British cartoonist Ronald Searle, the creator of the willfully wicked schoolgirls of St Trinian’s who amused generations of Britons, has died, his family said on Tuesday. He was 91.
Searle was a prolific illustrator who drew for The New Yorker, Punch and Walt Disney, but it was the fictional girls’ boarding school where the students ran riot that most captured the public imagination.
The long-legged, leering schoolgirls drank, smoked and generally cut a swath of destruction; their weapon-wielding antics were colored by Searle’s morbid sense of humor. His satire of the venerable English school system struck a chord, launching a series of hit films, including one recent incarnation starring Colin Firth, Gemma Arterton and Russell Brand.
Searle’s secret, as one early profile noted, was to turn “the very epitome of decency and polite tradition for every right-thinking Englishman” into “a place of terror more hellish than anything conceived since the days of Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Brueghel.”
Searle’s dark streak may well have been informed by his experiences as a soldier during World War II. Born in Cambridge on March 3, 1920, his promising career as a cartoonist was interrupted by his capture by the Japanese in Singapore. He spent the rest of the conflict under atrocious conditions as a prisoner of war, but somehow managed to keep drawing despite beatings and bouts of malaria and beriberi.
His drawings of camp life were published following his liberation in 1945 in fellow prisoner Russell Braddon’s account of his own captivity, The Naked Island.
St Trinian’s sly schoolgirls made him famous, but Searle long insisted that the students were just “a small part of my work.”
He designed cover art for The New Yorker and a series of editorial cartoons for France’s Le Monde newspaper. He designed wry, occasionally absurd advertisements for Church’s shoes and US Rubber. His Molesworth books, set in the fictional St Custard’s, also proved popular.
However, St Trinian’s refused to die, despite Searle’s attempt to draw a line under the series by having the girls’ blow up their school with an atom bomb.
In a statement, Searle’s family said that he died “peacefully in his sleep” on Friday in the small city of Draguignan in southern France following a short illness.
Funeral arrangements were not immediately made clear on Tuesday. The statement said Searle had requested a “private cremation with no fuss and no flowers.”