David Low, the son of David Brown Low, a chemist, was born in Dunedin, New Zealand on 7th April 1891. His father's family had originally come from Fife in Scotland. As a young man he had discovered a pile of old copies of Punch Magazine in a second-hand bookshop in Christchurch. Deeply impressed by the work of Charles Keene, Linley Sambourne and Phil May, Low decided he wanted to become a cartoonist. In his autobiography he wrote: "The more I poured over the intricate technical quality of these artists the more difficult did drawing appear. How impossible that one could ever become an artist! But then I came on Phil May, who combined quality with apparent facility. Once having discovered Phil May I never let him go."
At the age of fifteen Low began to have his drawings published in magazines and newspapers in New Zealand. This included anti-gambling cartoons for the War Cry, the newspaper of the Salvation Army, and illustrations for New Zealand Truth, a weekly newspaper specializing in sensational crime and sex . Still a teenager, Low was appointed the regular political cartoonist of the New Zealand Spectator. His fame spread to Australia and at the age of eighteen he was asked to join the Sydney Bulletin, where he worked with two other great cartoonists, Livingstone Hopkins and Norman Lindsay.
The British writer Arnold Bennett was impressed when he saw Low's cartoons and wrote an article about him in The New Statesman. This resulted in Low being offered a job in England with The Daily News and the company's evening paper, The Star. Low arrived in England in 1919 but was unhappy with the space that he was given for his cartoons. After threatening to resign, the editor of the newspaper agreed to publish the large, half-page cartoons that he had been doing in Australia. In London Low became a close friend of the other great political cartoonist of the period, Will Dyson of The Daily Herald.
Low was commissioned by The Star to draw the portraits of the fifty most distinguished people in Britain. His subjects included George Bernard Shaw, Arnold Bennett, H. G. Wells, Hilaire Belloc, G. K. Chesterton and Arthur Conan Doyle. Only two men refused to sit for him: John Galsworthy and Rudyard Kipling. Some of his cartoons for the newspaper were used as posters for the Liberal Party in the 1922 General Election.
After a disagreement with the editor about how this should be presented in The Star, Low eventually had them published in The New Statesman. Low also had cartoons published in other journals in Britain such as Punch Magazine, Illustrated London News and The Graphic. Low later recalled: "I worked an eight-hour day - sometimes ten-hour - day and with evenings spent moving around seeing people, it was a busy life. Making a cartoon occupied usually about three full days, two spent in labour and one in removing the appearance of labour."
In 1927 Low was persuaded by Lord Beaverbrook to work at the Evening Standard. Although Beaverbrook was a strong supporter of the Conservative Party, he promised Low that he would have complete freedom to express his own radical political views. Low produced four cartoons a week and these were syndicated to 170 journals worldwide.
Unhappy with the political leadership of the British establishment David Low created his cartoon character, Colonel Blimp in 1934. In his book, Low's Autobiography, he explained that Blimp represented everything he disliked in British politics: "Blimp was no enthusiast for democracy. He was impatient with the common people and their complaints. His remedy to social unrest was less education, so that people could not read about slumps. An extreme isolationist, disliking foreigners (which included Jews, Irish, Scots, Welsh, and people from the Colonies and Dominions); a man of violence, approving war. He had no use for the League of Nations nor for international efforts to prevent wars. In particular he objected to any economic reorganization of world resources involving changes in the status quo."
In the 1930s Low joined with other radicals, such as Stafford Cripps, Nye Bevan, Ellen Wilkinson, J. B. Priestley, Victor Gollancz, Henry Nevinson and Norman Angell to complain about Britain's foreign policy. Low was especially appalled by what he called the "Government's supine attitude to foreign intervention in Spain" during the Spanish Civil War.
Low's cartoons criticizing Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini resulted in his work being banned in Germany and Italy. After the war it was revealled that in 1937 the German government asked the British government to have "discussions with the notorious Low" in an effort to "bring influence to bear on him" to stop his cartoons attacking appeasement. As Anthony Rhodes, the author of Propaganda: The Art of Persuasion: World War II (1987) has pointed out: "When Lord Halifax visited Germany officially in 1937, he was told that the Führer was deeply offended by Low's cartoons of him, and that the paper in which they appeared, the Evening Standard, was banned in Germany.... On Halifax's return to London, he summonded Low and told him that his cartoons were impairing the prime minister's policy of appeasement."
David Low was attacked by the conservative press as a "war-monger" because of his hostility towards Neville Chamberlain. He came under considerable pressure from his friends. Margot Asquith, the wife of the former Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, wrote to Low about his cartoons on 22nd April, 1938. "I thought your cartoon on Wednesday (20th April, 1938) in the Evening Standard both cruel and mischievous. I know the P.M. - do you? He is a man of iron courage, calm and resolution. Neville is doing the only right, wise, thing, unless you want war. Hate, threats - which you can't carry out - and suspicion do not advance peace, and if the P.M. fails we can always go back to the policy of the war-mongers - Winston Churchill and Co. I think Neville has saved the world by his courage - and so do much cleverer people than I."
However, others welcomed his criticisms of Adolf Hitler. This included Sigmund Freud who wrote: "A Jewish refugee from Vienna, a very old man personally unknown to you, cannot resist the impulse to tell you how much he admires your glorious art and your inexorable, unfailing criticism." David Low thought that the British had problems with cartoons as propaganda. "I had been told often enough that the British never had taken propaganda seriously, because they believed in themselves so much as to regard the rightness of their causes to be self-evident. Certainly, although they were fighting what was ostensibly a war of ideas, in striking contrast to the Nazis, the Russians, the French and the Americans they placed little value upon the presentation of their case to the enemy in cartoons."
In the Second World War Low's cartoons such as All Behind You, Winston (14th May, 1940), Stay There! I'll Be Back (24th May, 1940) and Very Well, Alone (18th June, 1940) were used to inspire the British people at a time when many feared a German victory. His work was both praised and attacked by Winston Churchill. Low refused to become a propagandist and described himself as "a nuisance dedicated to sanity". Low became an official British War Artist and in this role attended the Nuremberg War Trials with Joseph Flatter.
Low left the Evening Standard in 1949 and later worked for The Daily Herald (1950-1953) and The Manchester Guardian (1953-1963). Mark Bryant has argued that "Low has been perhaps the most influential cartoonist and caricaturist of the twentieth century - he produced over 14,000 drawings in a career spanning 50 years and was syndicated worldwide to more than 200 newspapers and magazines."
Published collections of Low's work include: Europe at War (1941), The World at War: A History in Sixty Cartoons (1942), Low's Company: Fifty Portraits (1952), Low's Autobiography (1956) and Years of Wrath: 1932-1945 (1986).
David Low, who was knighted in 1962, died on 19th September 1963.