David Low

David Low

David Low, the son of David Brown Low, a chemist, was born in Dunedin, New Zealand on 7th April 1891. His father's family had originally come from Fife in Scotland. As a young man he had discovered a pile of old copies of Punch Magazine in a second-hand bookshop in Christchurch. Deeply impressed by the work of Charles Keene, Linley Sambourne and Phil May, Low decided he wanted to become a cartoonist. In his autobiography he wrote: "The more I poured over the intricate technical quality of these artists the more difficult did drawing appear. How impossible that one could ever become an artist! But then I came on Phil May, who combined quality with apparent facility. Once having discovered Phil May I never let him go."

At the age of fifteen Low began to have his drawings published in magazines and newspapers in New Zealand. This included anti-gambling cartoons for the War Cry, the newspaper of the Salvation Army, and illustrations for New Zealand Truth, a weekly newspaper specializing in sensational crime and sex . Still a teenager, Low was appointed the regular political cartoonist of the New Zealand Spectator. His fame spread to Australia and at the age of eighteen he was asked to join the Sydney Bulletin, where he worked with two other great cartoonists, Livingstone Hopkins and Norman Lindsay.

The British writer Arnold Bennett was impressed when he saw Low's cartoons and wrote an article about him in The New Statesman. This resulted in Low being offered a job in England with The Daily News and the company's evening paper, The Star. Low arrived in England in 1919 but was unhappy with the space that he was given for his cartoons. After threatening to resign, the editor of the newspaper agreed to publish the large, half-page cartoons that he had been doing in Australia. In London Low became a close friend of the other great political cartoonist of the period, Will Dyson of The Daily Herald.

Low was commissioned by The Star to draw the portraits of the fifty most distinguished people in Britain. His subjects included George Bernard Shaw, Arnold Bennett, H. G. Wells, Hilaire Belloc, G. K. Chesterton and Arthur Conan Doyle. Only two men refused to sit for him: John Galsworthy and Rudyard Kipling. Some of his cartoons for the newspaper were used as posters for the Liberal Party in the 1922 General Election.

After a disagreement with the editor about how this should be presented in The Star, Low eventually had them published in The New Statesman. Low also had cartoons published in other journals in Britain such as Punch Magazine, Illustrated London News and The Graphic. Low later recalled: "I worked an eight-hour day - sometimes ten-hour - day and with evenings spent moving around seeing people, it was a busy life. Making a cartoon occupied usually about three full days, two spent in labour and one in removing the appearance of labour."

In 1927 Low was persuaded by Lord Beaverbrook to work at the Evening Standard. Although Beaverbrook was a strong supporter of the Conservative Party, he promised Low that he would have complete freedom to express his own radical political views. Low produced four cartoons a week and these were syndicated to 170 journals worldwide.

Unhappy with the political leadership of the British establishment David Low created his cartoon character, Colonel Blimp in 1934. In his book, Low's Autobiography, he explained that Blimp represented everything he disliked in British politics: "Blimp was no enthusiast for democracy. He was impatient with the common people and their complaints. His remedy to social unrest was less education, so that people could not read about slumps. An extreme isolationist, disliking foreigners (which included Jews, Irish, Scots, Welsh, and people from the Colonies and Dominions); a man of violence, approving war. He had no use for the League of Nations nor for international efforts to prevent wars. In particular he objected to any economic reorganization of world resources involving changes in the status quo."

In the 1930s Low joined with other radicals, such as Stafford Cripps, Nye Bevan, Ellen Wilkinson, J. B. Priestley, Victor Gollancz, Henry Nevinson and Norman Angell to complain about Britain's foreign policy. Low was especially appalled by what he called the "Government's supine attitude to foreign intervention in Spain" during the Spanish Civil War.

Low's cartoons criticizing Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini resulted in his work being banned in Germany and Italy. After the war it was revealled that in 1937 the German government asked the British government to have "discussions with the notorious Low" in an effort to "bring influence to bear on him" to stop his cartoons attacking appeasement.

David Low, Evening Standard (10th October, 1938)
David Low, Evening Standard (10th October, 1938)

Low was attacked in the press as a "war-monger". Margot Asquith, the wife of the former Prime Minister,Herbert Asquith, wrote to Low about his cartoons attacking Neville Chamberlain that she considered to be both "cruel and mischievous". She went onto say: "I know the P.M. - do you? He is a man of iron courage, calm and resolution. Neville is doing the only right, wise, thing, unless you want war. Hate, threats - which you can't carry out - and suspicion do not advance peace, and if the P.M. fails we can always go back to the policy of the war-mongers - Winston Churchill and Co. I think Neville has saved the world by his courage - and so do much cleverer people than I."

