On David Low, for the British Journalism Review, published / by Rich Hobbs

For a man who’s been dead for nearly 40 years, the cartoonist Sir David Low

is thriving. Earlier this year, he had two exhibitions running simultaneously in

London. The first, in Westminster Hall, was opened by the Speaker of the

House of Commons, deep in the heart of the political establishment within the

purlieus of the Palace of Westminster. The second, up the road at the bottom

of Haymarket, was a smaller affair, held on the mezzanine floor of New

Zealand House. As Low was a New Zealander, the land of his birth is

naturally jealous of his reputation, although he left the place in his early

twenties and never went back. Anyway, apart from the cartoons themselves,

the exhibition included, in a box, Low’s hands.

At first sight I’d rather hoped that this was a Jeremy Bentham style exercise in

auto-iconography - that these really were Low’s hands, lovingly preserved like an

Egyptian pharaoh or the eyeballs of a Victorian murderer, as a voodoo

talisman harnessing the shamanistic power of his cartooning mitts. Rather

disappointingly, they’re made of wax, and once hung from the sleeves of

Low’s waxwork, displayed in Madame Tussauds in the 1930s. Still, the very

fact that they bothered to sculpt his hands at all (rather than, say, using a spare

pair of Bonar Law’s after the rest of that statesman had been melted down)

suggests the importance his hands were seen to have as a cultural artefact. And

Low clearly appreciated the gesture, having a bit of a thing about waxworks.

In a 1935 documentary film "BBC: The Voice of Britain", Low is filmed

giving a radio talk, during which he says "Politicians are merely waxworks;

it’s the cartoonist who brings them to life", and he even drew himself drawing

his own waxwork at Madame Tussauds, which appears to be in the act of

drawing him. And, significantly, his first cartoon for Beaverbrook’s Evening

Standard, published on 10th October 1927, was of the opening day of "Low’s

Waxworks", with the figure of Low himself dusting down Lloyd George

dressed as "The Political Fanny Ward", Churchill dressed as Napoleon and

Ramsay MacDonald, in court dress, labelled "The celebrated Conservative

leader (in actual clothes worn at the Tragedy)", while a tiny, grinning

Beaverbrook, either a punter or a dummy, is glimpsed in the background.

Most of the contemporary political resonances are now lost on us, but we get

the general point. Low was setting up his stall.

What he was doing, right at the start of his twenty-year long stint at the

Standard, was baldly restating the fundamental principles of the political

cartoon, which had been laid down a century and a half earlier by the great

caricaturist James Gillray. Using some kind of ancient sympathetic magic - as

it involves doing damage at a distance with a sharp instrument we might as

well call it voodoo - the political cartoonist transforms real people into

caricatured, and thereby controlled, depictions of themselves and then makes

them act out a narrative of his own invention. Thus the waxworks come alive,

but remain sufficiently waxen to allow the needles to be driven in.

One waxwork Low repeatedly brought to life was his own. During his fifty

year career Low drew something like 12000 cartoons, over 800 of them

featuring himself. Of the nearly 200 or so he produced in his first year on the

Standard, almost a quarter depict the cartoonist in some way or other. In his

first week, out of four cartoons, three feature Low (one as a dog, interestingly

enough), and two are about his role as a cartoonist. At the end of the week

which had started with him dusting down his "waxworks", there is the

extraordinary cartoon "The Hard Lot of a Cartoonist", in which Low lays out

his relationship with his proprietor. In the opening "frame", the gnomic figure

of Lord Beaverbrook tells Low "your cartoons are giving great offence to my

friends. I must ask you to reconsider your view of Lord Birkenhead, Mr

Churchill and the rest. After all, you are on the ‘Evening Standard’ now, and,

remember, our motto is ‘kindness first’." The second frame shows a highly

stylised group portrait of Baldwin, Birkenhead and Churchill in statesmanlike

pose, until Low’s conscience intervenes and makes him rub it out and do it

again, this time showing the whole Tory crew at the Motor Show driving a

ludicrous car designed for travelling in circles.

