Cartoonist Philip Zecs extraordinary work almost
caused the government to shut down the Daily Mirror, writes Joel
Philip Zec at work
The price of petrol has been increased by one penny
cartoon Zec produced after the World War II
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 Zecs
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 Mirrors 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.
several captions and Phils original was Petrol is
Dearer Now but that didnt 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
It was the mention of the cost that really riled Churchill and
Morrison and MI5 was charged with the task of investigating Zecs
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
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
He was hired by the Daily Mirror just before the start of World
War II to draw daily cartoons to accompany Cassandras 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 didnt value them, he had no idea that they were
worth anything. Thats why its worth catching cartoons
when they are jut done. You dont catch cartoonists destroying
their stuff now.
Donald always disapproved of Philip discarding his cartoons onto
He adds: Unfortunately, like a lot of artists who are not
satisfied with their work, he didnt 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 didnt matter. So Phil didnt
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 dont
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
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,
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 Murdochs 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 Stalins 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