Portrait Of Des Bettany By Fellow Artist, Ronald Searle (Jan 1945)

Sketch: Searle

Portrait of Des Bettany Sketch by Fellow Artist,Ronald Searle 1945

Apart from their important artwork depicting life in Changi and on the Thai – Burma Railway, there were at least three artists who assisted in designing and painting backdrops for the many theatre programmes that were produced. These artists included Des Bettany, Ronald Searle and Murray Griffiths.

Some programmes Ronald Searle created sets for included: ‘Tonight At 8.30′, ‘He Came Back’, ‘I Killed The Count’, ‘Badgers Green’and ‘Twinkletoes’.

Searle produced this pencil portrait of Des – an excellent likeness – possibly trading it for cigarettes or food.

There were many talented people who were caught up as POW’s in Changi by the Japanese and some of these included professional actors, musicians, writers, electricians, painters, plumbers and artists, all whom played an important role in ensuring that ‘the show must go on’.

More about Searle, (3/3/1920 – 30/12/2011), war artist:

‘As war threatened, Searle enlisted in the Territorials (Royal Engineers), offering his services as an architectural draughtsman. In 1942 he was captured at the fall of Singapore and spent three and a half years under the Japanese, first incarcerated at Changi Jail before being transported up country to Thailand to work as a slave labourer on the infamous Burma railway.

In later life he rejected what he called the “jolly good chaps” account given in David Lean’s film Bridge on the River Kwai for providing a false picture of camaraderie in the face of adversity. Searle had been sent to work on the railway in 1943 after he and two other inmates had begun producing a magazine to boost the morale of the prisoners. “It upset the extremely conservative mentalities of our own administration — the commanders and the chaplains,” he recalled with some bitterness. “When the time came for the Japanese to say we want groups to be sent up north, the English chose the troublemakers.” For Searle, the bridge remained the place “where I lost all my friends”.

His experiences as a PoW – during which he suffered regular beatings and bouts of malaria and beriberi, and his weight fell to six stone – completely changed his outlook on life. “My friends and I, we all signed up together,” he recalled. “We had grown up together, we went to school together … Basically all the people we loved and knew and grew up with simply became fertiliser for the nearest bamboo.”

Despite his own sufferings, Searle continued to draw what he saw, hiding his sketches under the mattresses of men dying of cholera to prevent their discovery by Japanese guards. “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,” he recalled.

A fellow prisoner later recalled of Searle: “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.”

Around 300 of his sketches survived the war, conveying a story of terrible suffering and cruelty with eloquence and economy. Most were eventually published alongside Searle’s own recollections in To the Kwai — And Back (1986), in which he described waking up one morning to find a friend on each side of him dead and a snake coiled beneath his head.

“You can’t have that sort of experience without it directing the rest of your life,” he said. “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.”’

Source: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/culture-obituaries/art-obituaries/8989894/Ronald-Searle.html

“Ronald Searle was a young, dark haired, blue eyed and listened keenly, but not with much air of being impressed, to everything that was said. He was an artist. He produced ‘Exile’ – Ronald Searle’s beautifully illustrated monthly magazine. His cartoons were a delight and he drew his articles widely from all sections of Changi’s population.” “Ronald Searle, designed and carried out the sets – décor, I believe, is the word – for many of the Playhouse shows, which ranged from Coward to pantomime and which in quality and production could easily have taken their place in any of London’s West End theatres.”
Source: The Naked Island by Russell Braddon; 1955 edition Pan Books Ltd, Pg 254, 256