Battleaxe Headmistress, Hooligan Girls: Ronald Searle’s St. Trinian

« Quite suddenly I began to draw. No one paid much attention to this, nor to the fact that the drawings were immediately grotesque. This was assumed to be one of the penalties for being ‘cackhanded’, local dialect for mocking a left-hander, which is what I am. In addition, nobody suggested that there was anything ludicrous in the fact that, for the first time since the Searles had plodded their way through the bogs to escape the Vikings, a left-handed Searle was proclaiming that the had to be An Artist, instead of a gravedigger, or whatever. »  from Ronald Searle in Perspective (1984, Atlantic Monthly Press)

Who’s Out There? is a peaceful little family – we don’t often have disagreements about cartoonists or their art, and if occasionally one of us loves something while the other one is neutral about it, it doesn’t often happen that we are in total dissent. However, exceptions proving the rule, British illustrator Ronald William Fordham Searle (1920-2011) is one such point of contention: I like his style, co-admin RG doesn’t much care for it.  

I was a little late to the party, and came to Searle’s in a rather circuitous fashion. In a used bookstore (isn’t how these things always start?), I noticed a book called The Grapes of Ralph: Wine According to Ralph Steadman (1996, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), and was intrigued enough to purchase it. Steadman’s splotchy, wild style was perfect for a book about fermented grape juice – he frequently coloured his art in a manner reminiscent of wine stains, and the unhinged art hinted at the artist being more than slightly soused. Well… where, you may ask, does Searle come in? Steadman was heavily influenced by his style, so much so that for a while I embarrassingly thought that Grapes of Ralph was actually illustrated by the former.

One of the more focused splashes (haha, wine splashes, right) in The Grapes of Ralph.

However, Searle has proven to be a lot more appealing to me from an aesthetic viewpoint – I have kept The Grapes of Ralph, but I don’t glance in its direction often. As for co-admin RG, he explains that he mainly dislikes Searle for being responsible for bad copy-cats like Steadman.

There are plenty of articles written about Searle – his extensive body of work has gained its share of acclaim and awards, and many appear illustrators appear to have been heavily influenced by his style. For example, The War Drawings of Ronald Searle from Illustration Chronicles tells the story of how Searle survived, and chronicled with daily sketches, the experience of being a Japanese prisoner of war. There is no need for me to go over that chunk of history. That being said, a lot of his books are quite out of print, and those are generally the ones I find most interesting. Before Searle’s art went progressively more speckled and unfocused (which is what Steadman, with whom this post started, is mostly channelling), his drawings had a crispness of exaggeration I find really appealing, a certain floweriness under the cover of which very acerbic (and very British) observations are delivered to the delighted viewer.

An example of looser lines of later years (this is from 1980); still enjoyable because the palette is restrained.

My favourite is his St. Trinian series (from 1941 and onwards), chronicling shenanigans at a boarding school for girls. What started as a series of doodles to amuse a friend’s schoolgirl daughters became an institution of its own – this topic was so popular that Searle’s cartoons were even adapted (awkwardly, in my opinion) into seven (!) movies. I recommend this helpful article from Tweedland The Gentlemen’s Club for historical details. For all the popularity of these schoolgirls from hell (in any obituary, you’ll find some sentence to the effect of ‘for many people, the St Trinian’s cartoons define Ronald Searle’s career‘), St. Trinian collections have been long out of print, for the most part, and one has to make do with mostly inferior, dubiously printed paperbacks claiming to be Best Ofs.

Knell Knudel from Lambiek Encyclopedia explains: « The topic [of boarding schools] had inspired many British novels before. But ‘St. Trinian’s’ was far less realistic and darkly disturbing, motivated by Searle’s war-time traumas. The little girls torture each other on a rack, collect mushrooms to poison people, drown each other at the beach or study books on how to shrink human heads. Amazingly enough, ‘St. Trinian’s’ became massively popular, despite the fact that the world was still recovering from a world war. In 1948 the first book compilation was published. Many more would follow. Gags appeared in countless magazines all over the world. Yet Searle quickly grew tired of his hit series. He felt its formulaic comedy severely limited him. In 1952 he brutally discontinued his hit feature by dropping an atomic bomb on the dreaded school! While it presumably killed its characters, it didn’t terminate its popularity. » 

The first St. Trinian cartoon ever published in print appeared in Lilliput (a monthly British magazine which deserves a post of its own) in 1941. This is Lilliput no. 25, December 1949.

Though quite a few collections of cartoons were published at the time, the following three are of main interest: Hurrah For St Trinian’s (1948), The Female Approach (1950), and Back to The Slaughterhouse (1952). Thanks to my bookseller friend Barney (visit his store!), I am the proud possessor of The Curse of St. Trinian’s: The Best of the Drawings (1993, Pavilion Books), a hardcover edition, which scratched the itch but did not quench my desire to own the original editions, with their gloriously yellowed paper and characteristic fragrance.

For example, admire the characterization of Angela Menace, as depicted in these three glorious cartoons (one could make a triptych):

«  Searle was born, in 1920, in Cambridge, into a socially anonymous background, where male children were expected to be clerks or minor civil servants. Placed almost squarely in the middle of society, he had the ideal vantage point from which to observe his country, without having to suffer the distortion of an undue affection for his origins. It is an easy background to shrug off if you know what you want to do with yourself, and Searle did know, from an early age. We felt obscurely that Searle’s drawings begged authoritarian disapproval simply by existing in such profusion. That they also flayed their subjects with a merciless and unforgiving line – both grotesque and precise – made it all the better. That it was done with such sympathetic relish made it even better than that. Parents were embarrassing, hypocritical cretins, either callous in the victory of worldly success, or living pitiable lives of continual defeat; schoolmasters incompetent frauds, either grasping, sottish, brutal, ignorant or half-dead. Searle got them just right. » — Nicholas Lezard, in an introduction to The Terror of St Trinian’s and Other Drawings (another best-of collection issued in 2006).

I love the new science teacher being so warmly welcomed by both headmistress and schoolgirls – they all seem genuinely delighted.

Seeing the wonderfully blasé headmistresses gingerly stepping over corpses, one can’t help but reminisce about The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie or Miss Pym Disposes.

The Female Approach, interestingly enough, featured plenty of men, too…

… alongside the usual ingénues (who have no idea what they’re doing, but they do it anyway) and temptresses (who know exactly what they’re doing).

“Do you want the time?”

Searle died in 2011 in his beloved France, where he had been living since 1975. He was 91 years old, and spent his last years as a bit of a recluse (though still drawing), far away from the public’s eye – when he passed away, one got the impression that some thought he had done it already years ago. As for St Trinian’s, its popularity seems to sort-of, kind-of linger on: there was yet another movie in 2007, though I would posit that we need fewer movies, and more proper, hardcover reprints of the material that left an enduring trace in people’s memories.

Have a gander at Perpetua, a wonderful website dedicated to everything Searle.

~ ds