On Ronald Searle at 90, for Cartoon Museum catalogue / by Rich Hobbs

In 1999 Ronald Searle was judged, by his fellow cartoonists, to be the greatest

cartoonist of the 20th Century. It’s a judgement I thoroughly endorse, though

as someone who was brought up on Searle, like most people of my generation

born in the late 50s and early 60s, I thought distant worship would be as close

as I ever got to him. After all, Searle famously scarpered when I was about

one, so I, along with other British cartoonists, could only ever venerate him as

the King Across the Water.

Still, when I was approached in 2005 to front a BBC 4 documentary about

Searle, I jumped at the chance, even though he made clear very early on he wanted nothing

whatsoever to do the making of the film or anyone involved with it. That’s his

prerogative, and my reverence for him includes a deep respect for his desire

for a bit of peace and quiet. Nonetheless, the programme went ahead without

him, and I enjoyed it for the most part (although, as I’d decided to speak to

camera unscripted, to capture a greater sense of immediacy, there were

occasions when the demands of the producer that I repeat a line 20 times

meant that by the end I kept forgetting it, as well as forgetting what it could

possibly mean.)

Part of the gig - part of the reason they’d got me to do it in the first place - was

that, when pressed, I can draw a little bit like the master, and I did several

pieces to camera sitting at a drawing board and replicating his style. One riff I

went off on was the idea that Searle had invented his version of Hogarth’s

famous "Line of Beauty", which in his case was the "Angle of Beauty", which

I claimed was an acute angle of 37 degrees (I made that bit up, but you get the

point) which can be seen repeated again and again in his depiction of feet and

noses. I argued further that feet and legs - be they spindly, black-stockinged St

Trinian’s legs, or the tree-trunk legs of the Masters at St Custard’s - were, for

Searle, the windows to the soul.

All that may or may not be true, but I discovered a deeper truth when I was

reproducing the standard Searle script for the "Entr’-Act" cards for the

programme. Apart from the fact that each letter tended to twist my nibs into

unusability, I soon realised something about that gnarled, nobbly lettering: that

without the way Searle drew and wrote, most of the best British post-war

cartooning would be unimaginable. Every line of Steadman’s or Scarfe’s had

its origins in Searle’s blots. Those blots had shown us all the true path.

Anyway, we finished the film and it was duly broadcast - though in post-

production I felt they added too many interviews about his life, and didn’t

concentrate enough on his drawing, but what do I know? The production

company sent him the film, and were greeted with silence. But unreciprocity

from your gods is what you should expect, so I didn’t mind that much.

But then, a few weeks after the programme’s first transmission, I got a letter,

sent to my home, addressed in a strangely familiar handwriting. It was a

personal letter from Searle, thanking me for placing the garlands on his brow

and apologising for the fact that he’s be dead by the time it was my turn. The

letter is now framed and hangs in its place of honour next to the only Searle

original my wife could afford to buy me. Better yet, in the few interviews he’s

given since, he’s been kind and generous enough to say he likes my work. So

happy 90th birthday, Mr Searle, from a very humble and grateful admirer...