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In the Jungle - Self Portrait, Konyu, Thailand Jungle, July 1943
Searle was born in Cambridge, England, where his father was a Post Office worker who repaired telephone lines. He started drawing at the age of five and left school (Central School - now Parkside School) at the age of 15. He trained at Cambridge College of Arts and Technology (now Anglia Ruskin University) for two years.
In April 1939, realizing that war was inevitable, he abandoned his art studies to enlist in the Royal Engineers. In January 1942, he was stationed in Singapore. After a month of fighting in Malaya, he was taken prisoner along with his cousin Tom Fordham Searle, when Singapore fell to the Japanese. He spent the rest of the war a prisoner, first in Changi Prison and then in the Kwai jungle, working on the Siam-Burma Death Railway. Searle contracted both beri-beri and malaria during his incarceration, which included numerous beatings, and his weight dropped to less than 40 kilograms. He was liberated in late 1945 with the final defeat of the Japanese. After the war, he served as a courtroom artist at the Nuremberg trials and later the Adolf Eichmann trial (1961). 
He married the journalist Kaye Webb in 1947; they had twins, Kate and Johnny. In 1961, he moved to Paris, leaving his family; they were divorced in 1967. Later he married Monica Koenig, a painter, theatre and jewellery designer. After 1975, Searle and his wife lived and worked in the mountains of Haute Provence.
His wife Monica died in July 2011 and Searle died on 30 December 2011, aged 91.
Early work as war artist
In the Jungle - Working on a Cutting. Rock Clearing after Blasting, 1943
Although Searle published the first St Trinian's cartoon in the magazine Lilliput in 1941, his professional career really begins with his documentation of the brutal camp conditions of his period as a prisoner-of-war of the Japanese in World War II in a series of drawings that he hid under the mattresses of prisoners dying of cholera. Searle recalled, "I desperately wanted to put down what was happening, because I thought if by any chance there was a record, even if I died, someone might find it and know what went on." But Searle survived, along with approximately 300 of his drawings. Liberated late in 1945, Searle returned to England where he published several of the drawings in fellow prisoner Russell Braddon's The Naked Island. Another of Searle's fellow prisoners later recounted, "If you can imagine something that weighs six stone or so, is on the point of death and has no qualities of the human condition that aren't revolting, calmly lying there with a pencil and a scrap of paper, drawing, you have some idea of the difference of temperament that this man had from the ordinary human being."
Most of these drawings appear in his 1986 book, Ronald Searle: To the Kwai and Back, War Drawings 1939-1945. In the book, Searle also wrote of his experiences as a prisoner, including the day he woke up to find a dead friend on either side of him, and a live snake underneath his head:
You can't have that sort of experience without it directing the rest of your life. I think that's why I never really left my prison cell, because it gave me my measuring stick for the rest of my life... Basically all the people we loved and knew and grew up with simply became fertiliser for the nearest bamboo.
Searle designed the 1992 delegates medal for the FIDEM XXIII Congress London. It depicted a half-length bust of the renaissance medallist Pisanello and was struck by the Royal Mint. Other notable medals were "Searle at Seventy" (1990) and "Kwai 50th Anniversary" (1991) Medal both struck by Thomas Fattorini Ltd, and "Charles Dickens" (1983) struck by the Birmingham Mint.
In 2010, he gave about 2,200 of his works as permanent loans to Wilhelm Busch Museum, Hanover (Germany), now renamed Deutsches Museum für Karikatur und Zeichenkunst. Previously the summer palace of George I of Hanover, this museum holds Searle's archives.
St. Trinian's: The Entire Appalling Business, 2008
Down With Skool!: A Guide to School Life for Tiny Pupils and Their Parents, 1953 (with Geoffrey Willans)
How to be Topp: A Guide to Sukcess for Tiny Pupils, Including All There is to Kno About Space, 1954 (with Geoffrey Willans)
Whizz for Atomms: A Guide to Survival in the 20th Century for Fellow Pupils, their Doting Maters, Pompous Paters and Any Others who are Interested, 1956 (with Geoffrey Willans) Published in the U.S. as Molesworth's Guide to the Atommic Age
Back in the Jug Agane, 1959 (with Geoffrey Willans)
The Compleet Molesworth, 1958 (collection) Molesworth (1999 Penguin reprint)
Forty Drawings (1946)
White Coolie, 1947 (with Ronald Hastain)
This England 1946-1949, 1949 (edited by Audrey Hilton)
^Searle, Ronald (13 October 2011). Les Très Riches Heures de Mrs Mole. Afterword by Monica Searle. Blue Door, an imprint of HarperCollins. ISBN9780007449101. Retrieved 2017. 47 jewel-like drawings by Ronald Searle made for his wife, Monica, each time she underwent chemotherapy. Filled with light and illuminated in glowing colours, the drawings speak of love, optimism and hope.... The 47 drawings are on an intimate scale and were never intended for publication.