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Low, Sir David Alexander Cecil (1891–1963)

by Vane Lindesay

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

David Alexander Cecil Low (1891-1963), by May and Mina Moore, 1910-13

David Alexander Cecil Low (1891-1963), by May and Mina Moore, 1910-13

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H38782/620

Sir David Alexander Cecil Low (1891-1963), cartoonist, was born on 7 April 1891 at Dunedin, New Zealand, third son of David Brown Low, pharmacist from Scotland, and his New Zealand-born wife Jane Caroline, née Flanagan. The family soon moved to Christchurch where the sons attended the Boys' High School, but David's formal education ended when he was 11; his parents believed the death of his elder brother was caused by 'over study'. Inspired by such English halfpenny comics as Chips, Comic Cuts and Larks he started to draw, and while still in short pants sold cartoons to the Christchurch Spectator. At 18 he joined the staff of the Canterbury Times.

Low was aggressively ambitious and constantly mailed newspapers containing his cartoons to the Sydney Bulletin. Eventually, in 1911, the Bulletin offered him a temporary job in Melbourne. He joyfully accepted and only briefly once returned to New Zealand. He shared a studio at the top of Collins Street with Hal Gye and provided illustrations, joke-drawings and caricatures for the Bulletin and Lone Hand. After six months his position was confirmed, but before moving to Sydney he was sent around Australia seeking subjects. A collection of these was published as Caricatures in 1915. Meanwhile, to his great disappointment Norman Lindsay remained chief cartoonist and he was not encouraged to produce full-page political cartoons; instead he was required to depict 'the personalities and the minutiae of the politics involved'.

The advent of W. M. Hughes as prime minister and his visit to London gave Low his second big chance. His cartoon, entitled 'The Imperial Conference', published in the Bulletin on 16 March 1916, made him famous: it depicted Hughes in full cry and the Imperial War Cabinet under cover over the caption 'Asquith: David, talk to him in Welsh and pacify him'. Thereafter, Low concentrated on Hughes's 'colourful and irascible personality'. In 1918 he published The Billy Book, a collection of satirical drawings of the imagined capers of Hughes in London. Low posted copies to English editors; Henry Cadbury, part-owner of the London Star, read Arnold Bennett's review in the New Statesman, secured a copy of The Billy Book and in 1919 cabled Low an offer to join the Star at a salary of £3000.

In London, at St Paul's Church, Covent Garden, Low married Madeline Grieve Kenning of Auckland on 7 June 1920; they lived for many years at Golders Green. He was soon involved again in rowdy contention—in Melbourne he had been called a bastard to his face by Hughes—this time he resigned over the tiny space the Star allotted to his cartoons. A compromise followed, although there were to be unending arguments over presentation, space and position in the paper. He settled down to drawing the antics of British politicians. His double-headed ass, labelled 'Coalition', suggested the futility of going both ways at once and getting nowhere.

After eight years with the Star, Low accepted an offer from Lord Beaverbrook to work for the Evening Standard which guaranteed complete independence in choice of subjects, treatment and political viewpoint. Low created his world-famous character 'Colonel Blimp' in 1932: 'a rotund, bald, fierce gentleman with long white moustache', Blimp was the mouthpiece of reactionary opinion and confused thinking. Low was a major propagandist for the anti-Fascist cause.

After World War II newsprint shortages led to the curtailment of cartoon space in the Evening Standard and in 1950 Low joined the Labour Daily Herald but in 1953 moved to the Manchester Guardian. In his long working life he drew for some forty world-wide newspapers and magazines, and published some thirty collections of cartoons in book form, as well as Ye Madde Designer (1935) and Low's Autobiography (1956). Although a tall, 'distinguished looking, dark-bearded man with fine hands and dominating black eyebrows', Low always caricatured himself as 'an impertinent figure of fun'. He belonged to the National Liberal and Savile clubs.

Awarded honorary LL.D.s by the universities of New Brunswick (1958) and Leicester (1961), he was knighted in 1962. He died in West London Hospital on 19 September 1963. His wife and two daughters survived him and largely inherited his estate, valued for probate at £99,205.

Low's draughtsmanship was in lineal descent from Phil May and, developed to a style bold and simple, never changed. Originally he drew with a pen, but after a year in Australia used a full flowing brush, with beautiful quality, expression and control, over a lightly pencilled framework. Low virtually pioneered brush-drawing in Australia, to create a vogue with succeeding cartoonists. After his death he was described in the press as 'the dominant cartoonist of the western world'—a reputation he had enjoyed for about thirty years. His books and a collection of cartoons are in the library of New Zealand House, London, as a memorial.

Select Bibliography

  • V. Lindesay, The Inked-in Image (Melb, 1970)
  • Lone Hand, 1 Oct 1915
  • People (Sydney), 24 May 1950
  • Australian Letters, 7 (Oct 1965)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 1 Feb 1950
  • 'Obituary', Times (London), 21 Sept 1963, p 12
  • Age (Melbourne), 12 Dec 1931, 21 Sept 1963.

Citation details

Vane Lindesay, 'Low, Sir David Alexander Cecil (1891–1963)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/low-sir-david-alexander-cecil-7250/text12559, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 25 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

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