My history hero: Sir David Low (1891–1963)

Chosen by Martin Brown, artist and illustrator of the Horrible Histories series of books

British political cartoonist David Low. His caricatures of political figures including Hitler resulted in him being placed in the Nazi 'Black Book' – a list of prominent Britons who were to be arrested in the case of a successful invasion of Britain. (Photo by Felix Man/Picture Post/Getty Images

This article was first published in the November 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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David Low was a political cartoonist and caricaturist born in New Zealand who incurred the wrath of the Nazi regime with his satirical representations of Hitler and Mussolini, which were published in the Evening Standard. A self-taught artist, Low is perhaps best known for his character Colonel Blimp, a walrus-moustached, pompous, and stereotypically British figure who dispensed advice on a range of topics.

When did you first hear about David Low?

I don’t recall exactly, but it was probably as a teenager. I’ve always had a deep interest in cartooning and, similar to sport and music fans, I got to know the stars in my field. In this instance, the big names in cartooning.

What was Low’s finest hour?

It has to be the cartoons he drew during the Second World War, depicting Hitler and Mussolini as vicious fools rather than figures of fear. His caricatures enraged Hitler in particular and resulted in Low being placed in the Nazi ‘Black Book’ – a list of prominent Britons who were to be arrested in the case of a successful invasion of Britain.

Low’s art became part of British Home Front determination and steadfastness against the Nazis, yet he never became a propagandist. His desire to remain an independent voice infuriated Churchill but allowed Low to fulfil his wish to be “a nuisance dedicated to sanity”.

What kind of person was Low?

He was immensely talented and achieved success at a young age (as a teenager who had moved to Australia). He grew into a broad-minded person who lived in a time when that wasn’t always seen as a good thing. Low wasn’t an out-and-out radical, but he certainly conveyed his opinions through his cartooning. Colonel Blimp in particular was created as the antithesis of everything that Low held dear.

What made Low a hero?

It was his independence and farsightedness that I admire. At the time he was criticised as being anti- appeasement and a warmonger, but with hindsight we see he was absolutely right. He retained his artistic independence right through his career: when he joined the Evening Standard in 1927, he obtained a promise from the newspaper’s owner, Lord Beaverbrook, that he wouldn’t interfere with Low’s own editorial independence. That’s a remarkable achievement. It’s a hard thing to keep your own head when everyone around you is pushing in various directions.

Can you see any parallels between his life and your own?

From a practical point of view, we’re both from an antipodean background and are self-taught cartoonists. Low believed, as do I, that cartooning could educate as well as change opinions and amuse, something that is often overlooked. But if I could claim even one hundredth of the effect David Low had, I’d be a very happy man.

Is there anything you don’t particularly admire about Low?

That’s a tricky one. I suppose he may have become a little bit more ‘establishment’ towards the end of his life, but who can blame him for that?

If you could meet Low, what would you ask him?

Initially I’d put on my ‘cartoonist’s hat’ and talk to him about technique and drawing, but, as a fellow antipodean, I’d love to ask him what it was like to grow up as a young artist in the brave new world that was Australia and New Zealand in the early 20th century.

Martin Brown was talking to Charlotte Hodgman

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Martin Brown is an Australian artist best known for his illustrations for the Horrible Histories books series (published by Scholastic). He began drawing at an early age, inspired by his favourite cartoons