Saturday, 8 May 2010

Ronald Searle: Graphic Master at the Cartoon Museum

Where do I start? After champing at the bit since it opened, today I attended the Ronald Searle exhibition at the Cartoon Museum. I urge you, if at all possible, to attend this event - for it is an event - at this little gem of a venue (we shall return to this mineralogical analogy later). Go on, get yourself down there. After all, it's only a short(ish) stroll (okay, brisk march) down from Euston station and just tucked below the British Museum. Full location details may be found at If you do make the effort to go, and I sincerely hope you do, make sure that you give yourself plenty of time. The Cartoon Museum is not really that much bigger than a decent sized semi-detached house, but contained within it are unbelievably huge quantities of treasure. I spent well over two hours looking at the Searle exhibits alone and then had to rush around the permanent items upstairs. One of the volunteer curators told me that an attendee had told him that the museum was a jewel-box - small, compact and choc-full of gems. He also said that any other gallery would devote huge halls to a fraction of the Cartoon Museum's contents and I totally agree with him.
The Searle exhibition really is something special. Spanning almost seventy years of imaginative productivity, it begins with his earliest published work, includes his cholera-protected Changi and moves through...
Look, it just cannot be summarised in one sentence. Searle's output is so varied and wide-ranging it just has to be seen to be believed. The emphasis in the exhibition is Searle's reportage for magazines all over the world. It also includes a delightful extended narrative wherein Peter Mayle receives his just come-uppance for popularising Provence.
I was surprised to see how faded some of the work had become, giving a Nineteenth Century feel to some of the drawings, but not the content. This is explained by the fact that for a long period, Searle used a wood-stain instead of ink for his drawings as it was cheaper. The real shock for me, albeit an extremely pleasant one, was Searle's use of colour. Nobody comments on this, but for me it was a revelation. The vibrancy of some of the pieces are stunning - he is a true master.
It has to be said that some of Searle's work can be rather sombre for some tastes, but it is always engaging or thought-provoking. Best of all, as I moved through the exhibition, I continually encountered wholly unexpected pockets of delight. These pockets were the sound of people laughing. Let's not lose sight of the fact that Searle can be very funny and how many museums not only court laughter, but actively encourages it? Laughter is infectious and I heard a lot of it today. Brilliant!
And that was just the main section of the Searle exhibition, there were two addenda included on the ground floor which I could, but won't go on about (although I easily could, as they are equally important). This exhibition is huge.
See it, savour it and treasure it and then reflect on this fact: The majority of Searle's work, when he shuffles off this mortal coil, will not be housed in the country of his birth, but abroad, where his talent is truly appreciated.
Bladdy forrinahs! They come over 'ere, nick our artists and, um, other xenophobic nonsenses.


  1. Well, thank god you've finally been.

    Now, if you remember way back when you started this blog you suggested that you would make some political comments - now may be a good time? You usually have a good take on the subject.

    I know I'm not a cartoonist (and your following appears to be made up of such creatures), so I thought I'd try to enter the spirit of things. I've recently been catching up on the Steve Ditko reprints by Marvel. The "Marvel Visionaries" was fantastic but I was disappointed by the crap storylines and poor art of the DC "The Creeper" series - which cost a fortune to buy! So, my point is, all you cartoonists and comic artists (and I'm desparately trying to link this in with your resume of Searle - timespan etc):

    When have you given up on someone whose work you admire (and would usually defend to the death)? And why? How have they let you down?

  2. In answer to your question, Dave, and it's totally prejudicial as I hardly know anything about the man, I would have to nominate Stan McMurtry. Childhood encounters with this brilliant draughtsman were through Percy's Pets and the odd Pest of the West in Wham! and most notably his handling of Leo Baxendale's Grimly Feendish in Smash! You cannot fault his style for its intrinsic humour. He is an excellent cartoonist. He went on to delight me in Punch during the seventies with extremely witty and laugh out loud single cartoons. I also remember a spectacular Punch cover that took the form of a traditional British comic when Prince Charles set up the Prince's Trust. It was a sort of ultra-Bash Street Kids. Then...
    Then he became the political cartoonist for the Daily Mail and produced some very mean-minded, kick-the-under-dog cartoons that very much reflected the paper's editorial position on anything left of centre. Nasty, in a word, which refused to reflect the concerns of the ordinary public.
    Having said that, he's more than likely to be an engaging and charming individual and make me look like an old curmugeon. As I say, I hardly know anything about the feller.

  3. Incidentally, there should be a d in curmudgeon.