Hit and Muss

John Campbell

In its own small sphere, the destruction by Express Newspapers of the Beaverbrook Library must rank as one of the worst acts of intellectual vandalism in recent years. No one who had the privilege of working there during its brief existence in the late Sixties and early Seventies will ever forget it. There, instantly accessible in their sliding metal racks, were the Lloyd George, Bonar Law, Beaverbrook and other papers; on a quiet day, when one was trusted, one could actually get out one’s own files. There also were to hand not only Hansard but Beaverbrook’s copies of the biographies and memoirs of practically every political figure of the 20th century, generously supplemented by A.J.P. Taylor’s accumulated review copies. From time to time there would emerge from his tiny office in the thin end of the wedge-shaped building, behind the Sickert portrait of Beaverbrook and the cases of Lloyd George memorabilia, the high priest Alan Taylor himself, presiding gnome-like over the shrine of his late friend and mentor the arch-hobgoblin, whose life he was writing. But, best of all, around the walls hung a wonderful selection of original Low cartoons.

The Beaverbrook Library was an appropriate place to get to know Low. There is a case for saying that his patronage of Low was Beaverbrook’s most positive contribution to British newspapers. In so many respects Beaverbrook’s journalistic ethics were deplorable and his influence malign. He used his newspapers unashamedly to promote his own political views and conduct his personal vendettas. Yet with Low he was the model proprietor. For 23 years in the Evening Standard he gave Low the perfect platform, three or four times a week. He allowed him almost unlimited artistic freedom to lampoon his friends (and indeed himself) and to pursue a boldly independent political line highly critical of the Government and its policies – particularly its appeasement policy – which Beaverbrook supported. His friends did not always like it. ‘Your Cartoonist over a long period of time published filthy and disgusting cartoons of me which were intended and calculated to do me great injury,’ Lord Birkenhead complained in 1929. The Government was often acutely nervous that Low’s cartoons would offend Mussolini and Hitler. But Beaverbrook, knowing he had a unique asset, always stood by Low and was devastated when he decided in 1949 to go elsewhere. During their long association, Low and Beaverbrook served each other well, as Colin Seymour-Ure points out: ‘Low’s cartoons looked the stronger for being in Beaverbrook’s paper, and Beaverbrook could use Low to symbolise his own detachment, as newspaperman, from party ties and trammels.’ Meanwhile the Evening Standard basked in the reputation of the best – and the best-loved – political cartoonist of his generation or indeed of modern times.

Who is there to compare him with? Strube in his own day? Very limited. In our day, Trog and Garland? Trog draws brilliantly but is not very often funny; Garland can be quite sharp, but his drawing is both fussy and crude. Gerald Scarfe is essentially a caricaturist; Marc and Osbert Lancaster are purveyors of one-line gags. The only comparison is with Vicky; he very nearly reaches Low’s level of political acuity and wit but his drawings are much slighter and his characterisation thinner than Low’s. Rowlandson and Gillray operated in a different world. As a daily cartoonist Low is unchallenged and, one suspects, in modern newspapers unchallengeable. What are the qualities that make him the greatest? First, the quality of his drawing; second, his sense of humour; third, his exceptionally sharp political sense. But these are the qualities, mixed in whatever proportions, that all cartoonists must possess. Fourth, his courage, self-confidence, cheek – this surely was the attribute that gave Low his special quality. Fifth, his ability to darken his tone, often literally, to measure up to the epic themes of war.

These gifts were magnified by his professional longevity. Low tends to be remembered best for his pre-war and wartime cartoons of Hitler and Mussolini, and for Colonel Blimp, who is thought of as a wartime character. In fact, though Blimp dates from 1934, Low had been in England since 1919 and did much of his most characteristic work in the Twenties – even before he went to the Evening Standard in 1926. His style matured astonishingly early. A New Zealander by birth, he made such a reputation in Australia that his departure was national news. As this book demonstrates, there was an extraordinary continuity in his work over forty years. In Australia he had made the image of the diminutive, irascible Prime Minister Billy Hughes practically his own property; within a very few months of coming to London he had done the same for Lloyd George, so that by 1921, as Arnold Bennett said, his cuddly, bemused Prime Minister, irresponsible but irrepressible, had already ousted all previous images of Lloyd George. One of Low’s earliest and greatest inventions during his time on the Star was the two-headed Coalition Ass, Lloyd George’s disputatious moke ‘without pride of ancestry or hope of posterity’; this died, inevitably, with the Coalition in 1922, but a close relation emerged more than twenty years later in the famous TUC Carthouse –‘a dear old thing’, Low wrote, ‘with a noble past and probably a glorious future’. There had also been carthorses in his Australian days, as well as a number of proto-Blimps. Low created his world and many of his best-loved characters early: he developed, exploited and refined them, but his individual style did not change. Blimp was still going strong in the Fifties.

