He started drawing at the age of five and left school at the age of 15. In April 1939, realizing that war was inevitable, he abandoned his art studies to enlist in the Royal Engineers. He trained at Cambridge College of Arts and Technology, currently Anglia Ruskin University, for two years, and in 1941, published the first St Trinian's cartoon in the magazine Lilliput.
In January 1942, he was stationed in Singapore. After a month of fighting in Malaya, Singapore fell to the Japanese, and he was taken prisoner along with his cousin Tom Fordham Searle. He spent the rest of the war a prisoner, first in Changi Prison and then in the Kwai jungle, working on the Siam-Burma Death Railway. The brutal camp conditions were documented by Searle in a series of drawings that he hid under the mattresses of prisoners dying of cholera. Liberated late in 1945, Searle returned to England where he published several of the surviving drawings in fellow prisoner Russell Braddon's The Naked Island. Most of these drawings appear in his 1986 book, Ronald Searle: To the Kwai and Back, War Drawings 1939-1945. At least one of the drawings is on display at the Changi Museum and Chapel, Singapore, but the majority of these original drawings, approximately 300, are in the permanent collection of the Imperial War Museum, London, along with the works of other POW artists.
Searle produced an extraordinary volume of work during the 1950s, including drawings for Life, Holiday and Punch. His cartoons appeared in The New Yorker, the Sunday Express and the News Chronicle. He compiled more St Trinian's books, which were based on his sister's school and other girls' schools in Cambridge. He collaborated with Geoffrey Willans on the Molesworth books (Down With Skool!, 1953, and How to be Topp, 1954), and with Alex Atkinson on travel books. In addition to advertisements and posters, Searle drew the title backgrounds of the Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder film The Happiest Days of Your Life.
In 1961, he moved to Paris, leaving his family and later marrying Monica Koenig, theater designer and creator of necklaces. In France he worked more on reportage for Life and Holiday and less on cartoons. He also continued to work in a broad range of media and created books (including his well-known cat books), animated films and sculpture for commemorative medals, both for the French Mint and the British Art Medal Society. Searle did a considerable amount of designing for the cinema, and in 1965, he completed the opening, intermission and closing credits for the comedy film Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines. In 1975, the full-length cartoon Dick Deadeye was released. Animated by a number of artists both British and French, it is considered by some to be his greatest achievement, although Searle himself detested the result.
Searle received much recognition for his work, especially in America, including the National Cartoonists Society's Advertising and Illustration Award in 1959 and 1965, the Reuben Award in 1960, their Illustration Award in 1980 and their Advertising Award in 1986 and 1987. In 2007, he was decorated with France's highest award, the Légion d'honneur, and in 2009, he received the German Order of Merit. His work has had a great deal of influence, particularly on American cartoonists, including Pat Oliphant, Matt Groening, Hilary Knight and the animators of Disney's 101 Dalmatians. In 2005, he was the subject of a BBC documentary on his life and work by Russell Davies.
In 2010, he gave about 2,200 of his works as permanent loans to Wilhelm Busch Museum Hannover (Germany), now renamed Deutsches Museum für Karikatur und Zeichenkunst. The ancient Summer palace o
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