David Low was considered the most outstanding British political cartoonist of his generation. Able to capture recognisable likenesses with great economy, he produced the definitive image of a number of leading figures of the day. And he did so with a subtle combination of ridicule and insight, rather than exaggeration and condemnation. A key feature of his approach was the use of such symbols as the strong but stubborn TUC carthorse and the reactionary Englishman, Colonel Blimp. David Low was born in Dunedin, New Zealand, on 7 April 1891, the third son of four children of the businessman, David Brown Low, and his wife, Jane (née Flanagan). Educated at the Boys’ High School, Christchurch, he made his debut with the Christchurch political weekly, The Spectator, at the age of 11 and, in 1908, became the paper’s political cartoonist.
Later, he moved to the Canterbury Times (1910) and then the Sydney weekly, The Bulletin (1911). At The Bulletin, his technique benefited from the influence of Will Dyson and Norman Lindsay, so that his lampoon of the Australian Prime Minister, William Hughes, entitled The Billy Book (1918), proved to be a bestseller.
The success encouraged Low to move to England, in the following year, where he began to work for the Star, evening stablemate of the Liberal Daily News. He established himself with the device of the two-headed Liberal/Tory Coalition Ass. In 1920, he married Madeline Grieve Kenning, of New Zealand. They would have two daughters.
In 1927, Low became political cartoonist for the Evening Standard and, though a Socialist, was given full independence on what was a very Conservative publication. This freedom led to the creation, in 1934, of his most famous character, Colonel Blimp, the epitome of British Conservativism. During the 1920s and 30s, he also produced two series of literary and political caricatures for the New Statesman. On leaving the Evening Standard, he spent a short, unhappy time at the Daily Herald (1950-53) where, however, he did produce another of his most controversial images: the TUC cart-horse. With some relief, he was taken on by the Manchester Guardian in 1953 and remained there until his death in London on 19 September 1963.
Low’s popularity as a newspaper cartoonist created, from very early on, a market for books of caricatures; those published around the period of the Second World War are particularly impressive examples of his incisive criticism. He has total command of his medium, both artistically and intellectually, and was considered the most outstanding British political cartoonist of his generation. This position was officially acknowledged in 1962, when he was knighted.
His work is represented in numerous public collections, including the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery and the V&A; and the British Cartoon Archive, university of Kent (Canterbury). His papers are in the Beinecke Library (Yale university).
Further reading: Marguerite Mahood, ‘Low, Sir David (Alexander Cecil) (b Dunedin, April 7, 1892; d London, Sept 20, 1963)’, Grove Art Online, 2003, https://doi.org/10.1093/gao/9781884446054.article.T052166; Colin Seymour-ure, ‘Low, Sir David Alexander Cecil (1891–1963)’, H C G Matthew and Brian Harrison (eds), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2008, https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/34606; Colin Seymour-ure and Jim Schoff, David Low, London: Secker & Warburg, 1985