THE BLACK ART of political cartooning has a distinguished lineage that stretches from Rowlandson, Hogarth and Gillray through to Low, the greatest cartoonist of the 20th century, and more recently to Illingworth and Vicky. It seems astonishing that Philip Zec, held by many to be the best political cartoonist of the Second World War, should somehow have slipped through the net of historical recognition. 'If you would see his monument look around you' instructs the inscription in St. Paul's Cathedral honouring its architect, Sir Christopher Wren. We might apply the same principle to the Zec cartoons from 1939-45. We can reflect on their unerring skill and certainty of aim; marvel perhaps at the way they savaged and lampooned those preposterous villains, Hider, Goering, Goebbels and the rest. From Dunkirk to VE Day, Zec maintained his unrelenting barrage, illustrating with masterly precision the convulsive events of the war. If the Zec cartoons were all that aspiring historians of the war had to go on, if these drawings were their only guide to the history of those times, they might still consider themselves pretty well informed.
To Philip Zec, David Low was the undisputed master of the genre. Like many others, he was in awe of the essence of Low's brilliance--a supreme economy of line achieving the most devastating effects. Low's celebrated or infamous victims were not merely superbly drawn. With barely a stroke of the pen he uncannily revealed the guile, the hubris and the arrogance of flawed politicians or strutting dictators. His most influential cartoons were drawn in the 1930s. The rise of Hitler, the spread of Fascism, the surrender at Munich and the craven response of a weak British government were scathingly exposed. But once the battle had been joined, Low's mission had, in a sense, been accomplished. The drama of politics had moved to the theatre of the Second World Wan Dunkirk, the war in the Atlantic, the Battle of Britain and the Blitz presented a new and more daunting challenge to the serious cartoonist. It demanded an intuitive rapport with the British people, an astute grasp of the political scene, and the ability to produce cartoons that were passionate, crushing or derisive, but almost invariably funny. Above all else the drawings and particularly the captions had to touch a nerve--the prime objective of the political cartoon. Zec's wartime cartoons supremely achieved that objective.
Art, inevitably, reveals as much of the artist as it does of their subject. The political cartoon by definition reflects the fervour and mindset of its creator. Though Low's cartoons were frequently merciless, notably in their savaging of the Fascist dictators, they carried a touch of amused contempt that matched perfectly the genial malice of his proprietor, Lord Beaverbrook. This is not to deny Low's radical credentials. An engaging New Zealander, born with a sharp eye and a roguish wit, he was a humanitarian disdaining allegiance to any political party. His chosen weapon was ridicule rather than rage. The worst dictators relish being portrayed as tyrants. Oppression and subjugation is their stock-in-trade. But to be depicted as buffoons; presented more as lunatics than leaders, brought both Hitler and Mussolini close to apoplexy. Low, before the war, and Zec during the long conflict, were the prime exponents of lethal caricature.
Unlike Low, who relished his celebrity and displayed a gleeful enthusiasm for his own work, Philip Zec enjoyed no such buoyancy about his work. He was rarely completely satisfied with what he drew. I recall him destroying with evident disgust a sketch he had worked on for hours, which explains why so little artwork survives to remind us of his talents. Required to produce a daily cartoon throughout the war; the punishing pressure of the newspaper deadline imposed nerve-racking demands on his perfectionism. There was no time for a rethink, no scope for retouching or other embellishments. …