LOW AND SOME OTHERS
By DEREK HUDSON
ACITIZEN of "the Sunset Age," as Sir Osbert Sitwell calls it, may occasionally wish to take stock of his blessings. And one of the blessings—one of the credit items that make the sunset seem less forlorn—is undoubtedly the third son of David Brown Low and Jane Caroline Flanagan, who was born at Dunedin, New Zealand, on April 7th, 1895, and was given the same first- name as his father. T. S. Eliot has pronounced that "April is the cruellest month," but it is also a month with a suggestion of fun, and the April of 5891 mixed equal parts of friendly humour and sharp satirical sense in giving us David Low. He was drawing cartoons for a New Zealand •paper at the age of eleven, and for the Sydney Bulletin when he was twenty. Coming to. England after the First World War, he worked for the Star before joining the Evening Standard in 1927. It is by no means far-fetched to suggest that he is now the leading political cartoonist in the world. The publication of three hundred of the best cartoons drawn by him in the troubled years between 1932 and 1945* provides an excellent opportunity for considering and appraising his achievement.
Caricature, and the liberty to caricature,- have become increasingly important in modern times. The art has grown up with civilisation, and has become a part of civilisation. The right of a private indi- vidual like David Low to afford his readers a relief from tension, to strip the complicated detail of a situation down to the bare bones of principle, to expose humbug and to prick the bubble of pre- tentiousness, is certainly one of the freedoms for which Britain has recently been fighting. In essentials, the joy we obtain from seeing powerful personages deflated in a cartoon is the same as the Greeks of the fourth century B.c. must have obtained from seeing Heracles or Odysseus ridiculed in a vase painting now in the British Museum. The right to burlesque is a psychological necessity, and the springs of caricature are as eternal as a sense of humour itself.' Portrait caricature, as we now understand it, derives from Italians like Carracci, Bernini and Ghezzi, who worked in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Then came our own Hogarth, who estab- lished social and political satire as an art-form, and after him Rowlandson and Gillray, boisterous and fierce, who broadened its appeal. But in the nineteenth century leadership, in the new art passed from England to France—to Charles Philipon and his papers La Caricature and Charivari, with Daumier and Gavarni among thir contributors.
*Years of Wrath: A Cartoon History, 1932-1945. By David Low. (Gollancz. 25s.)
Political caricature in nineteenth-century England became solid and respectable. It is the example of John Doyle (" HB ") rather than of his delightful son "Dicky" that has been followed by a succession of cartoonists such as Tenniel, Partridge, Carruthers- Gould and " Poy." A good-humoured urbanity, and with it a limited range of thought, may be traced in one after another of these artists. Partridge inherited Tenniel's ample, slightly pompous line, together with his stock-in-trade of Britannia and the British lion. " Poy " followed the meticulous penmanship of " F.C.G. " ; his " John Citizen," like Strube's " Little Man," was meant to keep the petit bourgeois cosy and comfortable. David Low could hardly practise his art in Britain without coming to some extent under the influence of this school of cartoonists that had flourished for a century—he had, after all, to study the humours of the British public, which he has done with great success. But what is remarkable in Low is that he has turned still more to the Continent for inspiration, and has assimilated something of Daintier, Steinlen and Raemakers. He has therefore given back to English caricature some of the vitality and sense of moral purpose that had been lost to it for so long.
The bloodless social revolution that has recently taken place in this country has afforded the cartoonist an audience more broadly based than he has known since the eighteenth century. One has the feeling that Giles as well as Low is benefiting from this change. But it is vital to remember that the art of the cartoonist, like other arts, can flourish only in a society that tolerates a high degree of freedom of expression. In a police State the cartoon is only a pictorial reflection of the dictator's diatribe. Politically, Low is well to the left of centre, and satire is indeed usually more con- vincing when aimed from this angle, for it is easier to cock a snook upwards than downwards (Charles Keene, a staunch Tory, did not make a good cartoonist). That the art of David Low has not only been tolerated but encouraged by the " right-wing capitalist " who owns the Evening Standard is the sort of democratic paradox that we• must jealously seek to preserve.
The future historian who comes to write of the past twenty years will profit greatly from Low's Years of Wrath. It will offer him something that he is unlikely to obtain from faded newspaper cuttings or even from the letters of statesmen. For Low has the gift of sensing and communicating those lurking twinges of conscience that might not otherwise find full expression. His work when viewed en masse is impressively free from the conventional devices of the cartoonist. In all these three hundred cartoons, for example, there is only one worried tight-rope walker, and though there are several personified Statues of Liberty, and, as the war progresses, an in- creasing number of skeletons, Low's pictorial energy and invention are so great that he avoids the smallest suggestion of staleness. In the world of Low's creation Colonel Blimp is seen more often than John Bull ; Low is the reverse of a jingo, and his appeals to national sentiment are founded more surely on an understanding of the penple. This book contains twenty or thirty cartoons that have no humorous content ; they depend entirely, like those of Raemakers, on strength of line and intensity of human sympathy. With one or two exceptions, these grave, sometimes grim, cartoons are satisfy- ing and effective.
But a cartoonist in the proper sense of the term stands or falls by his gift of obtaining a comic likeness. Here Low is supreme. The principal political figures of 5932-45, from Churchill, Baldwin and Chamberlain to Hitler, Goering and Mussolini, are captured with irresistible genius. In the foreword to Years of Wrath Low expresses the hope that the volume will help to prevent Hitler ever being canonised as " a picturesque, lonely hero." So, no doubt, it will. Towards the end of the war years Hitler appears, in Low's eyes, as gaunt, desperate and horrible. But the earlier Hitler who is presented as Father Christmas, or as a cricketer, or as a child in the nursery, or on page after page in female costume as a moustached Mrs. Bruin, is not an entirely unlikable figure—indeed, he is a good deal more likable, in these pages, than any of his lieutenants. The book as a whole is a unique impression of fourteen tragic years ; but it may be true that Low's concluding sketches of the accused at Nuremberg will do more to make posterity understand the Third Reich than anything else he has drawn.