Ronald Searle's America – book review

Edited by Matt Jones

Published by Fantagraphics Books ISBN 978-1-60699-843-4


Observation – some people appear oblivious to what is around them. Others cast a keen eye across their surroundings and the people inhabiting them. Illustrator Ronald Searle (1920 -2011) was a master of the latter, injecting it both into his reportage work and successful cartoons such as St Trinian’s, and this superb book revisits his impressive output from across America (and Canada) on assignment for several magazines from the late 1950’s onwards.


Curated by Matt Jones, who runs the Perpetua: Ronald Searle Tribute website, this impressive coffee table sized publication breaks down Searle’s travels into various locations (and political campaigns by Kennedy and Nixon), showing work that has rarely been seen since original publication in the 1960’s, with fascinating on site drawing, rough sketches which reveal the workings behind a joke, plus the richly detailed final images in line and colour. Stylishly designed, it’s a treat for all who love drawing (and being entertained – several drawings had me laughing out loud), offering an insight into Searle’s modus operandi and the effort that went into these assignments. Drawing in blizzards, anyone, to capture life in Alaska? There’s not many of us with the tenacity to deal with ink freezing in our pens!


In the Foreward, Pete Docter calls Searle’s drawing “delicious to look at”, a fantastic way to describe the pleasure of observing the varied fluid line, the capturing of ‘place’, the recognisable people (much of this work could be published today – preening bodybuilders, rich elderly retirees, elaborately kitted out skiers…). How great to have dropped him into the hipster hang outs of our major cities lampooning the dress and rituals, or puncturing the self importance of many media stars, famous for, well, what?


One of the strengths of Searle’s humour is its grounding in real life situations, so although there are universal elements, the people (or animals) who are the subject of his visual joke inhabit an exaggerated but authentic environment, with enough detail to ground and enhance the humour.


Searle is well known for the sharpness of his wit, and no one escapes in these American drawings. It’s often an individual put upon by the ordinary/extraordinary environment around them, whether that’s a man scurrying down a dark New York street proliferating with aggressive street signs, or a tourist being snatched up in the air by a sharp taloned Native American carved bird seemingly detached from a totem pole. Jones supplies informative captions on what images are and where they were published, and articles and letters by Searle himself or others are interspersed throughout the book offering interesting background.


Searle discusses situations with the same focused observation he brought to drawing, and not just on magazine work. He had strong views on visual documenting, “Reportage has to have flesh, bones, and above all life in it. One is not illustrating, but pushing one’s nose into life. On top of that one must have something to say – however crass. Reportage is not reporting: it is opinion and comment that takes it away from journalism into (minor) art.”


From a man who appears to have had no end of talent (and application), this substantial book is true visual treat. A great addition to the published work of Ronald Searle.


Ronald Searle was a supportive Patron of the Association of Illustrators up to his death in 2011. Book preview here

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15th June 2016

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