`The thinking man's cartoonist'. Sir David Low aroused Britain's sense of humor, not horror; new book and exhibit look back at the cartoonist and his insightful portraits

STUPIDITY has no frontiers,'' political cartoonist David Low once wrote, ``domestic or foreign, party, professional or social.'' And stupidity was his favorite butt, with a deflating kind of mockery his chief tool. But malice was not his method. In a forthcoming book on Sir David, author Colin Seymour-Ure observes: ``Low's good nature flowed out through his brush.'' Low himself maintained that malice ``clouds the judgment. The immoderate exaggeration inspired by malice is apt to become as tedious as too much slapstick in a farce. . . . Brutality almost invariably defeats itself.''

This attitude came partly from a recognition (by the sensitive ex-colonial, born in New Zealand) that English humor and English art imposed a tradition of ``urbanity'' and ``fairness.'' It is easier, he said, ``to impress an Englishman by exciting his sense of humour than by exciting his sense of horror.'' All the same, Low was capable of evoking a chill down the spine as occasion demanded. While he generally reduced the dictators Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, and Franco (about whom he was prophetically ri ght) to figures of absurd pretension and posturing, his famous terror image of Himmler, with Gestapo henchmen in tow as black-winged ``angels of peace'' floating in over Belgium in 1940, taps a well of the ominous macabre he apparently always had at the ready.

Perhaps the dark irony of such a cartoon was still essentially his personal form of ridicule: He was, after all, also on that ``Gestapo death list'' grasped sepulchrally by Himmler. Both Hitler and Mussolini banned the Beaverbrook newspapers because of Low's cartoons -- perhaps an indication of the effectiveness of his humor and the ineffectualness of theirs.

The new book about Low, as well as the opening next week of the first major display of the cartoonist's work, is a part of the burst of renewed interest in Sir David, more than 20 years after his passing. It takes the form of a new exhibition, at London's National Portrait Gallery, and Professor Seymour-Ure's scholarly and entertaining book, co-written by Jim Schoff.

The focus on Low has been prompted by the Center for the Study of Cartoons and Caricature at the University of Kent, in Canterbury. The show and the book are firsts for the cartoon study center, in existence since 1972. The center functions as ``a research place for people to come and visit,'' Liz Ottoway, research associate for the center, explains.

``There's no comparable place in Britain,'' she adds. And in contrast to New York's recently opened Museum of Cartoon Art, which also deals, she notes,ck in ``animation and comic strips,'' the Kent center concentrates on ``the broad field of political graphics.'' Its collection of 70,000 original pieces of art is mainly editorial cartoons from 20-century British newspapers.

A special research fund was set up to study David Low. Why him? Born in New Zealand in 1891, Low was famous in his own country and in Australia before he ``made good'' in Britain. Here in the '30s and '40s in particular, his work was syndicated worldwide. To contemporaries it seemed extraordinarily influential; today it seems to epitomize the changing and charged atmosphere of his times with a wit and economy, a striking graphic style, a humanity and sanity, which are still alive. Its wide wisdoms and g ood nature might well have bearing on political attitudes even of the '80s.

Low characterized himself, and his art, as basically argumentative. The cartoonist, he thought, needs to be in opposition. And possibly he was fortunate from the point of view of his own determined ambition, in having the dictators and the war they occasioned as objects of his satire. He was also fortunate, for more than 20 years of his 50-year career, to be a left-of-center radical working under the terms of a surprisingly free contract on a conservative newspaper. This was Lord Beaver-brook's Evening Standard, which, by the mid-'30s, was the favorite evening paper of the wealthier classes of London and the southeast. Here he had his heyday. Here he became a ``national institution,'' the ``thinking man's cartoonist,'' the inventor of Colonel Blimp.

C. S. Lewis said that Low had not invented Blimp, he had discovered him. Low agreed.

With walrus mustache and bald pate, rotund torso and his middle swathed by the towel in which Low maintained he had first encountered him (in a Turkish bath), Blimp was -- and still delightfully is -- the epitome of muddle-headedness, opinionated pomposity, and reactionary views. Almost immediately, ``blimpish'' entered English dic-tionaries.

Blimp was only the most successful of many personifications and symbols invented by Low. There was the double-headed ``coalition ass,'' who served him well in the time of Prime Minister David Lloyd George. There was the ``TUC [Trades Union Congress] carthorse'' -- ``honest but simple-minded.'' By then Low had moved to a socialist paper (followed by his final years on the Manchester Guardian), and he found that the British Labour Party was more easily ruffled by such a symbol for the TUC than his previou s conservative masters had been, even when he had made pointed and continual fun of them and of Beaverbrook himself.

The new book does not reveal what Winston Churchill thought, after the war, about being turned into Dickens's character Macawber (``waiting for something to turn up''). But Lloyd George had been delighted with Low's image of him, each time slightly different, and Low, reciprocally, greatly enjoyed drawing Lloyd George. The only difficulty he encountered was in trying to make the dashing Welshman look ``sinister.'' He was always liable to ``spring off the drawing board a lovable, cherubic little chap,'' Low protested in his autobiography.

An aspect of Low's art which may well surprise people now who are largely unfamiliar with his work is the percipience of his portraiture. He was careful not to claim too much for this side of his work, but his ability to get under the skin of his subjects has left us with convincing character studies of many of the distinguished men of his times.

His friend H. G. Wells wrote to him: ``Low. You are really a very great man. I know my points and you have got them all.'' Low says he drew Albert Einstein (whose reaction is not mentioned) ``ambling in mid-air, separate by some distance from his own shadow, a reflection upon personal relativity.''

T. S. Eliot found it ``so extremely difficult for the victim to judge: but I am surprised to note a certain resemblance to General de Gaulle which I had never noticed before.'' J. B. Priestley was one of the few who apparently did not like Low's version of him and said so.

On the whole, though, his ``victims'' appreciated both the skill and care of his portrait cartoons. They were perhaps aware of Low's dictum that ``true character is not displayed in a man's physical shell but in his individual use of it.'' Most of them, anyway, such as the politicians teased in his cartoons, were public figures who had grown impervious to what this irrepressible but warmhearted magician of the black-and-white image called ``the criticism of the grin'' (Low's grin, presumabl y). Besides, as he repeatedly told critics in self-defense, he did, after all, actually like people.

The Low exhibition is at the National Portrait Gallery Oct. 25 through Jan. 12, then travels to several venues in the north of England. The book, ``David Low,'' is published by Secker & Warburg, London, at 7.95 ($11).

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