However, others welcomed his criticisms of Adolf Hitler. This included Sigmund Freud who wrote: "A Jewish refugee from Vienna, a very old man personally unknown to you, cannot resist the impulse to tell you how much he admires your glorious art and your inexorable, unfailing criticism."

In the Second World War Low's cartoons such as All Behind You, Winston (14th May, 1940), Stay There! I'll Be Back (24th May, 1940) and Very Well, Alone (18th June, 1940) were used to inspire the British people at a time when many feared a German victory. His work was both praised and attacked by Winston Churchill. Low refused to become a propagandist and described himself as "a nuisance dedicated to sanity". Low became an official British War Artist and in this role attended the Nuremberg War Trials with Joseph Flatter.

Low left the Evening Standard in 1949 and later worked for The Daily Herald (1950-1953) and The Manchester Guardian (1953-1963). Mark Bryant has argued that "Low has been perhaps the most influential cartoonist and caricaturist of the twentieth century - he produced over 14,000 drawings in a career spanning 50 years and was syndicated worldwide to more than 200 newspapers and magazines."

Published collections of Low's work include: Europe at War (1941), The World at War: A History in Sixty Cartoons (1942), Low's Company: Fifty Portraits (1952), Low's Autobiography (1956) and Years of Wrath: 1932-1945 (1986).

David Low, who was knighted in 1962, died on 19th September 1963.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) David Low, Autobiography (1956)

A pile of old copies of copies of Punch I found in the back room of a fatherly second-hand bookseller introduced me to the treasure of Charles Keene, Linley Sambourne, Randolph Caldecott and Dana Gibson. The more I poured over the intricate technical quality of these artists the more difficult did drawing appear. How impossible that one could ever become an artist! But then I came on Phil May, who combined quality with apparent facility. Once having discovered Phil May I never let him go.

(2) David Low joined the Sydney Bulletin in 1909.

The men behind the Bulletin, notably Jules Francois Archibald, a master journalist, and William Macleod, an artist with solid business ability, had made it a major policy of their paper to encourage native Australian talent. The supply of poets and writers began to flow almost immediately. That of comic artists and caricaturists had to be primed at first by a couple of importations, Livingstone Hopkins (Hop) from America, and Phil May from Britain.

The Bulletin was radical, rampant and free, with an anti-English bias and a preference for a republican form of government. No more imported governors nor doggerel national anthems, no more pompous borrowed generals, foreign titles, foreign capitalists, cheap labour, diseased immigrants, if the Bulletin could help it.

(3) In his autobiography, David Low explained how his cartoons usually took three days to draw.

I worked an eight-hour day - sometimes ten-hour - day and with evenings spent moving around seeing people, it was a busy life. Making a cartoon occupied usually about three full days, two spent in labour and one in removing the appearance of labour. Sometimes I wondered whether I was not taking too much trouble. But when I learned that the methods of Brueghel, Callot, Daumier, Gillray and the other Old Masters of Caricature had been similarly thorough, that Tenniel took two or three days to make a Punch cartoon.

(4) While working for the Sydney Bulletin in Australia, David Low got to know H. H. Champion.

Who in 1915 would have identified the mild old gentleman, editor of a tiny literary monthly, walking tremulously with the aid of two sticks in the Melbourne sunshine, with the determined young ex-artillery officer H. H. Champion of the 1880s, who introduced John Burns and Keir Hardie to political life, and who with Burns and Hyndman led a riotous mob of unemployed through London's clubland, leaving a trail of broken windows? No one, I wager. Illness, disappointment and age had long since withdrawn Champion from politics to books. But he retained an interest in justice and right. Whenever I did a cartoon which in content departed from the strictly sane view I was sure next day to run into Champion, advancing slowly down the street like a conscience. He would stop, look me in the eye, smile gently and say, "Not quite, David, do you think?" Very effective criticism, coming from that old war-horse.

(5) David Low found it difficult to adjust to life in London. Will Dyson of the The Daily Herald was one of first friends he made in England.

I had just left the warmth of a wide circle of friends in Australia to come to this desert island. The contrast was painful. "It will take you ten years to learn the English," said Will Dyson, the Australian cartoonist, whom we found crouching over a sinking fire in a large dark studio, nursing a great grief at the death of his wife.

Will, despite his sadness, was a great comfort in the cheerless winter of 1919-20. From his early Bulletin days I had been his great admirer as one of the master caricaturist-cartoonists. Will Dyson had broken up the pattern with his striking Socialist cartoons in the Herald from about 1910 onward, and had led the field during the First World War with his large war cartoons in which the monumental and the satirical had been powerfully blended.

(6) David Low was commissioned by the Daily Star to draw portraits of fifty of Britain's most distinguished men.

