Largely unknown to the general public, Searle had been making extreme investigations into how far he could go in abstract representations of human beings. In 1962-63, he had worked on a series of ink and wash compositions he titled “Anatomies and Decapitations”. Exhibited in only a few galleries, they disturbed many of Searle’s firmest admirers and have never been published. They are the most abstract work Searle has ever done. They almost all either huge heads or a few distracted skeletal figures reminiscent of late period Picassos. Some are just splayed slashes of lines, others are circular or oval stains with blotches or sequences of scratches for features. A rejection of his apparently perfected professional style, they resemble nothing Searle had done before. Yet in each Searle is able to find a means of presenting a figure who looks beatific, moronic, anxious, prim, or explosive. It is tempting to detect the influence of Andre Francois in these works (as Francois’s work in “Punch” was a similarly intense influence on emerging graphic artists like Ralph Steadman, Gerald Scarfe, and Quentin Blake). In 1960, Searle’s Perpetua Press had published a collection of Francois’s work, “The Biting Eye”. Francois drawing style was scratchy, messy, blotchy. His deliberately rudimentary and scribbly figures were not the standard blocky cartoony figures. Despite being highly non-representative, Francois’s work captured something essential about humans and their behaviour. Likewise, “Anatomies and Decapitations” shows Searle discovering how he could convey complex emotions freed of the restraints of human particularity or the contexts of social customs.
The first real product of these investigations intended for a popular audience was Searle’s Cats (1967). Searle had previously worked with animals, illustrating Geoffrey Willans’s The Dog’s Ear Book (1958), but those had been cartoonish animals, akin to the trotting figures of the Molesworth books, shaggy human actors in human situations with human responses. Searle’s cats would be much more abstract in composition. As Searle’s humans become less figuratively real, so he uses his cats to represent human states without relying on reductive realism. Luckily there is always an audience to be exploited in the public’s affections for cats. In his cats Searle found a “convenient currency” and international success before Kliban and Edward Bond discovered their respective felines. Searle’s cats are preposterous, yet though them Searle is accepting though still pungent about human weakness. He gives these works titles like “A retarded cat trying to grasp a simple fact”, “Unusually repulsive cat startled by a gesture of affection”, “Circus cat rehearsing Hamlet”, or “Acrobatic cat suddenly discovering quite unexpectedly that it is too old for the game”. Devoid of any background, through the shape of the cats’ bodies and arrangement of the minimum of facial elements, Searle embodies mournful, complacent, persevering, avaricious, or aghast expressions to match his titles. Searle would later redraw many of the works in his first Cat book, but in the earliest edition, their origin in “Anatomies and Decapitations” is apparent. These were much messier creations in blobby inks, with rather splashy harsh gray washes like the blotchy faces of “Anatomies and Decapitations” spread out to occupy a theoretical cat-space with slashes for whiskers.
His most public works in the late 1960s, his animated titles for “Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines”, “Monte Carlo or Bust” and “Scrooge” could mislead one into thinking Searle was as comforting as ever. Nostalgic excursions in comic catastrophe to match the films themselves, Searle’s designs captured the ludicrous and pompous costumes of the period (his style being less than ideal for sleek modern fashions), and Searle was to spend many years of work on a Gilbert and Sullivan animated feature “Dick Deadeye” (1975). In only one respect were these animated features representative of his current private work, since they withdrew from an explicit engagement with contemporary social manners and trends. Yet the sudden profusion of books at the end of the 1960s exploring unnerving and provocative material might be seen as Searle’s response to the upheavals and opportunities for artistic liberation that marked this period: The Square Egg (1968), Take One Toad (1968), Hello – Where Did All the People Go?, The Second Coming of Toulouse-Lautrec (1969), Secret Sketchbooks: The Back Streets of Hamburg (1969) and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1969).
