Story: Low, David Alexander Cecil

Page 1 - Biography

Low, David Alexander Cecil

1891–1963

Cartoonist, broadcaster

This biography was written by Susan E. Foster and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 4, 1998

David Alexander Cecil Low earned world fame, and the particular hatred of Adolf Hitler, in the years leading up to the Second World War for his cartoons attacking European fascism and the Nazi regime. Born in Dunedin on 7 April 1891, he was the third son in a family of three sons and a daughter. Reacting against her strict Presbyterian upbringing, Low's mother, Jane Caroline Flanagan, sought to develop the individual character in her children by following a more unconventional approach to child rearing. His father, David Brown Low, a chemist, was of a like mind: he took his young sons to the theatre and the races, taught them how to bet, smoke, swear without using foul language and 'read for pleasure as well as for profit'.

While still a child Low moved with his family to Christchurch, where his father worked as a sales manager for a drug importing business. Low was enrolled at Christchurch Boys' High School, but a few months later his parents withdrew him after the death of his eldest brother; believing he had been weakened by too much study they did not want David to suffer likewise. Over the next five years he was free to run 'wild in the long grass at Riversleigh', the family home. When not helping with the animals Low educated himself. He read extensively and learnt to debate on a wide range of issues with his father, a 'disputatious man' who had turned to religion after the death of Low's brother. Most importantly, he used these years to develop his skill as a black and white artist.

From the age of eight David Low had taught himself to draw by copying from English comic books as well as drawing from life. He admired English Punch artists, particularly Phil May, the strongest and most lasting influence on him, and began regularly posting off his own comic strips to London. He had his first success at 11 when one was published in the British comic Big Budget. Shortly afterwards he won, and continued to win, a monthly drawing competition run by an Australian women's magazine, the New Idea. This was followed in 1902 by the publication of his first cartoon on public affairs in the Spectator, a Christchurch satirical-political weekly. The Spectator soon gave him a regular assignment to illustrate 'two jokes per week for two shillings and sixpence each'. He was also employed to draw anti-smoking and anti-gambling cartoons for the Salvation Army War Cry and was appointed occasional police court artist for New Zealand Truth.

With Low receiving steady work, his studies at a local business college suffered badly and he failed the final examination. Formal instruction in drawing, first from an American correspondence school, and later at the Canterbury College School of Art, proved unhelpful. In contrast, what he learnt from watching over the shoulder of local caricaturist Fred Rayner as he sketched in Cathedral Square was 'more precious than rubies'.

Rayner, the proprietor of a new weekly, the Sketcher, took Low on in 1907 for £2 a week. Having to caricature notables and sketch potential advertisers further developed Low's powers of observation, and he 'learned to scorn the so-called "likenesses" taken from photographs'. When the Sketcher moved to Wellington a year later Low returned to the Spectator to a job as full-time political cartoonist. The paper promoted the policies and ambitions of its proprietor, G. W. Russell, at various times Liberal member of Parliament for Riccarton. Low valued the experience of working closely with an active politician but, although he initially followed the Liberal line of the paper, his own political inclinations began to change the emphasis of the cartoons into something 'leftish'. Around this time he also had himself appointed as cartoonist to a new labour paper, the Weekly Herald, published in Wellington. Eventually Russell objected to this arrangement and in 1910 Low left the Spectator.

There was fierce competition between the two Christchurch weeklies, the conservative Weekly Press and the Liberal Canterbury Times. Observing that the latter was losing ground, Low prepared a dummy copy with two full pages of lively cartoons, and submitted this to the paper's business manager. To his delight he was hired at £5 per week. The larger space – a full page – afforded the opportunity to experiment with bolder effects, and the paper's excellent reproduction and good printing allowed for subtler expression. Problems arose when Low refused to draw cartoons approving compulsory military training. Fortunately, his regular mailings of cartoons to editors in Australia over the previous five years suddenly paid off. A telegram arrived from the Sydney Bulletin, offering him a job as their Melbourne cartoonist for six months.

In 1911 Low sailed for Australia. His contract required him to make 12 topical drawings on a weekly page. At the end of his time the Sydney office retained him to travel throughout Australia, making caricature portraits of local notables. The work provided the material for a book of 400 caricatures published in 1915.

On Low's return to Sydney in 1913 the Bulletin employed him as a general cartoonist, and a year later he became their resident political cartoonist in Melbourne, then the home of Australia's parliament. Over the next five years Low focused particularly on the character and politics of Prime Minister W. M. Hughes. 'Billy' Hughes's small stature, large nose and volatile, dominating personality made him an excellent subject for caricature, and Low's cartoons were widely reprinted and quoted. The Billy book, a series of comic caricatures on Hughes's adventures during his travels to and in Britain in 1918, was a success with large numbers being sent to the soldiers overseas.

