State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 39 Autumn 1987

Working sketches drawn from life by Low on scraps of paper and cardboard, to be worked up later into finished caricatures for the Bulletin. It is interesting to note that these sketches are half-way between straight portraiture and caricature.


David Low in Australia — A Recent Acquisition

David Low, described as “the dominant cartoonist of the Western World”— a reputation he enjoyed for over thirty years — was not, as is popularly believed, an Australian but was born at Dunedin, New Zealand in April, 1891, the youngest of three sons of David Brown Low, Manager of a drug importing business.
The infant David Alexander Cecil and family moved to Christchurch where the sons grew up to attend the Boy's High School. Due to the death of his eldest brother, whom his parents believed died from peritonitis as a result of “over study”, the formal education of the Low boys was suspended when David was eleven years old. From about the age of eight his interest in drawing was inspired by the illustrated English half-penny comic papers, Chips, Comic Cuts, and Larks among others, and whilst a young boy in short pants he was selling his cartoons for publication in the Christchurch Spectator. Later at the age of eighteen he was offered a staff job with the Canterbury Times where, with larger space, he had the chance to experiment with bolder effects.
David Low was, from an early age, aggressively ambitious. He had his sights firmly on the Syndey published Bulletin where a lot of his work was sent

One of the original cartoons from The Billy Book, 1918. Low's personal copy of this enormously successful publication is among the drawings and cartoons recently acquired.


A 1918 cartoon by Low titled PEACE ON EARTH published in the Bulletin, 18 April. This experiment in the ‘grand manner’, widely practised during World War 1, is plainly influenced by Will Dyson's Kultur Cartoons published in 1915

and some of it accepted. Before commencing work for the Canterbury Times Low sailed for Sydney and the Bulletin office to see what chances there were for him with that publication. Eventually the Bulletin responded to the constant mailing of newspapers Low sent from New Zealand containing his cartoons, offering a job working from Melbourne for six months. The appointment was joyfully accepted. As events turned out for him, except for a very brief visit, this invitation was to mean he never returned to New Zealand.
On his arrival in 1911 Low shared a studio at the Melbourne Club end of Collins Street, number 28, with another Bulletin contributor, Hal Gye, who too was only a few years away from national fame for his delightful cherub drawings to C.J. Dennis’ The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke. Here Low produced illustrations, joke drawings and caricatures for the Bulletin and its sister publication the Lone Hand. At one period the Bulletin sent Low around Australia seeking notable subjects for these caricatures. A collection of them was published in book form during 1915. To David Low's great disappointment the Bulletin management did not initially commission him to produce full-page political cartoon comment. Norman Lindsay in Sydney was chief cartoonist, who, at the outbreak of World War 1, drew his large, dramatic and allegorical cartoons for the whole of page one. David Low was required from Melbourne to supply in humorous contrast cartoons of the personalities and the trivia of the Melbourne political scene.
But the Bulletin appointment was David Low's big chance. A second came when William Morris Hughes took office as the Prime Minister of Australia for, shortly after the event, Low published his very famous The Billy Book in 1918 — a collection of satirical drawings depicting the imagined capers of the Prime Minister visiting London as a member of the War Cabinet. As a result of Low posting copies of the book to various English editors and writers, Arnold Bennett reviewed it for New Statesman. This review was read by Henry Cadbury, one of the owners of the London Star newspaper, who secured a copy of The Billy Book, then in 1919 cabled David Low an offer to join the Star on a salary of £3,000 a year.
In London David Low was soon involved again in rowdy contention. In Melbourne he had been called a bastard to his face by Prime Minister Hughes; this time he resigned over the tiny space allotted to his Star cartoons. A compromise resulted, although there were to be unending arguments over presentation, space and position of his work in the paper. Low however settled down to drawing the antics and posturing of British politicians. Among his very successful innovations for the Star was his double-headed ass symbol labelled ‘Coalition’ which was drawn in various asinine circumstances suggesting the futility of going both ways at once and getting nowhere.
After working eight years with the Star Low accepted an offer from Lord Beaverbrook to work for his Evening Standard with a contract that guaranteed the cartoonist complete freedom in the selection and treatment of subject matter and in expressing in his cartoons any political viewpoint the artist chose. On this newspaper Low's world famous ‘Colonel Blimp’, a rotund, bald, pompously fierce person with large white moustache representing reactionary opinion and confused thinking, was created, and immediately became a new definition in English dictionaries.
Once again the question of cartoon space arose. Beaverbrook's Evening Standard, because of postwar paper shortages, could no longer afford room for full-sized political cartoons, and resulted, with other personal considerations, in Low starting a new association with his old friend Percy Cudlipp, then editor of the Daily Herald. And so after twenty-three years with the Evening Standard Low joined the Daily Herald in 1950 and remained with that newspaper for just three years before changing over to the Manchester Guardian in 1953. There he remained for ten years until his death in 1963. In his long life as a cartoonist David Low drew for some forty world-wide newspapers and magazines where in his work was syndicated. He was knighted in 1962 and earned through his cartoons an international reputation to become a major influence on public opinion throughout the world.
David Low's draughtsmanship was in lineal descent from Phil May and, developed to a style bold and simple, was one that never changed throughout his career. Originally, in Australia, he drew with a pen, but after a year or so in this country 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. It will perhaps surprise some to learn that many professional cartoonists prefer the drawings of David Low's ‘Australian period’ with the Bulletin over those of his later London work.
Curiously, having evolved a style of drawing in his early career with the Star newspaper, Low never

A World War I cartoon drawn for the Bulletin by David Low. Another in the ‘grand manner’, borrowing Will Dyson's ‘split brush’ technique developed for his Kultur cartoons. This is seen on the feather treatment of the vulture's neck and back feathers. A preliminary pencil study of this bird forms part of the collection.

developed further by general improvement, or experiment — he appears satisfied not to disturb a successful formula. As a consequence his cartoons drawn in 1935 differ not, in any respect, from those drawn twenty odd years later. This then makes the recent acquisition by the State Library of Victoria a rare and exciting event, for a wise purchase has secured twenty-six original Low cartoons, caricatures, sketch book studies, working drawings, and seven cartoons from The Billy Book — all produced during his formative years before he left Australia in 1919. Most of these original works demonstrate a striving experimentation with graphic technique, of concept in terms of presentation, and of course varied subject matter.
Of intriguing interest are several signed and dated cartoons drawn for the New Zealand press when Low was a nineteen-year-old youth. Importantly, too, we have examples of Low's notes for his caricatures of Australian notables, drawn on scraps of cardboard box and paper, in Parliament, the Courts or the streets, to be worked up later in his Collins Street studio ready for publication in the Bulletin.
Six of the cartoons, unsigned, are plainly experiments in the Will Dyson ‘grand manner’, heavy with symbols and allegory. It is clear that this approach was not Low's ‘handwriting’, and so he had, as all artists do, to discover his own direction.
The drawings were offered by, and purchased from, David Low's daughters living in Cambridge, England. That David Low chose to preserve these early works is in itself significant. And, with the exception of the few cartoons produced in New Zealand, the remainder are now back in the city where they were drawn seventy years or so ago.
Vane Lindesay

In 1910 David Low left the Spectator newspaper to join the Canterbury Times. This cartoon by Low was drawn that year. The cartoon symbol ‘Fat’ was identified and established first by Australian cartoonists to serve the anti-Tory and socialist cause. Tat’ in the cartoon represents the Bank of New Zealand: the figure in the background is Liberal Premier, Sir Joseph Ward.