Their contents were neither respectable nor wholesome, and often intensely irrational. They collected troublingly ambiguous jokes about the torments of the flesh. When he explores the more distant past, Searle’s characters are rotting, deformed and diseased. Similarly, there is an interest in ripe female sexuality and nudity. The blubber-lipped dwarf Toulouse-Lautrec eagerly frolics with and subordinates himself to broad-hipped jutting-buttocked giantesses naked save for their stockings and high-heeled boots (as though Searle is channelling R. Crumb’s fetishes). The Secret Sketchbooks record the bodies on display in German brothels, and confront fleshly taboos beyond the normal artistic nude study. In Take One Toad: A Book of Ancient Remedies Searle illustrates maladies and agonies and the consequent infliction of torturous quack cures, but there is a delight in man’s casual cruelty, of violence in the service of man’s insufficient knowledge, that outstrips the gymslip horrors of St Trinians in their depiction of the weaknesses of the flesh. So too, the eruptions of irrational in the cartoons collected in The Square Egg go further in confronting death and disability, as cripples of all kinds lash out at statuary representing their defective anatomy.
Searle becomes more concerned about the nature and quality of representation. The drawings in Hello – Where Did All the People Go? explore, almost compulsively, every method of extrapolating snails into every conceivable medium and form. The innate disgust snails evoke is almost immaterial in these formalist exercises proclaiming the transformative vision of the artists. Snails are reconstituted in metal, vegetables, cloth, fur, bones, buildings, clouds, birds, sexual females, mother animals, and assorted artistic pastiches. His snail giving suck to piglets will not be easily forgotten, nor his paradisical Fragonard-scape of snails on swings. The scenery of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen are typical of Searle but Searle’s figure of the Baron is an abstract bristling detonation of ink. For all that his facial features present a recognisable goggle-eyed, manic grinning buffoon, his body is an almost indecipherable sequence of blobs, dribbles, slashes and angles – yet evidently tightly conceived and executed since the figure is always consistently recognisable in each illustration. By the late 1960s, Searle’s generic people have lost a little more of their humanity. They become a little more distorted, their torsos a little more swollen and limp, their faces a little more contorted, sagging and haggard. It is worth wondering whether Searle has grown tired or even disgusted with people and his burden of drawing them. Likewise, Searles’ concern for the overall appearance of his work on the page changes as his use of ink has become messier. This period marks the beginning of Searle’s work becoming ink-spattered. If Steadman and Scarfe generously scatter blobs and blotches across their pages, Searle’s are more like concentrated effusions of spores and rot. For the next decade or so, Searle will often lay down an intermittent but enormously thicker line for parts of his outlines, in some ways reminiscent of Toulouse-Lautrec, so that his forms seem further distended on the page.
Searle’s major work in the 1970s was an outpouring of hundreds of colour lithographs in which he established his own set of conventions. This work would be collected in his two large retrospectives, Ronald Searle (1978) and Ronald Searle in Perspective (1984). The colour in his 1960s travel pieces had been striking, but the intent of this new work was to go further with bold and fantastic effects exploring a surrealism that would only gradually be accepted by commercial magazines. The irrationality depicted in The Square Egg explodes all over these pages. Searle’s scenes are all set on great plains stretching away to distant horizons which, to quote J.G. Ballard, are “the deepest horizon lines since Dali”, although they may be reminiscent of Cambridge’s “low fenland skies”. Searle foregrounds on this stage his repertory cast of cats, other animals, occasional birds and humans, with backdrops of scrubby vegetation or else towering cityscapes. There now is less use of line so that the colour is more emphatic. Since his figures are less detailed, his intermittent thickening of line may have been a new development to suggest a physical complexity. His ascending tower blocks gradually become sketchier, until as intersecting cross-hatches in the sky they are no longer realistic but figurative shapes pressing in on one another to suggest some implacable metropolis that dwarfs his characters. It is the use of colours that is striking, particularly in the case of his skies which sometimes occupy over half the page: bright pinks and yellows, eye-popping reds and purples, and pale blues. Their frankly psychedelic impact has left critics unsure whether Searle is revelling in his new exploitation of colour, whether they are intended to be purely beautiful (and if so, does it reveal a previously unsuspected tweeness) or whether he is more ambiguous and possibly satirising our assumptions about colour.