Low continued his practice of sending his cartoons overseas, and a number were reprinted by the Manchester Guardian. He also sent copies of The Billy book to a number of 'writers, publicists and editors' in Britain, and in 1919 went to London and worked for the Star. Low immediately applied himself to mastering the political situation and the key personalities within it. In his cartoons he tended to support unpopular ideas, such as developing closer links with the Soviet Union. In Parliament the cherubic David Lloyd George was to become as caricaturable as Billy Hughes, and Low's comic invention, a double-headed ass symbolising the Lloyd George–Bonar Law coalition government, appeared repeatedly alongside Lloyd George until the coalition ended in 1922.

In 1920 Low cabled a proposal of marriage to Madeline Grieve Kenning of Auckland, whom he had met during a three-day stopover in New Zealand on his way to London. They married at London on 7 June 1920, and were to have two daughters. Marriage brought him a 'new peace and tranquillity'. Madeline became a valued sounding-board for his ideas and he was to retain a daily routine of discussing the day's news with her.

In addition to cartoons for the Star (or occasionally the Daily News ), Low also contributed to Punch and published a number of books, the first, Lloyd George & Co (1921), being along the lines of The Billy book. But it was during the 23 years he worked for the Evening Standard that he was to do some of his most memorable cartoons. Low, who had been pressured for some time to join the paper by its Canadian proprietor, Lord Beaverbrook, finally accepted in 1927 on the condition that he have 'complete freedom in the selection and treatment of subject-matter'.

His cartoons opposing appeasement were to stand out in stark contrast to the paper's editorials supporting the peace efforts of the Chamberlain government. As early as 1923, Low had criticised the harshness of the Treaty of Versailles and highlighted a need to nurture and support the new Weimar government to prevent power again falling into the wrong hands: 'more junkers, big industrial bosses and warrior kaisers'. With the Nazi rise to power Low was convinced of Hitler's warlike intentions. His ridiculing of European dictators led, in 1933, to all papers carrying his cartoons being banned in Germany, and in 1935 to a similar ban in Italy. Attempts were made to persuade Low to tone down his attacks as they were hampering British diplomatic efforts. Low made few compromises and, despite learning that his name was included on a Gestapo arrest list, continued in what he considered was an educative role. His cartoons not only helped to define fascism but also created lasting images of its most important leaders.

The fluency and economy of line evident in Low's cartoons was achieved through long practice. The change from pen work to brush occurred in 1915–16. The placing of figures and objects was carefully devised to ensure that the reader's eye followed a particular sequence leading to the climax. Dramatic compositions were achieved by the use of large contrasting masses of black ink and white space on a scale not seen before in British newspapers. Low's insistence on a half-page horizontal format also provided the space for his 'flying wedge': strong diagonal groupings of figures marching into the page.

As well as the coalition ass, Low introduced into his cartoons successful symbols such as the TUC carthorse, Joan Bull, and, most famous of all, Colonel Blimp. Blimp, who first appeared in 1934, was a vehicle for Low's criticism of the muddled thinking and political stupidity in pre-war England. Blimp would comment to a perplexed Low, 'Hitler only needs arms so that he can declare peace on the rest of the world'. Low often appeared in his own cartoons. With his marked black eyebrows, broad-brimmed black hat and a small goatee beard he grew after a visit to Russia in 1932, he looked very much the artist, and was widely recognised on London's streets.

During the war years Low acquired a stature as a broadcaster comparable to that of Winston Churchill and J. B. Priestley, regularly appearing on the BBC overseas service. He also appeared on television, wrote for the Sunday edition of the New York Times and was syndicated worldwide.

In 1949 Low left the Evening Standard; he joined the Daily Herald in 1950 and the Manchester Guardian in 1953. He received honorary degrees from the universities of New Brunswick (1938) and Leicester (1961), and in 1962 accepted a knighthood, which he had declined in the 1930s. He died at London on 19 September 1963, survived by his wife and daughters.

David Low was undoubtedly the most widely known cartoonist of his era. He influenced a whole generation of British cartoonists, including 'Vicky' (Victor Weisz), who succeeded him at the Evening Standard, as well as New Zealand cartoonists such as Gordon Minhinnick, Neville Colvin and Tom Scott. Many of his images have had a life much longer than the ephemeral span of most of the genre.