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Ronald Searle in Spitalfields

January 4, 2012
by the gentle author

“… furry faces peering incongruously from the jackets of hawkers.”

As a tribute to the graphic genius of Ronald Searle who died on New Year’s Eve aged ninety-one, I am republishing these drawings he made in Spitalfields in 1953 when he came here with his wife, Kaye Webb, to report upon the animal market in Club Row for their book, “Looking at London and People Worth Meeting.” A. R. J. Cruickshank wrote in the introduction, ”This book rediscovers for us some of the odd places and odd faces of London that most of us have forgotten, if we ever knew them. The warm-hearted humanity of Kaye Webb’s writing and the tender sympathy of Searle’s drawings are beautifully matched.”

Curious, considering our national reputation, that of all the street markets in London only one should sell dogs. This can be found any Sunday morning by taking a bus to Shoreditch High St and following your ears. a cacophony of whimpers, yaps, yelps and just plain barking will guide you to the spot where Bethnal Green Rd branches off to Sclater St.

There you may find them – the unclaimed pets of a hundred homes : new-born litters of puppies tumbling over each other in children’s cots ( the most popular form of window display) : “mixed bags” of less lively youngsters huddling docilely together in laundry baskets; lively-looking sheepdogs, greyhounds and bulldogs straining at the ends of leashes and furry little faces peering incongruously from the jackets of hawkers, who often look as if they’d be happier in the boxing ring.

The sales technique of their owners is almost as varied as the ware and almost always accompanied by much affectionate handling of the dogs. “It’s good for business and sometimes they mean it,” we were told by an impartial vendor of bird-seed who has been on the same pitch for twenty years. “Hi, mate, buy a dog to keep you warm!” said the man with the Chows to a pair of shivering Lascar seamen. “E’s worth double, lady, but I want ‘im to ‘ave a good ‘ome” or “Here’s a good dog, born between the sheets, got his pedigree in my pocket!” “Who’d care for a German sausage? – stretch him to make up the rations”, the salesman with the dachshund said, demonstrating too painfully for amusement.

R.S.P.C.A. interference is needed less often now. The days are gone when sores were covered with boot polish; when doubtful dogs were dyed with permanganate of potash; when, as tradition has it, you could enter the market at one end leading a dog, lose it half way, and buy it back at the other end. In fact the regular dog hawkers were never the ones to deal in stolen pets. “Stands to reason, this is the first place they’d come, and besides, look at the number of coppers there are about anyway.” But it is still possible to buy pedigree forms “at a shop down the road”, “just a matter of thinking up some good names and being able to write”.

The regular merchants, whose most frequent customers are the pet shops, are mostly old-timers ( some who have been coming for forty years and from as far away as Southend) and since a new law was passed insisting that all animal sellers should have licences, the ‘casuals’ are forbidden. But on the occasion of our visit the law had not yet been made and we passed quite a number of them. Most attractive was a red-cheeked lad with a spaniel puppy – “I call him Gyp; we’ve got his mother, but there’s no room for another, so my uncle said to come here.” Every  time he was asked: “How much do you want, son?” he stumbled over his answer and hugged the dog closer. And when the would-be buyer moved on, his eyes sparkled with relief.

That day the dog section of Club Row was not very busy; it was too cold. But the rest of the market waxed as usual. Unlike its near neighbour, Petticoat Lane, Club Row Market has a strong local flavour. The outsiders who make the long journey to its “specialised streets” are mostly purposeful men looking for that mysterious commodity known as Spare Parts.

In Club Row itself are to be found bicycles, tyres, an occasional motor bike or a superannuated taxi. The police are frequently seen about here looking for “unofficial goods”. Chance St sells furniture and “junk”, Sclater St is a nest of singing birds, rabbits, white mice, guinea pigs and their proper nourishment. In the Street of Wirelesses the air is heavy with crooning, and Cheshire St is clamorous with “Dutch auctions”, or demonstrating remarkable inventions like the World’s Smallest Darning Loom (“Stop your missus hating you … now you can say ‘you might darn this potato, dear, while I have shave’ … and she’ll do it before you’ve wiped the soap off!”).

We found one street devoted to firearms, chiefly historic, and another where secretive, urgent men offered us “a good watch or knife”, implying that it was “hot” and therefore going cheap. But we had learned that this was “duffing” and the watch was most probably exactly the same as those sold on the licenced stalls just up the street.

At ten to one the market reaches a crescendo. One o’clock is closing time and many of the stallholders won’t be back until next Sunday. This is the time when the regulars know where to find bargains, but it needs strong elbows. Our way out, along Wheler St, under the railway bridge and past the faded notice which says ‘Behold the Lamb of God Cometh”, brought us back to the dog market. It was surprisingly quiet. On the other side of the road we spotted a small figure hurrying off with the spaniel puppy. It looked as if Gyp was safe for another week anyway.

I hope you will not consider it vain if I reveal that Kaye Webb gave me this book and inscribed it under the title with my name and the text ” – also a person worth meeting!” It was my good fortune that Kaye, the legendary editor of Picture Post, Lilliput and Puffin Books, was the first person to recognise my work and encourage me in my writing. When I used to stay with her in her flat overlooking the canal in Little Venice, I remember she had some of Ronald Searle’s work framed on the wall in the spare room, and I spent many hours admiring both his Japanese prison camp drawings and his portraits of the bargees from the Paddington basin.