One of the first subjects I called on was Bernard Shaw. A solid-looking domestic showed me in. Shaw was lying on a settee, wearing fancy slippers, very pleased with himself, talking to Barry Jackson and another man about details of the production of his new play Saint Joan, but I did not pay much attention because I was more interested in our host. Peculiar high skull, jutting beard, small eyes, pinkish bulbous nose, small mouth with false-looking teeth. I walked about the room, which seemed to be well furnished with portraits of Bernard Shaw. On the table was a bust of Shaw by Rodin, not too good. All these works represented a cocky Shaw, the head standing erect on a straight spine. When the others left I hadn't been talking to him long before I began to suspect that he was really a shy man, that the cockiness was a defensive facade.

(7) Some people believed that David Low's cartoons of David Lloyd George helped to force him out of office.

David Lloyd George was the best-hated statesman of his time, as well as the best loved. The former I have good reason to know; every time I made a pointed cartoon against him, it brought batches of approving letters from all the haters. Looking at Lloyd George's pink and hilarious, head thrown back, generous mouth open to its fullest extent, shouting with laughter at one of his own jokes, I thought I could see how it was that his haters hated him. He must have been poison to the old school tie brigade, coming to the House an outsider, bright, energetic, irrepressible, ruthless, mastering with ease the House of Commons procedure, applying all the Celtic tricks in the bag, with a talent for intrigue that only occasionally got away from him.

I always had the greatest difficulty in making Lloyd George sinister in a cartoon. Every time I drew him, however critical the comment, I had to be careful or he would spring off the drawing-board a lovable cherubic little chap. I found the only effective way of putting him definitely in the wrong in a cartoon was by misplacing this quality in sardonic incongruity - by surrounding the comedian with tragedy.

(8) David Low first met Winston Churchill in 1922.

As might be expected from his origins and temperament, Churchill was inwardly contemptuous of the "common man" when the "common man" sought to interfere in his (the common man's) own government; but bearing with the need to appear sympathetic and compliant to the popular will. In those days, whenever I heard Churchill's dramatic periods about democracy, I felt inclined to say: "Please define." His definition, I felt, would be something like "government of the people, for the people, by benevolent and paternal ruling-class chaps like me."

Churchill was witty and easy to talk to until I said that the Australians were an independent people who could not be expected to follow Britain without question. They were, in the case of new wars, for instance, not to be taken for granted, but would follow their own judgment.

Churchill was one of the few men I have met who even in the flesh give me the impression of genius. George Bernard Shaw is another. It is amusing to know that each thinks the other is overrated.

(9) David Low, Autobiography (1956)

The spectacle of Mussolini so masterfully beating up his Liberal and Socialist opponents was one that could not fail to evoke admiration in some Anglo-Saxon breasts. A British Fascist Party grew up overnight; and the Daily Mail, then Britain's biggest popular newspaper, approved it. With the zest I added the first Lord Rothermere, its proprietor, to my cast of cartoon characters. He made up well in a black shirt helping to stoke the fires of class hatred. Lord Rothermere was much incensed and complained bitterly. "Dog doesn't eat dog. It isn't done," said one of his Fleet Street men, as though he were giving me a moral adage instead of a thieves' wisecrack. "You forget, old boy," I replied, "I'm a moa."

(10) David Low, Autobiography (1956)

The unending arguments about presentation, space and position in the Star became wearing. I had foreseen the possibilities of personal crisis about all this, so, as an insurance, I began to develop some footholds in quarters where I could place some better drawing: Punch, The Graphic and elsewhere.

The portraits I had been working on so long were now coming up to the final stage. I had Robert Lynd introduce me to Clifford Sharp, the editor of The New Statesman, and I offered them to him for a first publication at a small fee on condition he agreed to do them as offset plate-stamped loose supplements.

(11) In his autobiography, David Low wrote about his friendship with Sir William Joynson-Hicks.

My personal contacts with the Tory Party were slight until I became acquainted with the Home Secretary. Sir William Joynson-Hicks (Jix for short) was a spectacular success as a 'red' hunter. He was in his element rushing the police around to seize sinister documents from some branch of the then insignificant Communist Party. Most of the time it seemed to me, of all Baldwin's men, the most intolerant, narrow-minded and dictatorial of anti-democrats. Week by week, I derided his moments of triumph. A letter arrived from Jix inviting me to come along to the Home Office if ever I wanted to bring my portrait up to date. Jix's vanity and giggling goodwill were irresistible. I abhorred his politics but I liked him and he liked me. There he was at the Home Office with a heap of reproductions of my bloodhound cartoons of himself on his writing-table, obviously put there for my benefit. I met him often after that, always with enjoyment. For years we exchanged Christmas presents regularly, I a little drawing, he a box of cigars: "With best wishes from your devoted assassin, Low": "With all good wishes from your most loyal victim, Jix."

(12) Lord Beaverbrook first approached David Low to work for the Evening Standard in 1926. Although Beaverbrook offered to double his salary he refused. In 1929 Beaverbrook tried again to capture Britain's leading cartoonist.