It’s obvious what Low was up to, setting out the parameters of his editorial

freedom, as licenced (up to a point, Lord Copper) by Beaverbrook. The terms

of his contract with the Standard gave him total freedom in choice of subject

and execution, but with an ultimate editorial veto, as we’ll see later. But Low

wasn’t just marking his territory in "The Hard Lot of a Cartoonist". Lord

Birkenhead, rechristened "Lord Burstinghead" by Low, was incensed by his

treatment at Low’s hands, later immortalised in wax. As he wrote to his friend

Beaverbrook, "As to your filthy little cartoonists, I care nothing about him

now. But I know about modern caricature and I never had cause for grievance

until you, a friend, allowed a filthy little Socialist to present me daily as a

crapulous and corpulent buffoon." That kind of thing can only delight a

cartoonist: it shows that the voodoo’s working. It worked on Baldwin too,

who, on being shown a Low cartoon, spluttered, "Now Low is a genius, but I

cannot bear Low: he is evil and malicious."

Many politicians, however, recognised the rules of the game: that while the

cartoonist can try to work his voodoo magic, he or she is really nothing more

than a court jester; at the end of the day the King, after all, remains the King.

Put another way, the politicians pretend they don’t mind, while the cartoonists

pretend we matter. That said, Churchill and Beaverbrook were huge fans. But

Low had another, highly unlikely fan. In 1930 a friend of Low’s visited

Germany and met Hitler, who sang his praises. It transpired that the future

fuhrer misread Low’s attacks on democratic politicians as an attack on

democracy itself, but nonetheless Low sent Hitler the original artwork of a

cartoon, with the hand written dedication "from one artist to another".

That relationship, of course, soon soured. After a weekend at Goering’s

hunting lodge in the mid-1930s, Lord Halifax told Beaverbrook that Low’s

representations of the Nazi leadership (as "bloody fools", as Low described it)

was seriously undermining good Anglo-German relations, and Low was told

to cool it. A cheap gag in one of his full page cartoons, "Low’s Topical

Budget", run in the Standard on Saturdays, in which Hitler is bitten by a dog

("Stop Press: the dog goes mad") was spiked by the editor. Low responded

with "Muzzler", a composite dictator combining Hitler and Mussolini. It was a

pretty obvious joke, and again Low was marking out his journalistic territory.

Moreover, Low’s attitude earned him the ultimate, if deadly, accolade from

his victims of being placed on the Gestapo Death list.

Low’s ragging of the Nazis (which, in the end, did nothing to stop them from

conquering most of Europe and murdering millions of its inhabitants), along

with his contrarian stance compared to that of his proprietor, are what he’s

mostly remembered for today. He also created some enduring cartoon

archetypes (like Colonel Blimp and the TUC carthorse, although most people

don’t remember Churchill, and later Lord Hailsham, as Mr Micawber, or his

Eskimo correspondents Onandonandon and Upandupandup, or, indeed, his

cartoon pup Mussolini, one of his most frequently used cartoon tropes) and

produced about half a dozen cartoons which, like Gillray’s "The Plumb

Pudding in Danger" or Tenniel’s "Dropping the Pilot", have entered our visual


Does that, then, earn him the encomium offered in the title of the Westminster

Hall exhibition, "The Greatest Cartoonist of the Twentieth Century"? It really

depends on what you think the purpose of a newspaper cartoon is, how long

you think its effectiveness lasts and in what sphere it’s meant to exert that

influence. The sphere where Low’s influence is most obvious is among his

successors among newspaper cartoonists. Nearly all of us, at some time or

other, have pinched an image from Low: speaking personally, I’ve used

"Rendezvous", which showed Hitler and Stalin greeting each other over the

corpse of Poland at the beginning of the Second World War and which Low

described as his "bitterest cartoon", to depict Blair meeting Thatcher at No 10

just after the 1997 Election, over the corpse of John Major, and Nato greeting

Milosevic over the corpse of Kosovo. Likewise, most cartoonists will, as a

matter of course, use the TUC carthorse without a second’s thought (although

Colonel Blimp seems to have died with his creator). The reason we do this is

simple: as part of the visual language, these images are common currency, and

will be recognised by the readers, as will their point. Bluntly, it’s visual

shorthand, which was why Low created the carthorse, Blimp and his other cast

of characters in the first place.

But it’s worth remembering why he, and all other cartoonists, use these tricks.