If the basis of Low’s art was his draughtsmanship, one is tempted to feel that one can appreciate it fully only by seeing the originals. The feeling was reinforced by the small exhibition which ran at the National Portrait Gallery to coincide with the publication of this book. The flowing precision of his brushstrokes, the pencilled sketch lines still visible underneath, the written instructions to the printer and the abrupt, pithy signature at the bottom, looking as though he had just dashed it off that minute, give the drawings a wonderful freshness and immediacy. They acquire an increased solidity when studied at four times the size at which they were normally printed. Yet Low was a newspaper cartoonist and the printed page was his medium. It was via the printed page – syndicated around the world – that his genius became known to millions; his art was designed to survive reduction and translation to print, and it does. One does not need to see the originals to admire the grouping of his figures, the use of strong blocks of heavy shading, still less the virtuosity with which he can not merely catch a likeness but combine, transfer and juggle instantly recognisable identities between his entire cast of characters. This was a game he played best with the politicians of the Twenties – Baldwin and MacDonald, Lloyd George and Churchill, Austen Chamberlain, Birkenhead and Joynson-Hicks – all of whose essential traits became brilliantly interchangeable, as though none of them really existed except in Low’s drawings of them. A perfect example of this trick, now prized (ironically) by the Birkenhead family, imagines a future House of Commons full of their daughters, all female copies of their father – not actually so far from the truth. Similarly, having first identified Neville Chamberlain by his umbrella, Low ends up drawing him as an umbrella. The two series of pencil caricatures he did for the New Statesman, which include studies of prominent writers as well as politicians – Wells and Bennett, Conrad and Shaw, as well as Lloyd George and his master, Beaverbrook – show a deeper talent for serious portraiture. The sketch, reproduced in this book, for his Asquith, described by Low as ‘aloof, old, worn, uncommunicative and more than a little crusty’, is particularly fine. The more ambitious series of coloured prints, The Modern Rake’s Progress, seems cheap and gaudy. Black and white was definitely Low’s medium.

Low’s most immediately appealing quality as a cartoonist was his sense of humour. His cartoons are actually funny. This is not so common that it can be taken for granted: much political satire is leaden. But Low was not just a political satirist, poking fun at the great. Blimp was not simply blimpish, in the modern sense of the word: he exemplified a mad, subliminal logic of which the Goons would have been proud. ‘Gad, Sir, Lord Feverbrook is right,’ he intones in 1934. ‘Education must be stopped. If people couldn’t read, they wouldn’t know about the Depression and confidence would be restored.’ Twenty-one years later, one of the best jokes in the book has Blimp in Cyprus, confronted with Archbishop Makarios: ‘Gad, Sir, we can’t negotiate with that feller! He’s on the other side!’ The drawing, as well as the idea, of the two-headed Coalition Ass is funny. The idea, as well as the drawing, of ‘The Right Hon. Dress Suit, wearing his Jimmy Thomas’ is funny. (George Lansbury said he could never again see Thomas without thinking of it.) Low was also remarkable for his good humour. This is exemplified in his Lloyd George, whom he never managed to draw as other than lovable; in the amiably long-suffering Russian peasants he drew on a trip to the Soviet Union with Kingsley Martin, who supplied an incongruously starry-eyed commentary; even in his Hitler, whom he invariably belittled by ridicule rather than direct attack: ‘Fuehrer to be kept in bullet-proof bottle.’ Some of Low’s wartime cartoons are solemn. It is rare for him to be savage.

Low’s political sensitivity was shown by the speed with which, as an outsider, he ‘read’ British politics on his arrival in England in 1919. But he had more than just intelligence. What set Low apart was his willingness – with Beaverbrook’s encouragement – to take a strong political line of his own: a clear radical line against social snobbery and colonialism; a sustained, uncompromising and prophetic exposure of the nature of Fascism; and, after the war, an explicitly socialist line – still in the Evening Standard – in support of, and in impatient criticism of, Attlee’s Labour Government. His political statements were always personal, never party-dictated. Labour between the wars may have agreed with Low’s portrayal of the Government’s remoteness from the reality of unemployment (‘In Different Worlds’) – or the futility of Anglo-French ‘non-intervention’ in Spain (‘Heah. I say, fair play!’ Eden remonstrates with Fascist bullies assaulting Democracy in the street: ‘You shouldn’t encourage the aggressor, you know. After all, my friend and I aren’t trying to help his victim’), but Low’s protest was always the protest of humanity and common sense, not of orthodoxy.