He fixed me with a steady calculating eye and I put on my best Simple Simon look. The proposition was that I should leave The Star and draw cartoons for the Evening Standard at double my salary, whatever it was. Flabbergasted, I made refusing noises. "What do you want?" he asked. He was persistent. To close the subject I said I wished to take the advice of my friends H. G. Wells and Arnold Bennett.

Negotiations ended when I called on Lord Beaverbrook one morning at noon, finding him sitting up in bed, a plaintive figure like Camille, reading the Bible. He had promised me four half-pages a week, but I wanted precise guarantees about presentation. "Dammit, Low," said Beaverbrook. "Do you want to edit the paper, too."

The Evening Standard advertised my coming lavishly. No one took seriously the announcements that I was to express independent views. that was a novel idea, except for an occasional series of signed articles by some big name. Free and regular expression by the staff cartoonist was unheard of and incredible.

Beaverbrook did not always laugh in the right place at my cartoons, and some galled him, but in the twenty-three years of my association with his newspapers I can recall only one cartoon being left unprinted because of a disagreement over its political content - a spirited effort about the situation in Greece in 1945 which was blocked at the request of Churchill the Prime Minister in what he held to be the interests of western democracy.

(13) In his autobiography, David Low compared cartoonists such as James Gillray, Thomas Rowlandson, John Leech, John Tenniel, Richard Doyle, Leonard Raven Hill and Bernard Partridge.

Some critics of my work took the view that a satirist should defer to the finer feelings of his readers and respect widely held beliefs. I explained that whatsoever might be the duty of a satirist, it certainly could not be too reflect, confirm or pander to popular beliefs. Rather the opposite, for it was popular beliefs themselves that were frequently the aptest material for the healthiest satire.

The circumspect cartoons of John Leech and John Tenniel were a sign of the times; so also were the respectful pencillings of Dicky Doyle. I took as a standard the works of Gillray, Rowlandson and company, who were generally agreed to be the old masters of caricature.

Bernard Partridge and Leonard Raven-Hill were ultra-conservative, even reactionary. Partridge, the last of the cartoonists of the Victorian grand manner. His knighthood troubled me, for I could not think that critics or commentators ostensibly of satirical temper on public affairs should accept, like other men, the insignia of trammelling loyalties.

Partridge, as the inheritor of the Tenniel tradition in Punch, specialized in cartoons dealing with national occasions, such as laying laurel wreaths on the tombs of dead statesmen, congratulating epic sportsmen, extending the helping hand in disasters, etc., in which he represented the Anglo-Saxon people by Britannia, a massive matron moulded according to the Graeco-Roman idea of beauty.

(14) David Low, Autobiography (1956)

The British Fascist Party was comparatively insignificant until Mosley took over its leadership. Mosley was young, energetic, capable and an excellent speaker. Since I had met him in 1925 he had graduated from close friendship with MacDonald to a job in the second Labour Government; but he had become disgusted with the evasions over unemployment and had resigned to start a party of his own.

Unfortunately at the succeeding general election he fell ill with influenza and his party-in-embryo, deprived of his brilliant talents, was wiped out. Mosley was too ambitious to retire into obscurity. Looking around for a "vehicle" he united himself to the British Fascists, rechristened 'the Blackshirts', and acquired almost automatically the encouragement of Britain's then biggest newspaper, the Daily Mail, which was more than willing to extend its admiration for the Italian original to the local imitation. That was a fateful influenza germ.

David Low, Evening Standard (8th July, 1936)
David Low, Evening Standard (8th July, 1936)

(15) David Low was attacked in the press as a war-monger" because of his hostility towards Neville Chamberlain and his policy of appeasement. Margot Asquith, the wife of the former Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, wrote to Low about his cartoons on 22nd April, 1938.

I thought your cartoon on Wednesday (20th April) in the Evening Standard both cruel and mischievous. I know the P.M. - do you? He is a man of iron courage, calm and resolution. Neville is doing the only right, wise, thing, unless you want war. Hate, threats - which you can't carry out - and suspicion do not advance peace, and if the P.M. fails we can always go back to the policy of the war-mongers - Winston Churchill and Co. I think Neville has saved the world by his courage - and so do much cleverer people than I.

(16) Boris Efimov, letter to David Low (17th September, 1942)

I wish to tell you, Mr. Low, with interest I and other Soviet artists have been and are now following your magnificent work, which has won for you the well-deserved fame of the best cartoonist in the world.

The future of history hangs in the balance. On one hand light, progress, democracy, life; on the other darkness, corruption, barbarism, death, that is Hitlerism. I am happy, dear Mr. Low, that in this decisive hour I am with you - a great artist whose creative work I regard with admiration and from whose works I learn.