“Churchill on Low” is excerpted from “David Low” for the Hillsdale College Churchill Project. Click here for the original text. To subscribe for regular Hillsdale updates, click here, scroll to bottom and fill in your email.
“Master of invective”
“Low is the greatest of our modern cartoonists,” wrote Winston Churchill in his delightful essay “Cartoons and Cartoonists.” He praised “the vividness of his political conceptions,” declaring Low a singular talent: “He possesses what few cartoonists have—a grand technique of draughtsmanship. Low is a master of black and white. He is the Charlie Chaplin of caricature, and tragedy and comedy are the same to him.”
New Zealander David Low worked mostly for left-wing periodicals like the Star and the New Statesman. Such praise for someone who consistently poked fun at him is a fine example of Churchill’s collegiality. He was never a hater; he appreciated talent on all sides of politics. Of course, Churchill didn’t hesitate to say what he thought of Low’s political attitude:
Here was the British Empire emerging into conscious existence fanned by the quiet loyalty of hundreds of millions of faithful people under every sky and climate. To jeer at its fatted soul was the delight of the green-eyed young Antipodean radical.
A Low cartoon, Churchill went on, was a masterpiece of invective:
There is not a figure in it that is not instinct with maliciously-perceived truth…. . There he is, with his little tyke and his Joan Bull and her baby, deriding regularly everything that is of importance to our self-preservation.
Low – down payback
David Low gave as good as he got. “An upholder of Democracy,” he described Churchill—
…yes, when he was leading it. Impatient with it when he was not…. His definition of democracy, I felt, would be something like “government of the people, for the people, by benevolent and paternal ruling-class chaps like me…. I could never accept him as a democrat in the Lincolnian sense.
Modern critics still float that image of Churchill, however wide of the mark. In Labour Party circles, the myth long pervaded (and still does), that Churchill’s first reaction against striking Welsh miners in 1911 was to send troops against them. This potent theme returned in the 1926 General Strike.
War and Reversal
Thus it went until the Second World War. Then, in May 1940, Churchill plunged in as Prime Minister. Just as suddenly, Low’s cartoon critiques became rampant boosterism. Everything Low admired in Churchill came to the fore.
“Winston’s characteristics,” he wrote later, “were confidence in himself and love of his country. At the time of our first meeting I wrote, ‘Churchill is one of the few men I have met who … give me the impression of genius. Shaw is another. It is amusing to know that each thinks the other is much overrated!”
David Low’s greatest Churchill cartoon was created for the pictorial magazine Illustrated in 1954 to mark Sir Winston’s 80th Birthday. Low gathered all the “Winstons” of the great man’s life, toasting the old man. Here was the red-haired
Harrow schoolboy upstart. The subaltern in India. The First Lord of the Admiralty and Chancellor of the Exchequer, the painter, the siren-suited Prime Minister. Even the portraits—Marlborough and his Duchess—are raising a glass. (For a large format image click here.)
In this cartoon we sees all the mutual respect and affection of two skillful practitioners of the political arts. Entirely different métiers, of course—but there it is. More important, however, I think David Low was expressing what the nation knew as a certitude. Certainly the whole nation knew it in 1954—but perhaps some need reminding today.