Philip Zec, the fourth of the eleven children (nine daughters and two sons) of Simon Zec, a Russian tailor,was born on 25th December 1909. He attended St Martin's School of Art, where, according to his brother, Donald Zec, "his gifts, notably in portraiture, were rapidly developed. But his vigorous draughtsmanship and flair for illustration pointed more towards commercial art, and at nineteen he set up his own studio."
Zec eventually found work with J. Walter Thompson. and gradually established himself as one of the leading illustrators in Britain. He joined forces with the copywriter, William Connor, to develop a strip cartoon to advertise Horlicks.
Zec became increasingly concerned about the rise of Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany. As his biographer points out: "Commercial art became too constricting both for his powerful analytical style and for a political consciousness spurred by the rise of Hitlerism in Germany. As a socialist and a Jew, the notion of remaining on the sidelines drawing radio valves or coffee labels in Britain's post-Munich era became unthinkable."
On the outbreak of the Second World War, Zec was introduced by William Connor to H. G. Bartholomew, the editorial director of of the Daily Mirror. Zec's anti-Nazi cartoons were an immediate success with the readers. Donald Zec pointed out: "He presented Hitler, Goering, and others in the Nazi hierarchy as strutting buffoons. Replacing ridicule with venom, he often drew them in the form of snakes, vultures, toads, or monkeys." When Hitler heard about these attacks on his regime, he added Zec's name to the Nazi Black List of people to be executed after Britain's defeat.
Zec sometimes upset the British government with his cartoons. On 5th March, 1942, the Daily Mirror published a cartoon on the government's decision to increase the price of petrol. The cartoon showed a torpedoed sailor with an oil-smeared face lying on a raft. Zec's message was "Don't waste petrol. It costs lives."
Winston Churchill believed that the cartoon suggested that the sailor's life had been put at stake to enhance the profits of the petrol companies. In the House of Commons, Herbert Morrison, the Home Secretary, called it a "wicked cartoon" and Ernest Bevin, the Minister of Labour, argued that Zec's work was lowering the morale of the armed forces and the general public.
Churchill arranged for MI5 to investigate Zec's background, and although they reported back that he held left-wing opinions, there was no evidence of him being involved in subversive activities. The government considered closing down the Daily Mirror but eventually decided to let the newspaper off with a severe reprimand.
On V.E. Day Donald Zec produced the extremely powerful cartoon, Here you are! Don't lose it again. The same cartoon was used on the front page of the Daily Mirror on the morning of the 1945 General Election. Next to the cartoon the text suggested that the best way to preserve peace was to vote for the Labour Party.
Zec, who continued to work for the Daily Mirror after the war and was eventually elected to the board of directors of the Daily Mirror Group. In 1951 Zec had the unpleasant task of informing H. G. Bartholomew that he was dismissed as editorial director. Zec joined the Daily Herald in 1958. A few months later, he won an international prize for a cartoon with the greatest political impact, submitted by cartoonists from twenty-four countries, on the subject of the Hungarian Uprising. He retired as a cartoonist in 1961.