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Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.


LOW, Sir David Alexander Cecil



A new biography of Low, David Alexander Cecil appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

David Alexander Cecil Low, third son of David Low, was born in Dunedin on 7 April 1891. His formal education ended when, at the age of 12, he ceased attending the Boys' High School, Christ-church. After that, apart from intermittent periods of private study, he was continuously engaged for the following 60 years in journalism and black-and-white art.

While living in Mornington, Dunedin, and still at primary school, Low had some drawings published. These were not in the nature of the political cartoons for which he was to become famous, but “before and after” sketches for a popular patent medicine called Marshall's Phosphorine. These were printed in the Evening Star, Dunedin. His first cartoon was published in 1902 in the Spectator, Christchurch, when he was 11 years of age. He received a fee of 2s. 6d. He continued to send caricatures and cartoons regularly to that and other New Zealand journals and periodicais. A year as political cartoonist to the Canterbury Times preceded his departure in 1911 for Australia to join the Bulletin (Sydney). This appointment must have roused the envy of all budding cartoonists in Australia and New Zealand for the Bulletin had already cradled such men as Phil May, Will Dyson, and George Lambert.

Low's Billy Book, 1918, in which he satirised the policies of the Prime Minister, William M. Hughes, led to an invitation to join the staff of the Daily News and Star in London in 1919. In 1927 he left these papers to join the Evening Standard, his contract stipulating complete independence of viewpoint. Low could insist on his own terms, for by this time he was one of the best-known and most highly paid cartoonists in Britain. He asserted his independence and did not hesitate on occasion to ridicule his editor, Lord Beaverbrook.

During the uneasy 1930s Low created the character of Colonel Blimp, symbol of smug complacency whose “Gad Sir” invariably prefaced some inane remark on current affairs. At the same time Low bitterly attacked the Nazi system and especially the dictators Hitler and Mussolini whom he depicted as strutting mountebanks. As a result, Low was officially listed for “liquidation” by the Nazi authorities in Germany.

Between 1941 and 1944 he was a regular “voice” on world affairs in the B.B.C. Overseas Service and he appeared frequently on television. In 1950 he left the Standard to work for a world syndication of approximately 280 newspapers based on a first publication in the Guardian, England.

Low published in various countries about 32 volumes of drawings and wrote seven books, mainly on the arts of caricature and the cartoon. These include Lloyd George and Co., 1922; Lions and Lambs, 1928; Russian Sketch Book, 1932; The New Rake's Progress, 1934; Ye Madde Designer, 1935; Political Parade, 1936; Europe Since Versailles, 1939; British Cartoonists, 1942; Years of Wrath, 1942; and Low's Autobiography, 1956. Honorary degrees were conferred on him by the Universities of New Brunswick, 1958, and Leicester, 1961. He was knighted in 1962.

As an artist, Low was virtually self-taught. His earliest drawings show the influence of Phil May who had developed a simplicity and clarity of line admirably adapted to the limitations of press reproduction. Low's natural power as a draughtsman soon asserted itself, however, and he forsook May's deliberate, sensitive pen line for the strong fluent brush stroke that became inseparable from his sardonic humour. No drawings could have been better suited technically to newspaper reproduction than Low's pure black and white. He occasionally introduced screen tints and black crayon textures, but only for reinforcing the sting of his thrust and never at the expense of his bold calligraphic brush-work. He relied on his extraordinary gifts in caricature to identify his subjects and, apart from Blimp and a slow ungainly carthorse that he used to symbolise Britain's Trade Union Congress, his main characters were the actual people concerned rather than symbols. He employed such devices as swords, wreaths, cannons, doves, devils, and angels, but he was most devastating when he caricatured his victims and set them in some unmistakably familiar but bitingly analagous situation from history, mythology, or everyday life. With appropriate facial manipulations, Joan of Arc, Britannia, Napoleon, Gulliver, Drake, Stanley, Livingstone, and a host of other real or fabled characters were called upon to play their parts in cemeteries, zoos, on desert islands, stormy seas, or mountain tops. Sometimes a striking representation of near actuality provided the most pungent environment.

As a political cartoonist, Low's work was essentially topical, and it may be questioned whether his drawings, for all their brilliance, have that element of universality inherent in those of Rowlandson, Daumier, and Goya. In this respect Low as day-today commentator had necessarily to produce work mainly with an ephemeral appeal. His enormous success was therefore derived largely from his unique ability to exploit to the full the newspaper publishing techniques of his day.

When he was 28 years of age, Low married Madeline Kenning, of Auckland. His marriage, he said, gave him what he had always needed, a private audience. Every morning after breakfast he would discuss his cartoon for the day with his wife and, later, with his two daughters as well. Although he was a man of strong Christian instincts, Low found himself unable to accept the theology or liturgy of any church and he described himself as an agnostic. After his death in London on 19 September 1963, his books and his own complete collection of the cartoons, together with a portrait photograph by Karsh, of Ottawa, were placed in an alcove in the library in New Zealand House, London, as a permanent memorial.

by Stewart Bell Maclennan, A.R.C.A.(LOND.), Director, National Art Gallery, Wellington.

The Times (London), 21 Sep 1963 (Obit).


Stewart Bell Maclennan, A.R.C.A.(LOND.), Director, National Art Gallery, Wellington.