On 30th December last year, Ronald Searle, one of my favourite authors and illustrators, passed away at the age of 91. Many of the tributes to Searle mentioned his most famous works, the St Trinian’s and Molesworth series of books. Although both of these series are excellent, I’d like to highlight another couple of books that Searle, and his then-wife Kaye Webb, wrote and illustrated in the 1950s. They are called Paris Sketchbook and Looking at London.
Looking at London is a collection of portraits of ordinary, everyday London characters: lamplighters, railway-workers, bargees, the controllers of Trafalgar Square’s fountains, the keepers of the Kensington silver vaults, and lonely, downtrodden itinerant tradesman, such as John Weston, a 65-year-old ex-cabin-boy turned jobbing gardener. The portraits of these forgotten characters are engaging and charming. To quote from the foreword written by R. J. Cruikshank, “the warm-hearted style of Kaye Webb’s writing and the tender sympathy of Searle’s drawings are beautifully matched. London can be a lonely place, and this book takes the trouble to find out a little more about the faces that pass by every day”.
Paris Sketchbook is a similar work, with Searle and Webb turning their gaze towards the French capital. The subjects of this book are less personal than Looking at London. Instead, Paris Sketchbook is a journal of a husband and wife who, loving Paris, devoted a holiday to recording some of the people and places they most wanted to remember.
Both books are enchanting snapshots of 1950s life in London and Paris. To the best of my knowledge, neither have been reprinted, but they are sometimes to be found second-hand on Amazon or in second-hand bookshops for about £20. If you are a fan of vintage Searle, and want to go beyond the legacy of St Trinian’s, the investment is well worth it.