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Strokes of genius

Cartoonist Philip Zec’s extraordinary work almost caused the government to shut down the Daily Mirror, writes Joel Taylor

Philip Zec at work

‘The price of petrol has been increased by one penny’ – Official”

A cartoon Zec produced after the World War II

Donald Zec

CARTOONISTS love courting controversy, but few have had such an impact that a piece of their work triggers the government of the day to consider shutting down the offending newspaper.
That is what happened when the Daily Mirror published Philip Zec’s famous ‘The Price of Petrol’ cartoon in March 6 1942.
The cartoon featured a sailor adrift in a choppy ocean clinging to a bit of wood, presumably what was left of the ship after it had been sunk by Nazi battleships.
Beneath the picture, the caption read: “The price of petrol has been increased by one penny’ – Official.”
The original cartoon, along with others by Zec that survive, has just gone on display at the Political Cartoon Gallery, in Store Street, Bloomsbury. Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Minister of Supply Herbert Morrison were appalled, believing that Zec was implying petrol bosses were lining their pockets while British sailors struggled to bring the vital resource into the country.
“That was the last thing Phil meant,” his brother Donald, one of the Daily Mirror’s leading journalists for nearly 40 years, whose biography of Philip has just been published, says.
“The aim of the cartoon was to bring home the message that wasting fuel was almost criminal considering the danger and the lives lost by sailors bringing it to the country.
“There were several captions and Phil’s original was ‘Petrol is Dearer Now’ but that didn’t fit in with what a lot of people felt on the Mirror at the time who wanted it a bit harder.”
He continues: “It was Cassandra (aka William Connor) who suggested the price of petrol has increased by one penny – official.”
It was the mention of the cost that really riled Churchill and Morrison and MI5 was charged with the task of investigating Zec’s background to see if there were any subversive tendencies to be found in the cartoonist.
None were found, although they found plenty of left-wing sympathies.
Morrison described the cartoon as “worthy of Goebbels at his best” and told editor Cecil Thomas “only a very unpatriotic editor could pass it for publication”.
Donald adds: “It did cause a large furore at the time and they did consider shutting down the Mirror but I think they realised it was a step too far.
“Of course, later Morrison used it for his own propaganda purposes.”
Zec did not consider himself a fine cartoonist in the mould of David Low or Vicky.
He was born in 1910 at number four George Street, now part of Gower Street and before the war he had worked for an advertising agency,
He was hired by the Daily Mirror just before the start of World War II to draw daily cartoons to accompany Cassandra’s column.
“He felt he was letting himself down drawing pictures of lavatory valves or whatever,” Donald says.
During his career he produced 1,500 cartoons, along with distinctive posters used by the government, such as the iconic image calling “Women of Britain Come Into the Factories”. But just a few examples of his work survive to this day.
“He destroyed the vast majority of cartoons,” Dr Tim Benson, the director of the Political Cartoon Gallery, explains as he stands before the handful of originals that survive.
“He didn’t value them, he had no idea that they were worth anything. That’s why it’s worth catching cartoons when they are jut done. You don’t catch cartoonists destroying their stuff now.”
Donald always disapproved of Philip discarding his cartoons onto the bonfire.
He adds: “Unfortunately, like a lot of artists who are not satisfied with their work, he didn’t value what he had done and never thought they were good enough to keep.
“Of course, whenever you work on a daily newspaper you work very much day by day and each day is a new start and to a large extent what was done yesterday didn’t matter. So Phil didn’t value his cartoons.”
The handful that survived owe their fate simply to good fortune. Donald says: “Editors would sometimes get a call from a member of the public asking for an original of a particular cartoon and Phil of course was always happy to part with it. I don’t ever recall him keeping a cartoon for himself.”
His work was filled with political fire and his cartoons were appropriated by the Labour Party for the 1945 General Election campaign.
“He became quite political,” Donald recalls, “and was for a time a socialist.
“But after the war he became disenchanted with them, especially with the unions whom he felt had too much power, and he moved to be more of a Liberal Democrat.
“His cartoons were exploited by the government for propaganda, but Phil would have hated being described as a propagandist,” Donald says.
For someone who was clearly so popular, his career after the war took a totally different trajectory and he went to the Herald (now Rupert Murdoch’s Sun) and then became art director of the Jewish Chronicle.
Donald continues: “To a large extent all the wonderful ammunition and draughtsmanship had been completed, it was mission accomplished.
“I think he found less to excite him in peace time, the heat had gone out of cartooning.”
“Towards the end of his life he went blind, which is an awful affliction for anybody but particularly if you are an artist.”
Philip died in 1983.
Despite just a few originals remaining, following exhaustive research at the newspaper library at Colindale more than 150 cartoons are featured in the biography, and his position in the pantheon of 20th-century British cartoonists is beginning to be reclaimed. Dr Benson says: “He was a wonderful draughtsman. They are not very funny, but more polemical and was quite prescient.”
He identifies The Debt Collector, a bony Nazi hand knocking on the door of Stalin’s USSR two days before the invasion in 1942. Donald adds: “In my mind, he is not sufficiently recognised for his contribution to cartoons. Some are particularly well drawn and I think in retrospect he is regarded as one of the most significant cartoonists of World War II.”

The exhibition runs at the Political Cartoon Gallery until August 8. To mark the anniversary of VE Day, an exhibition of cartoons featuring Winston Churchill is also opening at the gallery from May 26 until September 17. Phone 0207 580 1114 for details.