Hands up the girl who burnt down the East Wing…

It takes chutzpah to open a museum on Little Russell Street, literally in the shadow of the behemoth that is the British Museum. So three Bloomsbury cheers for the Cartoon Museum, and its great new exhibition of the art of Ronald Searle.

Searle celebrates his 90th birthday this year, and there’s a great interview with him at the start of the exhibition, during which he chugs down the best part of a bottle of champagne, which he refers to as ‘engine oil’. I can’t imagine a better endorsement for the bubbly stuff.

As the exhibition swiftly confirms, he deserves every drop. Searle famously survived horrors beyond comprehension during the second world war, as a prisoner of war in Burma. The drawings he made there show a life stripped to the bare minimum. It seems incredible that they – and he – survived.

And not only survived. His ability to draw on these experiences, and turn them into the blackest of comedy, set this remarkable man apart. There’s one pair of drawings in particular that takes your breath away. In the first drawing, skeletal prisoners haul logs in Burma. In the second, St Trinians’ schoolgirls haul a lawn roller across the grounds, under the whip of the terrifying games mistress. ‘Blooming sports day!’ exclaims one.

It was, of course, the anarchic St Trinians that ensured Searle’s success, although the exhibition makes clear what a small part of his output the ‘gels’ were. As any fule noe, the immortal Molesworth, with his eccentric and delightful turn of phrase, followed swiftly. And the Searle roadshow rolled on, around the world, taking in tourists, refugees, monsters and divas.

There’s much to enjoy and admire, so I’ll simply urge you to go and see for yourselves. Ronald Searle – Graphic Master, A 90th birthday celebration is at the Cartoon Museum, Little Russell Street, until 4 July 2010.

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