They are merely tools to assist the job in hand, which is to provide a daily

commentary on the news which, being visual, is "read" and sublimated

quickly and in a very primitive psychological way. Having "read" it, the

reader then moves on, and maybe remembers the cartoon, and maybe doesn’t.

The savage response to cartoons (like Birkenhead’s, or Hitler’s) is in large

part because of their primitive, almost elementally savage, nature. Voodoo

indeed. But the main point is that newspaper cartoons, Low’s no less than

anyone else’s, are produced as an immediate commentary, and are as

ephemeral as almost all other newspaper journalism. The power of some of

them to linger in the collective memory is very much a by-product.

So, out of 12000 cartoons, apart from among obsessives and archivists, Low is

luckier than most to have as many as half a dozen remembered from his 50

year long career. Of course, it’s a mistake to judge the success of anyone’s

career purely according to the criteria of Posterity. As Groucho Marx said,

"What the Hell’s Posterity ever done for me?" So how "great" was Low in his

lifetime, and what criteria should we use to make that judgement?

In a way, Low set out to be the architect of his own "greatness". His counter-

intuitive contract with Beaverbrook helped considerably in this, but it should

be remembered that this was Beaverbrook’s mischievous gift, and in a way

reflects better on the proprietor than on the cartoonist. Similarly, Low worked

for the Evening Standard, which then had the smallest circulation of London’s

three evening newspapers, but, as the paper of choice in London’s clubland,

was read by Low’s powerful and influential targets (just as, 120 years earlier,

Gillray’s clientele at Mrs Humphrey’s print shop in St. James’ were his targets

in the establishment, who got the joke and enjoyed the recognition). He was

also widely syndicated, thus nurturing a world-wide audience. He was also, of

course, right about Hitler, but was hardly a lone voice. Indeed, his contrarian

position did, if anything, reinforce the impression that he was a lone voice,

and then just one who was shouting rude jokes in the wilderness.

Low was at his best when performing the role of Court Jester to Beaverbrook;

his pre-war cartoons are both funnier and more effective than the stuff he did

once he’d left the Standard and gone to his natural political home, first on the

Daily Herald and then at the Manchester Guardian. By then Low appeared to

be believing the rest of the world’s opinion of him which he’d been so careful

to cultivate. The tone is far less mischievous and far more pompous, with Low

strongly identifying himself as a "sane voice in an insane world". It’s reported

that, by this time, he was getting grander and grander: at an Oxbridge High

Table dinner, there were embarrassing scenes as he vied for prominence as the

senior guest of honour over a visiting elder statesman, and at the Manchester

Guardian, the arrangements for the paper’s coverage of the party conference

season centred around the arrangements for Low’s attendance. In 1962 he

accepted the knighthood he’d turned down in the 1930s.

And now there he is, back in the heart of the Establishment in Westminster

Hall, although without his hands. I don’t know whether the rest of Low’s

waxwork is propped up in a basement in Madame Tussauds, or has long since

been melted down to sculpt Billy Fury and, later, Boy George. As I said

above, what we do know is that he constantly played Pygmalion with himself

by bringing his waxwork to life in his own cartoons, but it’s worth noticing

how he did it. Vicky, his contemporary and successor at the Standard, was

also fond of placing himself in his cartoons, but more often than not as the butt

of his own jokes. Low was seldom if ever the fall guy, and when he was he

was the stooge to his own conscience. Otherwise, he drew himself as the

passive audience for Colonel Blimp’s idiocies in the steam room, or as

Diogenes in his barrel (holding a candle and looking for an honest man), or,

most frequently, as an observer of the lunacies of the political world and, by

inference, a stand-in for Everyman.

There’s no harm in Low’s self-identification with Commonsense, and without

question he was a very great cartoonist, whose greatest influence has not been

in the way he drew but in why he drew: that you can make deadly serious

points by making people laugh. But in essence he was merely reasserting the

cartoonist’s right savagely to mock, first established in the form we recognise

today by Gillray, but which had lapsed during the dark, deferential Victorian

years in between. That was probably enough in itself, although it’s also worth

pointing out that if (and it’s quite a small if) Low was the greatest cartoonist

of the twentieth century, it was largely because he kept on telling us so.