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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in