The lithographs are distinctive for not being immediately explicated like some editorial cartoon. They exhibit concern over pollution, ecology, overpopulation and dehumanisation. But Searle’s development of a personal yet satirical format, his international language, with its appealing colours, cartoonish men, and affectionate animals, walks an ambiguous line between charm and satire. As fantastic metaphors, his rainbows, butterflies and flowers can be almost too extreme, like an incursion from some earlier hippy agitprop poster insistent on the purity of the child’s imagination. It is that reduction of abstract ideas into simple figurative encapsulations with connotations of sentimental whimsy which make some bemoan the loss of the social miniaturist of the 1950s. It is the correlating attention to grey colours, his inks spatters suggesting smog, urban filth and casual litter, and the almost unapprehended details such as tiny piles of discarded cans or foliage, which often offset and contain the lurid colours, revealing the greater controlling artistic vision and technique. His titles add a further dimension, for like his Toulouse Lautrec drawings whose titles alluded to biblical and classical scenes, they are often more suggestive and surprising than descriptive. There is an occasional recurrence of a large graphic ballooony question mark in his lithographs; as though to provoke questions about the meaning of meaning is one of the purposes of these works.
His human figures in the lithographs are purely satirical. They cannot help but seem ugly, wretched and squalid in comparison to Searle’s lurid swashes of colours. They have become subhuman, fraudulent Piltdown men. The slashes marking their facial features make them ravaged and gaunt spectres and ghouls. Eyes once so capable of expressing cunning, lust, sorrowful frustration and even occasional joy are now lost in brooding self-absorption. Their bodies have developed a curvature of the spine so they are now unfinished slug-like masses borne upon their long curvy legs. In his lithographs Searle only uses human figures when they can bear the brunt of his criticism. His travel pieces suggested a growing concern on Searle’s part about the cost and impact of humanity’s pleasures upon itself and the world. Often besuited in pinstripes (possibly unconsciously recalling his “Tribune” cartoons) his humans are either oblivious to the world through which they pass or else horrified when its irrational spectacles can no longer be ignored.
While his humans have become abject objects of judgment, delight and all the positive qualities and actions of mankind have been transposed onto his animals. Curiously, his cats have acquired the same shape as his human torsos – that same trapezoidal or pyramidal blob, but with two perky ears at the top. At first it approximated the impression of a cat when sat, but Searle gradually employed the same shape no matter what the cat was doing. His cat faces hover above their undefined abdomens like furry humpty-dumpties. Unlike his first series of cats in Searle’s Cats, these are not solitary figures in a void. They participate in Searle’s scenery, they interact with each other, ride bicycles and horses, romance and seduce one another, even retire to a comfortable urban home life. In this respect they are a return to the anthropomorphic creations in The Dog’s Ear Book. It is these cats which appealed most strongly to the public, made Searle famous again for his covers on “The New Yorker”, and are collected in More Cats (1975) and The Big Fat Cat Book (1982)
His works at the turn of the decade were varied character studies in anthropomorphic animals. Searle extends the lesson of his cat art, which is that that no matter how wonky or sagging these creatures are, anthropomorphism is charming in itself. As with St Trinians, an immediately beguiling appearance can function as the satirist’s Trojan Horse. Searle’s subtler colouring, with its internal visual rhymes between its characters and their minimal settings entices his audience rather than assaults them with satiric disgust. A charming stone is dropped in the observer’s mind with ever extending ripples of subversions. Rather than attempt grand statements as in the lithographs, Searle employs his animals to depict individuals stricken by personal malaise. Anthropomorphism allows him to delineate human weakness and folly without distractions of setting. Searle uses his animals as either fantastic metaphors or as bestiaries of befuddlement and deflated pretension, by employing all the symbolic connotations animals have in the popular imagination. In Zoodiac (1977) Searle gives us animals in usual humanised habits, a housemaid mouse, a suited bull putting the move on a cow in evening gown, or two lions as Charles II and Nell Gwyn. The creatures in The King of Beasts (1980) (published under the alternate title The Situation is Hopeless) are animals in their natural environment, whose human commentary is found in their dazed and delusionary correlation to Searle’s titles. “American bald eagle suddenly realising that its leanings are basically Marxist”. “Feeble-minded circus lion basking in the belief that it’s the King of Beasts”. In almost all instances these defective cases are solitary figures, and with the ink-splotched art these figures are situated in non-urban squalor. Ostensibly a manner a million miles from The Big City, these are Searle’s statements about the human condition, not the specific anomie of salesmen, prostitutes and refugees.
