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A real character artist

india Updated: Jan 04, 2012 22:14 IST
Ronald Searle

I was an asthmatic child and didn’t get much of an art education. But at the age of about 14, I discovered Ronald Searle. He was working as a cartoonist for the News Chronicle and Punch magazine, doing wonderful, satirical portraits of people such as the Archbishop of Canterbury. He became my hero. I found out where he lived and used to cycle over to Bayswater from Hampstead. His house had a green door with a brass doorbell. But I could never get my fingers to ring it. I was too afraid. I would return home, feeling dismal.

A few years later, my wife organised a secret meal for my birthday at an exclusive restaurant in Provence. The only other people there were Ronald and his wife. It turned out they had lived in this town for years. A beautiful little package sat on the table, all done up with ribbon. I said: “Oh, is this for me?” And Ronald said: “Yeah, it’s nothing.” So I opened it, and there was a brass doorbell with a note saying: ‘Please ring any time.’

We became great friends, meeting up in that restaurant every year. Searle had a wonderfully dry sense of humour. Once a year, he would pay the restaurant with a picture: pigs going into the kitchen looking doubtful, or snails crawling on to people's plates. Searle made me laugh so much: although he was an elderly man, he didn’t have an old mind. I will always remember his kindness: he was laudatory about my work, and would send me pages telling me what he liked about it.

He used to love sitting and talking about art. After our meal in the restaurant, we would go back to his house for what he called “a little bit more engine oil”, meaning an expensive champagne that he loved. If he didn't like something, he didn't pussyfoot. Even in his late-80s and early-90s, Searle worried where the next job was coming from. He just wanted to keep drawing. Luckily he was able to — right to the end.

Searle didn't just draw funny little men with big noses: he taught me that you have to take the caricature from the character. If you’re drawing Margaret Thatcher, she must look cutting and acerbic, as she's that sort of woman; whereas if you were drawing John Major, you couldn't possibly make him that way. Searle showed me that you have to really look at a person and assimilate what they are, then let that flow out on to the paper.

People think of his style as very British, but he didn't see himself that way. He was popular in Europe: over the last decade, he drew political cartoons for Le Monde, and a museum in Hanover recently bought most of his work. I'm glad somebody did, but it's a disgrace that it wasn't a British gallery. He didn't like talking about St Trinian's. He created the strip early in his career, in the 1950s, and it became a huge monster he couldn't control.

Although he was popular, I'm not sure Searle felt appreciated as an artist in Britain. There's a strict delineation between cartoonist and fine artist that doesn't exist in Germany and France. Cartoonists are often regarded as people who just dash things off on envelopes for a quick joke. My sadness is that he was never knighted, although I don't suppose Searle cared a stuff.