‘I thought it was important to record what was going on, even if my drawings were only found later.’
So said the cartoonist Ronald Searle of his time as a prisoner of war in Changi.
Valerie Grove, who talked to Searle on his 90th birthday, remembers him.
Top: The railway of death made an artist out of cartoonist Ronald Searle
Bottom: Searle with his second wife, Monica
Published: 23 September, 2012
RONALD Searle, Britain’s favourite cartoonist for five decades, died last year aged 91, at his home in the South of France. He told me, when I visited him on his 90th birthday, that it was his three-and-a-half-year incarceration in Changi, working on the Burma-Siam Railway, “the railway of death”, that turned him into an artist.
“It was the making of me,” he said.
In fact he was a compulsive artist from infancy, who got his first cartoons published as a schoolboy, in the local paper in Cambridge.
But he had just started his first term at art school when the war began and he enlisted in the Royal Engineers.
Stationed in Kirkcudbright (along with the historian Eric Hobsbawm) he had also just sent off his first St Trinian’s cartoon to Lilliput, the popular sixpenny magazine, when his regiment sailed for Singapore. They arrived in January 1942, on the very day Japanese planes attacked.
In the debris of battle in a Singapore street he found the edition of Lilliput containing his St Trinian’s cartoon.
So Searle became a prisoner of war. He was marched with 50,000 others to Changi, and left to moulder in disease and near-starvation.
Despite the unspeakable treatment by the Japanese, the life of horror, the malaria, dysentery, ulcers and manges he suffered from, he carried on sketching. On scrounged paper, and the fly-leaves of books, he produced hundreds of drawings, a record of the brutality and torture, the sadistic guards, the friends who dropped dead all round him in the jungle.
He managed to hide his drawings under the mattresses of those suffering from cholera, knowing the guards would stay clear.
“I thought it was important to record what was going on, even if my drawings were only found later,” he said.
He expected to die.
For producing a camp magazine called The Exile, he was transferred to Changi Jail, where 10,000 prisoners were crammed into a space built for 600.
On Christmas Day 1944, he recalled, he and his friends, desperate for nourishment, fried three kittens.
But then he found himself among the reprieved. As the artist behind The Exile, he was invited to Government House to dine with the Mountbattens, and sailed home, weighing under seven stone, in the same vessel – HMS Sobieski – that had taken them to Singapore.
He had brought home the 300 drawings, the work of a brilliantly proficient artist and master of reportage now aged 25.
In its horrific way, his time in Changi was “a gift”, he would later say, because there were life models all around him, captive, stricken, dying. “That life, 5,000 miles from civilisation, made me an artist, because it gave me a purpose. As an art student you spend days trying to draw the folds of a sleeve. Suddenly I had a way of applying it, a subject that mattered.”
His wartime drawings were exhibited in 1946, and can now be seen at the Imperial War Museum.
Searle’s rise to fame as an artist after the war was meteoric, and by 1960 Britain was “a Searle-haunted land” as The Penguin Ronald Searle put it.
He was Punch’s chief cover artist and theatre caricaturist, he produced endless books of cartoons, he was often in the New Yorker, he did advertising posters and theatre sets, made animated films and allowed the girls of St Trinians – whom he had tried to kill off with an atom bomb in 1954 – to be translated into cinema.
Then suddenly, in 1961, he left London overnight without warning, abandoning his wife Kaye Webb and their 14-year-old twins, and started a new life in Paris.
He said later that his punishing schedule of deadlines, and the social life organised by the gregarious Kaye (who had just started as editor of Puffin Books) had become too much.
In reality he had fled to join his beloved Monica, who became his second wife, and with whom he lived ever after in great contentment in Haute-Provence.
He is still a much-loved name, the most recognisable cartoonist of the late 20th century; and his Second World War drawings from Changi remain a unique record.
• So Much To Tell, Valerie Grove’s biography of Kaye Webb is published by Viking at £18.99.
• To The Kwai – and Back: War Drawings 1939-1945, by Ronald Searle is published by Souvenir Press at £25.