David Low is almost universally seen, especially by most fellow political
cartoonists, as the greatest of the 20th century political cartoonists.
He is best remembered these days for his bitingly witty, and highly prescient, cartoons of the dictators of the 1930s and 40s; Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin and Franco.
Low was born in Dunedin, NZ, and educated in Christchurch. He began cartooning at a very early age, selling his first political cartoon to the Christchurch Spectator at the age of 11.
He contributed courtroom drawings to the NZ Truth and in 1908, at the age of 17 joined the Spectator as its political cartoonist, moving to the Canterbury Times in 1910. Highly ambitious, he then joined the Sydney Bulletin in 1911 until 1919.
The details of these years are best covered in his autobiography (1956), or David Low (1985) by Colin Seymour-Ure and J.Schoff.
His drawing influences came from the English cartoonist Phil May, who worked on the Sydney Bulletin from 1885 - 1889, American Livingstone Hopkins (Hop) also of the Bulletin, and the cartoonists of the influential New York based satire magazine, Puck, especially its founder Joseph Keppler, and his son Joseph Keppler II .
Originally he used a fair bit of cross-hatching like other cartoonists of his day, but during the First World War the paper quality was so poor in Australia, like blotting paper, that he drastically simplified his style using brush, so that the hatching wouldn't blotch.
This style was so strong he retained it even after paper improved, and the technique was to influence cartoonists throughout the century.
He moved to London in 1919, joining the Star. He was an instant success, so much so that even opposition dailies published his cartoons. Like other Australasian cartoonists his ideas and attitudes grew up in the comparatively radical politics of the antipodes, and the Establishment of England, still rooted in the Victorian era, grated on him, handing him endless topics for satire. One of the probable reasons for his early success was the way he couched his quite biting satires in disarming humour, avoiding the bitter, and often offputting, approach of many of his colleagues. They may have 'appeared' lighter but his points went further.
Then to the 30s and the dictators. Low had joined the conservative Evening Standard in 1927, drawing four cartoons a week, which were syndicated worldwide.
Despite several attempts to censor him, Low fought an almost lone war against Hitler and the Nazis. Michael Foot, Acting Editor on the Standard from 1938 said later "Low contributed more than any other single figure and as a result changed the atmosphere in the way people saw Hitler. It was Low's depiction of Hitler himself that most got under the Fuhrer's skin. So much so that the Nazis even tried in 1937 to put pressure on the British Government to restrain Low from satirising Hitler.
Low's Australasian background and liberal instincts lead him to furiously oppose Hitler and all he stood for. As Low historian Dr Timothy Benson said in a recent essay, "But he always took Hitler for his word, and when Hitler became chancellor in 1933, took seriously his ambitions for a greater Germany and domination of Europe. Thus, Low soon became a prophet, albeit a lonely one, of remarkable insight as events unfolded in the way he continually predicted throughout the 30s."
In 1937, as part of the attempted appeasment process, Lord Halifax, representing the British Government had a secret meeting to hear Goebbels' complaints about the criticisms appearing in the British press, especially Low.
On return Halifax told the Standard's mamager, Michael Wardell, "You cannot imagine the frenzy these cartoons cause, As soon as a copy of the Standard arrives, it is pounced on for Low's cartoon, and if it is of Hitler, as it generally is, telephones buzz, tempers rise, fevers mount, and the whole government system of Germany is in uproar. It has hardly subsided before the next one arrives. We in England can't understand the violence of the reaction."
After the war it became public knowledge that Low was placed high on the Nazi death list if an invasion of Britain had taken place.
Low continued cartooning until his death in 1963. Throughout his life he maintained his fierce Australasian egalitarianism.