One afternoon last week I went looking for a copy of a picture by Ronald Searle that I'd once sent an old friend. I didn't find what I was looking for but instead found that despite the fact I'd always loved his drawings I didn't know anything about him at all. Over the course of his long life Ronald Searle drew thousands of pictures, most of them satirical - albeit, gently so.
You never got the feeling of outright cruelty in his images - except, perhaps, for the St. Trinian's girls and their penchant for torture, assault, and the carrying of deadly weapons.
The first, and major, thing I hadn't been aware of was the fact that as a young enlistee in the Royal Engineers who had just arrived in Singapore when it fell to the Japanese in 1942, 22 year old Ronald Searle became a prisoner of war * and would remain one until 1945. His collection of 300 eyewitness drawings of life in Changi Prison in Singapore and the work camps of the notorious Thai-Burma railway is an amazing achievement. He secretly documented his experiences and, with the help of friends, hid the drawings from the guards by placing them under the mattresses of soldiers who were dying from cholera. Luckily for him, Searle never contracted cholera, but he did suffer from dengue fever, beri beri, malaria, multiple skin diseases and starvation. Most of his friends and co-prisoners died.
The brutality and disregard for human life which he experienced first hand led him to ask himself the question - "could this happen to people in my home country, or is this something peculiar to the Japanese people and their culture?" His answer seems to be that it is a universal phenomenon.
The second thing I learned about Ronald Searle is how he reacted when his wife, Monica, was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer in the late 1960s - shortly after they'd purchased an old home in Provence they were looking forward to renovating. Feeling helpless in the face of Monica's medical disaster, the only thing he could think of to do for them both while she was undergoing chemotherapy and experimental radiation was to draw.
The delightful images of a Mrs Mole pottering about a dream house in a Provencal village were full of optimism meant to help them both through the long, painful process they could only hope would be successful. Monica had 47 treatments and after each session he gave her another drawing.
I drew them originally for no one’s eyes except Mo’s, so she would look at them propped up against her bedside lamp and think: “When I’m better, everything will be beautiful.”
The treatments did work and her cancer went into a remission that lasted forty years. Most of those years were spent in their Provencal home: four interconnected houses, the oldest one medieval, threaded by staircases and stuffed with accumulated treasures. A courtyard is shaded by a vast, ancient fig tree, and from the tiny roof terrace unfurls a glorious 100-mile view over mountains to the sparkling Mediterranean Sea. It's a wonderful sight to imagine.
Early in 2011, shortly before she died, Monica shared her treasured drawings in a book titled Les Tres Riches Heures de Mrs Mole (‘The Richest Hours of Mrs Mole’) to coincide with Breast Cancer Awareness Month. She died that July and six months later Ronald Searle followed her - he was 91.
It's certainly not true that artists don't have much to say; what is true is that the best really can convey stories of a thousand words in an image. Ronald Searle was one of them.
* a link you might be particularly interested in, Lindsay.