1946. The comics were full of mayhem and anarchy and featured unruly students and amoral teachers.

The cartoons were turned into a popular series of four live-action British films made between 1954 and 1966. The series was rebooted in 2007 and featured Rupert Everett (in drag) and Colin Firth.

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Searle was also known for his work in film, including the animated credit sequences in Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines and The St. Trinian movies.

Searle's antic cartoons--simple line drawings featuring slightly gothic looking characters with exaggerated bodies and faces--influenced a generation of cartoonists, including Ralph Steadman (Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas) and Matt Groening (Life in Hell). Disney imitated Searle's style in the 1961 animated classic 101 Dalmatians.

John Lennon was also a fan, recalling in a 1968 interview that one of his early ambitions was to be an artist. "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."

Fellow artists mourned Searle's death and praised his work. Gerald Scarfe (Pink Floyd The Wall, Disney's Hercules told the BBC, "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." Anne O'Brian, the curator at the Cartoon Museum in London, called him "absolutely unique."

Searle was honored by America's National Cartoonist's Society six times, including as Cartoonist of the Year in 1960. In 2004, he was named a Commander of the British Empire (CBE) and received France's Chevalier de la Légion d'honneur in 2007 and the German Order of Merit in 2009.

Searle moved to France in 1961. He is survived by his three children and one grandson.

See a sample of Searle’s work here.