The 1980s saw assorted retrospectives and reissues and Searle continued to produce personal and commercial work in abundance. The vast corpus of his commissioned commercial work is uncatalogued and uncollected, but it is worth recalling that it is work for which Searle was employed specifically because of his talent to charm and amuse. The art collected in The Illustrated Winespeak: Ronald Searle’s Wicked World of Winetasting (1983), Something in the Cellar (1986) and Ozzie Winespeak (1987) show him rediscovering some of the pleasures of purely humorous drawing in a series conceived to promote particular vineyards. In the case of “Searle’s Cats” and “The King of Beasts” it is impossible to know whether image or title has creative precedence, but in his Winespeak art Searle is inspired to interpret common phrases used to describe wines. From trite commonplaces like “full-bodied, with great character”, or “unpretentious” to pretentious evocations like “a little forward in character” or “fullish body, but beginning to fade”, Searle summons forth a metaphor in human form with glass or bottle in hand. They are ingenious deflationary literalisations of the original inept snobbish metaphor. Each is captured in situ. “Dry, nervous, vigorous” is an hysterical woman swinging over her head a large corkscrew embedded in a bottle. “Healthy but a bit sweaty” is an exhausted-looking gymnast in leotard doing a headstand over her glass.
They are a return to engagement with human figures, and since he is not presenting particular people Searle further develops his shorthand form. Their purpose is to present specific yet comic states: surprise, greed, confusion, smugness, lust, and so Searle establishes a strict abstract form which has served him to the current day. Their heads are either lozenges or ovals. His noses have become long, drooping proboscises, like a flaccid finger, at the top of which are placed two boggle-eyes, one usually significantly higher than the other, particularly when in profile (a last homage to Picasso?). Their outline is relatively simple, so Searle can work in his colours. He rarely makes this human format much more detailed even when intended just to be in black and white, so they are broad expanses of negative space contained by his messy lines. These lumpen creatures, which have largely moved beyond any representative associations of human ugliness, are the deterministic creations of human language, of casual meaning reflected in human form. As language has been used so haphazardly, so they are equally misshapen but boldly oblivious to their personal and physical shortcomings. Ronald Searle’s Non-Sexist Dictionary (1988)and Slightly Foxed, But Desirable: Ronald Searle’s Wicked World of Book Collecting (1989) continued to mine this whimsical vein of verbal fantasia. “Mad Magazine” regularly runs its own series of metaphorical menageries, but instead of “Mad”’s cliches as zany monsters, something pathetically or frenziedly human is apprehended in Searle’s application of visual wit to the pursuits of the nicer classes (a path Ralph Steadman would similarly follow to Oddbins).
