Twenty years ago, this summer, the great and good of Britain’s cartooning community gathered in Westminster Hall for the grand opening of a new Parliament exhibition titled Low: The 20th Century’s Greatest Cartoonist. David Low was universally acknowledged as the true master of their field whether in newspaper or book form. Tony Banks MP then Chairman of the Works of Art Advisory Committee paid tribute saying ‘he had the ability to get under the skin of the powerful and show us the political reality behind the words and deeds ‘. Sentiments that would have rung true with Low’s most devoted patron, press baron Lord Max Beaverbrook.
In this blog, Richard Ward, Assistant Archives Officer, will be delving into the Beaverbrook’s Papers held in our collections to reflect upon the relationship between the two men over Low’s long and successful tenure at the Evening Standard. It’s a tale of fandom, friendship, and the freedom to cartoon.
The popularity of the British satirical boom that helped define the late Victorian era stretched across the globe. Politically engaged emigrants in Australasia devoured back-dated issues of Punch Magazine amongst others to keep abreast with party politics in the distant motherland. This overseas readership included a New Zealand schoolboy of Scottish stock called David Low whose precocious talent for caricature belied his age.
After repeatedly winning caption competitions in numerous local papers, Low was headhunted by Bulletin an irreverent Sydney based periodical. Inspired by his hero the 18th Century satirist James Gillray he’d go on to achieve national recognition for his lampooning of figures such as Prime Minister, William ‘Billy’ Hughes. While visiting Australia the celebrated English author Arnold Bennett discovered Low and immediately wrote to his contacts in Fleet Street urging them to get him ‘on the next steamer ‘. Low’s future was bright, his future was in London.
Henry Cadbury proprietor of the London Evening Star won the race for Low’s coveted signature. The twenty-eight-year-old arrived in the capital in 1919 and within twelve months married fellow New-Zealander Madeline Kenning. As his personal life blossomed so it was professionally as he endeavoured to create his first iconic comic staple. Low laid down a marker with the hugely popular Two-Headed Coalition Ass satirising Lloyd George’s beleaguered Liberal/Conservative government.
For ten days in a row, Low had a prime seat in Parliament’s Press Gallery to observe the Chamber proceedings making note of who’s who on the benches. Commissions came thick and fast including a paid engagement to draw on the spot doodles to be flashed on a big screen at Selfridges accompanying coverage of the 1923 General Election results. Waiting in the wings to whisk Low off to his expanding media empire was Lord Beaverbrook determined to get his man.
At Any Price
Low later revealed that on arriving for an initial contractual discussion with Beaverbrook, he found the noble Lord lying flat on his back behind a piano doing abdominal exercises. This inauspicious beginning typified the preliminaries of the negotiations as it was a prolonged courtship before Low agreed to join the Evening Standard. Despite the extensive wining and dining at this juncture he was concerned by the paper’s rather low standing. Beaverbrook knew that he needed to give Low an offer he couldn’t refuse.
The 1927 contract that Low succumbed to was unprecedented in salary size and creative license. The deal was much publicized, yet the finer details stayed under wraps. Correspondence showed that Low was to receive £4,500 per annum with a recommendation that he’ll have ‘complete freedom in selection and treatment of cartoons’. Beaverbrook also allowed Low to pursue any freelance obligations with The New Statesman and Pathe Cinema.
On the Attack
Beaverbrook’s intuition that with Low finally on board the Evening Standard was destined for greater heights proved correct. His acerbic depictions of the 1930’s leading politicians were the stuff of legend. Winston Churchill was reimagined as Dickens’s Micawber which he took graciously on the chin. However other subjects seemed less obliging as the immensely powerful Lord Rothermere wrote to Beaverbrook requesting that Low discontinue his unflattering characterisation. At 10 Downing Street Neville Chamberlain was not very enamoured with the portrayal of himself as a pyjama wearing nervous wreck.
Essentially liberal minded Low’s style was devoid of spite as he tended to avoid taking sides on state affairs. But the situation in Europe was too extreme to ignore and he fiercely opposed Chamberlain’s appeasement policy. As war dawned Low went on the offensive against the Axis powers with a vehemence that saw him being placed on the Gestapo’s Death Wish List.
A Day in the Life
At his Hampstead studio Low always arrived for work after a game of tennis. Invigorated by several cups of tea an idea soon crystalised and he’d start sketching. From this process creations of the stature of Colonel Blimp came to fruition. Fame suited Low’s sensibilities and he enjoyed the fruits of his labour supplemented further by exhibitions and published anthologies. Many an evening he could be found in the Pall Mall Club socialising with the likes of H G Wells who he collaborated with on the book The Autocracy of Mr Parham.
Though Low traditionally produced the Annual Parliamentary Press Gallery Dinner invitation card it was now increasingly rare to find him attending debates. Low’s expenses diary for March 1936 highlighted his leisure pursuits. Detailing a lunch with Soviet diplomat Ivan Maisky, a trip to the All-England Badminton Championship and a claim for a weekend spent at the Grand National.
All things must come to pass as Low surprisingly resigned from The Evening Standard in December 1949 to take up a similar position at the Daily Herald whose left leaning board of directors had strong affiliations with the Trade Union movement. Beaverbrook received the resignation letter at his holiday home in Jamaica where he was residing for the winter. The distress it caused him is reflected by the overly dramatic term he used to describe that fateful moment, ‘Black Friday’.
Low painstakingly explained in its contents that ‘all the people I used to know in the office had gone leaving me as the oldest inhabitant with the prospect of becoming an ‘institution’ appearing regularly in my little corner’. Beaverbrook warned Low that the move was a mistake. It turned out he wasn’t far wrong with Low never really settling and hastily switching to the Manchester Guardian when his contract expired.
Friends to the End
Due to their respective places of birth Low and Beaverbrook remained colonial outsiders unhindered by establishment rules. The Canadian born peer recognised a kindred spirit in Low. Disregarding the fall-out from Low’s Evening Standard departure they remained in close contact for the rest of their lives. Their correspondence over five decades relayed the good and bad times.
In the inter-war period, they exchanged notes on the benefits of purchasing a private airplane with Beaverbrook lamenting the lack of dependable pilots. Comparing ailments was a frequent theme in their dotage as Low complained that ‘this bronchial business won’t let me smoke cigars one of my few deep pleasures’. The 1962 Birthday Honours List granted a knighthood for Low and shortly after he passed away following a short illness. Beaverbrook wrote to his widow stating ‘It will help you to know that all of Britain will mourn the death of a genius’.
David Low – Colin Seymour-Ure & Jim Schoff
Low – The 20th Century’s Greatest Cartoonist – BBC History Magazine & The Political Cartoon Society
Low Visibility – A Cartoon History 1945-1953 – David Low
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography – Volume 34 – David Low extract written by Colin Seymour-Ure
BBK/C/226 – Correspondence with David & Madeline Low, 1924-1964, Parliamentary Archives