An Unofficial War Artist

Ronald Searle was never acknowledged as an official war artist, despite risking his life to produce a exceptional body of work recording his experience as a Japanese prisoner of war in Singapore and Thailand. Some of these drawings will be exhibited alongside his better known cartoons, in a tribute exhibition, Ronald Searle Remembered (1920-2011) at the Chris Beetles Gallery, 8 & 10 Ryder Street, London, SW1Y 6QB, from 22nd May to 9th June 2012.

By the end of January 1942 the British Forces had abandoned the Malayan mainland to the Japanese, and fallen back to Singapore Island. Within a few days the Japanese had assembled more than 50,000 prisoners of war, and marched them the 14 miles to Changi, the area occupying the Eastern end of Singapore Island. Ronald Searle was one of these prisoners. In a remarkable burst of reportage immediately after capitulation Searle documented the triumph of the Japanese, and the collapsed postures and glazed expressions of the defeated allied soldiers.

As conditions worsened, his sense of mission grew in strength. Health, opportunity and materials permitting, he would bring back from this experience a pictorial record of scenes which, he already knew, would otherwise scarcely be believed. It was important work – unique, as it turned out – and it was an objective reason to survive, which every man would come to need.

A supply route from Siam (Thailand) to Burma was essential for the Japanese war effort, but it had previously been accepted it would be impossible to build given the extreme terrain and the debilitating tropical weather. Large numbers of expendable labourers would be needed, and on the 8th May 1942 Searle and the rest of ‘H’ force were moved out. They endured a 100 mile march to the section of track where they would begin work. The prisoners were already severely malnourished and started to die of fevers and exhaustion. Searle who had suffered from enteritis, gastritis and tropical ulcers back in the camp at Changi was in comparatively good shape. Even during the punishing march he made drawings. He continued to record the routine of the day, drawing up later those scenes he could not capture from life. Sometimes making drawings at first light before beginning 18 hours of labour on the railway.

During the time Searle spent working on the railway he contracted Malaria, Dengue fever and Beri-Beri; and suffered from repeated beatings, including the attack of a Japanese guard on one of his hands. He narrowly escaped the airborne cholera that was killing so many others. Men in agonies of hunger would throw away their rice if they saw a fly land on it rather than risk contracting cholera. The fact that Searle drew these scenes makes them possible to imagine.

The Siam – Burma Railway was completed on the 25th October 1943, ahead of schedule. It is said that one man died for every sleeper laid. Searle survived, barely, and was transferred to the Sime Road Camp in Singapore. A fellow prisoner Russell Braddon described him at this time.

He could barely move, and we had no food, he had dysentery, malaria and was covered in running sores and each day we expected him to die…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 in temperament that this man had from the ordinary human being.

5 months later Searle was transferred to Changi Gaol, where 10,000 prisoners were housed in a facility intended for just 600. On the 24th September 1945 Singapore was formally surrendered; and on the 24th October, nearly 4 years after he left England, Searle arrived in Liverpool.

He had managed to create a body of work considerable enough to make him eligible retrospectively as a war artist, but the Artist Advisory Committee never granted this. In November 1946, a selection of his war drawings were published under the title 40 Drawings. Despite editing which minimised the scenes of forced labour and torture, the book remained powerful enough to distress. There was, during this period of time, a great deal the general public was anxious to forget, and so the publication was not a success. The drawings were put away and were not published again for forty years, when they were finally bought to the public’s attention with the publishing of the book To The Kwai and Back.

Ronald Searle: A Biography by Russell Davies

To The Kwai and Back: War Drawings 1939 to 1945 by Ronald Searle