Kaye’s marriage to Ronald Searle ended in 1967 and she died in 1995. Today, I keep my copy of “Looking at London and People Worth Meeting” on the shelf as an inspiration to me now I am writing pen portraits myself, and I sometimes think of Kaye here in these streets over half a century ago and imagine Ronnie – as she referred to him – bringing out his sketchbook in Sclater St where I buy my fruit and vegetables each Sunday.

“…the rest of the market waxed as usual” – a bookseller in action on Brick Lane

12 Responses leave one →
  1. January 4, 2012

    I am a great believer in serendipity and so I somehow knew that there would be a piece on Ronald Searle here today.

    Yesterday I posted the following article on my favourite WW2 Forum, where Searles passing was immediately recognised as the loss of one of WW2’s greats.:

    One of my greatly respected friends is Len “Snowie” Baynes who has written about life in a Japanese POW camp in his mini-masterpiece “Kept- The other side of Tenko”

    The foreword to this book was written by Ronald Searle, who was also a POW under the Japanese, and to whom we will always be indebted for his wonderful drawings of those terrible years.

    Lest we forget !


  2. jeannette permalink
    January 4, 2012

    i gave a book of his prison camp drawings to an art professor and devotee of goya’s war drawings for christmas (mmm, he has a dark sense of humor). as a connoisseur of fine art, he loved them.
    vale, searle.

  3. Alan Gilbey permalink
    January 4, 2012

    Ronarld Serle was a national treasure, sadly not much treasured in this nation as he was in his adoopted France or in America, where animation artists rated him highly (Disney’s ‘101 Dalmations’ was highly influenced by his pen style.) As a kid I tried to draw pictures like the ones in ‘How To Be Topp’, even though the world of prep schools and latin lessons it depicted was a long way away from the kind of East End school I was attending. Later I discovered his p[isoner of war drawings and a wider wealth of work by the man who, perhaps unfortunately, will be mostly only known in the UK as the man who drew St Trinians. I love these drawings and the writing, who totally captures the essence of the place my dad used to bring me, looking for those mysterious spare parts.

  4. joan permalink
    January 4, 2012

    I renewed my daughter’s subscription to Puffin Post as a Christmas present to her. What a legacy.

    Best wishes,


  5. January 4, 2012

    Well done, Gentle Author, for celebrating this genius.
    Thank you 🙂

  6. Teresa Stokes permalink
    January 4, 2012

    One of my earliest memories is at the age of 4 or 5 poring over my parents’ copies of his books of collected cartoons and the Nigel Molesworth books, and being intrigued by the violent St Trinians girls tying up and gagging their teachers or other little boys, setting booby traps and wielding fearsome weapons etc, probably not suitable viewing for a child of my age but these feisty females were arguably better role models than the simpering girls in my reading books who were always helping mummy in the kitchen while the boys helped daddy wash the car. Searle helped turn me into an early feminist, although that was probably not the original intention! I have always particularly loved his humorous cats, many of which were on display at Chris Beetles gallery this time last year in the exhibition “The British Art of Illustration”. Searle’s agent Chris Beetles did a huge retrospective exhibition of his work on his 90th birthday in 2010 which I went to, but I hope there will be another one now that he has gone as I am sure there will be renewed interest in his work.

  7. Anita O'Brien permalink
    January 4, 2012

    Slight correction. Searle’s agent was and is the Sayle Literary Agency, not Chris Beetles, though his gallery has mounted a number of exhibitions of Searle’s works over the years.

    Perhaps you missed the two exhibitions of Searle’s works at the Cartoon Museum in London in 2009 and 2010.

  8. January 5, 2012

    Thank you so much for posting these drawings of Searle when life up the road from where I live, was even more intense.
    I’ve not seen any dogs there recently, only bikes and such.
    I’m glad you mentioned Kaye Webb too…Valerie Grove’s biography talks a lot about Searle. I think her incredible work for us little Puffineers must have helped fill the gap after his departure for a new life in France.
    Here’s Searle at 90 wondering how he managed so many kilometers of line…and talking about how champagne bubbles help. A fuel for a long life with an incredible breadth of talent from reportage, to illustration as well as cartooning. And I won’t mention those schoolgirls that the press labels him with. He only drew those for 6 years: “If it’s successful, kill it!” he says.

  9. January 5, 2012

    wow ,such lovely writing of ms.webb and r.i.p. mr searle

    *** “Sclater St is a nest of singing birds”

    ***”In the Street of Wirelesses the air is heavy with crooning”
    kaye webb

    ……. you dear gentle author are definately carrying on in the field of “warm hearted humanity” as cruikshank said of kaye webb and I bet she’d be so proud of you .

  10. January 6, 2012

    Have a copy of this wonderful book along with other of Searle’s books on my shelf. He was such an inspiration to generations of illustrators and will be very sadly missed. 🙁

  11. April 2, 2012

    I truly believe his illustrations were my first intro to dark humour, the pictures said a thousand words. There was always so much character alive in every marking. I too milled through Club Row as a very young child with my parents and always felt great discomfort when passing the cages and boxes due to my lifelong affinity with animals, but also, in sensing the human poverty, understood why it was there at all.
    Ronalds drawings bring it all back. Thanks again for sharing.

  12. David B permalink
    January 7, 2014

    I am fortunate to have an original drawing from this book-it depicts my grandfather, Frederick North, in his antique shop on Crawford Street. (“A Happy Man”) It was a dark and mysterious place to a young lad and the drawing room upstairs, with rows of real voodoo masks was terrifying! I have learned more about my grandfather from this wonderful book than I ever knew when he was alive.

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