Literary and high cultural symbolism were the spur for Searle’s series of “Crossed Paths” cartoons for the “New Yorker” in the early 1990s, collected in Marquis de Sade Meets Goody Two-Shoes (1994). All the hopes, allusions and pretensions of high art, music and literatures are fixed on this pages. In an earlier series, “Mislaid Masterpieces”, Searle had presented such fantasies as “Swine Lake” (pigs performing ballet) or Toulouse Lautrec painting a version of “The Raft of the Medusa” stacked with scantily-clad jolies femmes. “Crossed Paths” are fantasies of mortification and chagrin, about the ultimate incompatibility of great spirits, of a mankind driven to perpetual psychic warfare. Rembrandt is driven to despair trying to paint a minimalist Thurber-cartoon man. Omar Khyam tries to protect his loaf of bread, jug of wine and thou from the sandstorm kicked up by a triumphant Lawrence of Arabia riding past on horseback. Futile collisions between quintessential characters, they are the slapstick wit of a connoisseur. A deaf Beethoven at clavier cupping his hand to his ear and straining to hear Edward Munch whose own hands are clutched to his screaming face made me fall off my bed laughing. Searle’s proto-human style is just as capable of depicting a Hemingway shooting Poe’s raven, as his draughtsmanship of decades past, but now each character has its own special touch of dementia. These drawings demonstrate the same impulse to disruption, perturbation, and confrontation as Searle struggled to exploit in his ‘Orrible Albert cartoons of the late 1940s. But where they were an undirected, unsure flailing about, here the target isn’t a few irate adults but the entirety of western culture rendered absurd.
In 1995 Searle was invited to contribute editorial cartoons to the French newspaper “le Monde”. It was a further indication of Searle’s acceptance by his transplanted homeland. He has already had shows, been awarded honours, and been commissioned to execute a series of medals for the French Mint honouring the great cartoonists, caricaturists, and satirical artists. In the late 1950s “Punch” had allotted Searle a few editorial cartoons, in which Searle had satisfied his brief with Khrushchevs and Kenniedies in allegorical situations. Illingworth was “Punch”’s house political cartoonist at that time, and his dense executions in this mode admirably continued the tradition of Tenniel. Only one of Searle’s cartoons, a sketch of the African continent within whose confines one miserable African is hunched over demonstrates the power of Searle’s imagination expressed in a pure visual concept. Searle’s cartoons for “le Monde” are purely satirical images. There are few topical caricatures, slogans or tags to indicate what is being referred to. He discards his repertoire of personal images, save for his stage-like sets which emphasises the figurativeness of these cartoons. A rare appearance of the editorial cartoonist’s mainstay, a topical figure fitted out in conceptual costumer, with Saddam Hussein as Alfred Jarry’s Pere Ubu, is a reminder that absurdism is not whimsy but a rapacious and irrational humour deliberately undermining and disassembling the ignoble reason that conforms to the literary world of horror, brutality and venality. Instead of merely featuring political figures in dress-up to make his point, it is as though parading across his stage are not actors but embodiments of human concepts themselves. Commonplace concepts about greed, bureaucracy and warmongering are revivified by his decades of graphic experience in a sophisticated clash of symbols. Searle employs a pared selection of archetypes. Clichés such as thuggish soldiers, angels, doves, bureaucrats, women and children are engaged in duels, walking tightropes or posed on tottering pedestals. His rough brutish figures are comment in themselves. Often his scenes have a stark, ugly quality. Instead of using wash, Searle fills in part of his otherwise bare scenes with blotches of messy, scratchy cross-hatching, now more masterly and significant than his attempts in the 1940s. What may have originally accompanied a particular war or scandal, has been deliberately executed by Searle to ascend to a level of universal commentary. These are condemnations of violence, consumerism, inequality and human failure, yet leavened by his characteristic wry and gleeful humour.
Since the turn of the millennium, Searle’s public output has lessened dramatically. He has illustrated books for private commissions like Jeffrey Archer’s Cat O’Nine Tails (2006) and Robert Forbes’s Beastly Feasts: A Mischievous Menagerie in Rhyme (2007). There have been a number of extensive gallery retrospectives and documentaries. As a result of his longevity it would almost be as rewarding to host an exhibition of every graphic artist who has followed and learnt from him. Yet, with every development in his style, even as it has bred imitators, Searle has then moved on, leaving them behind to exhaust his discoveries. Interviews reveal that everyday Searle still finds himself compelled to exercise himself at the drawing board in his home of thirty years in Haute-Provence. As he wrote in a 1969 profile, “To me line is something which one can explore endlessly, and which keeps me in a constant feeling of excitement and adventure. I know I shall never live long enough to say and do all I want in line.”