Low loved to portray himself in his cartoons as the little man pointing out that the emperor has no clothes. This attitude had a lot to do with his colonia origins – which were his closest bond with Beaverbrook.’ I came from the outside world,’ he wrote proudly, ‘without respect for institutions and persons that have no right to respect.’ This determined disrespect took the form of explicit mockery of those who would censor him. ‘Look here, Low,’ says Beaverbrook in 1927, ‘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.’ ‘Yessir,’ says Low, saluting, and goes off to draw an absurdly idealised portrait of the Cabinet as a lot of shop-window dummies. He had similar trouble with the sensitivities of his new proprietors when he moved to the Daily Herald in 1950. ‘Don’t you think, Low, that your TUC horse is a bit unsuitable for a Labour paper? Couldn’t you smarten it up a trifle?’ ‘Certainly. Anything to oblige,’ and Low tries out a beautifully elegant white racehorse, before settling on a shambles of a pantomime horse. In 1938 the editor of the Evening Standard thought Low’s comic strip ‘Hit and Muss on their Axis’ a bit strong. Low’s response was public ridicule:

Certain sensitive persons, under the impression (profoundly mistaken, of course) that our comic strip HIT AND MUSS referred to themselves threaten World War if it be continued. In the sacred cause of Peace, therefore, this BUDGET [Low’s page] makes the Supreme Sacrifice. In future this corner will be occupied by Low’s OWN PRIVATE DICTATOR-MUZZLER. POSITIVELY NO CONNECTION WITH ANY OTHER ESTABLISHMENT.

By this means Low made the attempt to censor him a target for satire, and cunningly enlisted his readers in his defence.

These examples illustrate a further aspect of Low’s humour: his generous use of words, not merely as captions but as a complete running narrative. One example from 1933 is worth quoting in full, as demonstrating both this technique and Low’s inclination to ridicule, rather than crudely denounce, dictatorship. The drawings show Low selling up his own Fascist Party.

So many fellows have been getting away with this dictator stuff that Low is thinking of starting in the business himself. It seems quite simple. All you do is choose some kind of shirt and call yourself ‘Nazi’ (pronounced ‘nasty’). Then you hire some savage-looking birds to support you. You must talk with burning eloquence about something big. Demand Calais back from France, say. Next you set fire to the House of Commons and blame it on the Tory Party. ‘These traitors,’ you say, ‘have ruined the country with their Montagu-Normanism.’ You run them all in without trial. Hooray! Press magnates go behind the wire at an early stage, of course. (This is a good bit.) You must have a persecution, to please the boys. Scotsmen will do. Why not? As good as any. Then you sit back in safety and interfere with everybody as much as you like. And if anyone writes to say your cartoons are not perfect, you have him immediately filled with castor oil.

            Signed MOSES LOW of Palestine

By 1939 matters had got too serious for a humorous approach. Low had always despised the Bernard Partridge type of declamatory political cartoon – very much the norm before he came along – and frequently mocked it. However, he drew, in his own style, a number of uncharacteristically ‘straight’ cartoons expressing united national support for Churchill’s Coalition Government (‘All Behind You, Winston’) and for Britain’s lone defiance of Hitler (a single soldier on the beach, shaking his fist at the incoming Luftwaffe: ‘Very Well, Alone’). These show an exceptional ability to embody the mood of the moment but are now in danger of seeming sentimental or banal. Not so some of his other images in these desperate years, which encapsulate all there is to say about certain key events. The most reproduced of all Low’s cartoons shows Hitler and Stalin bowing courteously to one another, doffing their caps, at the time of the Nazi-Soviet Pact: ‘The scum of the earth, I believe?’ ‘The bloody assassin of the workers, I presume?’ One of his simplest drawings shows Gandhi, imprisoned in 1942 for leading the ‘Quit India’ campaign, sitting cross-legged on the floor spinning ‘A Shroud for Liberty’. Ten years earlier, Low’s comment on the world depression is as relevant today as it was then: Britain, France and the USA at one end of a sinking boat, watching Middle Europe bailing desperately at the other: ‘Phew! That’s a nasty leak. Thank goodness it’s not at our end of the boat.’

Colin Seymour-Ure and Jim Schoff’s book is a wonderful, indispensable companion to Low. But its 158 illustrations are far too few. They tell us that Low published 14,000 cartoons in his life. How many volumes would they fill? It may be impractical, but my feeling on closing this book is frustration. I want the complete Low.