Philip Zec (25 December 1909 – 14 July 1983) was a British political cartoonist and editor. Moving from the advertising industry to drawing political cartoons due to his abhorrence of the rise of fascism, Zec complemented the Daily Mirror editorial line with a series of venomous cartoons. He was considered such an opponent during the Second World War that the Germans had his name on a list to be arrested immediately when they invaded Britain. His cartoon on VE-day was said to have been a key factor in the Labour Party's 1945 general election campaign.
Zec was born in George Street (now Gower Street), central London, one of eleven children of Simon Zecanovskya, a Russian Jewish tailor from Odessa who, together with his family, had fled oppression in Tsarist Russia.
At thirteen Zec won a scholarship to the Saint Martin's School of Art and, upon graduating, initially joined Arks Publicity, an agency specialising in advertising for radio companies, before establishing his own commercial art studio working for advertising agencies including J. Walter Thompson. While working there he drew an illustration of the Flying Scotsman travelling at top speed at night.
In the early 1930s the Daily Mirror was relaunched along the lines of an American-style tabloid. Zec’s former copyeditor at Arks Publicity, William Connor, who was working for the paper, recommended Zec (who had been doing occasional work for the paper including on “Belinda Blue-Eyes”, a copy of the New York News’ cartoon strip “Little Orphan Annie” and scripted by Connor) for the role of political cartoonist.
Zec had no previous experience of drawing cartoons but was hired by H.G. Bartholemew and given complete creative freedom without editorial censorship. Working alongside Connor, who went under the pen-name “Cassandra”, Zec was to provide cartoons to accompany “Cassandra’s” column. With Connor occasionally providing captions for Zec’s drawings, the outbreak of war in 1939 provided the dominant influence in his work during this period.
Unlike the early war time cartoons of David Low and others, Zec depicted the Nazi regime as snakes and vultures, implying a sinister side in contrast to the "buffoons" drawn by his peers. Zec also extended his caricatures to the allies of Hitler, drawing Pierre Laval as a toad at a time when the Frenchman was looking to associate more closely with Hitler. Commentators have since ascribed this approach to a strong anti-Nazi sentiment borne out of Zec’s Jewish ancestry. It is said the feeling was mutual and that Adolf Hitler had placed Zec on his "black list" of individuals to be arrested following an invasion of Britain.
"The price of petrol" incident
Zec’s most infamous illustration was published in the Daily Mirror in 1942 and caused a political furore that threatened the existence of the newspaper and caused him to be labelled a traitor.
Appearing in the 6 March 1942 edition, the cartoon featured a merchant seaman adrift in rough waters clinging to the remains of a ship, apparently torpedoed by a German submarine. Beneath the picture, the caption read: “The price of petrol has been increased by one penny – Official.”
One of a series of pieces attacking profiteers, the original caption penned by Zec was to have been "Petrol is Dearer Now." According to Zec, the cartoon was intended to illustrate that wasting fuel had serious consequences in terms of the risks taken (and the lives lost) by sailors bringing it to the country. William Connor (pen name "Cassandra") suggested the revised caption, believing Zec’s effort lacked impact. Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Minister of Supply Herbert Morrison along with others in the government were outraged. They interpreted the cartoon as a comment that petrol companies were deliberately profiting at the expense of British lives - particularly those in the merchant navy. The cartoon was resurrected some 40 years later by Les Gibbard - with similar political consequences - as Great Britain again found itself at war.
Morrison called Zec’s piece a "wicked cartoon... worthy of Goebbels at his best” and telling the Mirror’s editor, Cecil Thomas, that “only a very unpatriotic editor could pass it for publication”. Ernest Bevin, Minister of Labour, argued that Zec's work lowered the morale of the armed forces and the general public.
Churchill called on MI5 to investigate Zec's background, which revealed nothing more sinister than the fact he had left-wing sympathies and found no evidence of him being involved in subversion. At the same time the Mirror’s register of shareholders was investigated to consider whether the paper should be shut down. The matter was debated in the House of Commons and, after MPs urged caution, the government settled on a severe reprimand.
"Don't lose it again"
Three years later, Zec’s VE Day contribution was widely acclaimed. Depicting a wounded soldier handing over a laurel representing victory and peace in Europe, the caption read: “Here you are. Don't lose it again!”
The cartoon had sufficient impact for Herbert Morrison to ask Zec to help with Labour publicity for the 1945 General Election with the politician dismissing his comments just three years previously on the premise that: “everybody makes mistakes”, Zec obtained a belated apology and, as a result on the morning of the election ‘’Don't lose it again!’’ was reprinted taking up the entire front page of the Mirror. The accompanying text suggested that the best way for the country to remain at peace was to vote for the Labour Party.
In 2005, a biography of him by his brother Donald Zec was published under the title "Don't Lose It Again!".
After the war Zec became a director of the Daily Mirror and eventually joined the board of the Mirror Group. Between 1950 and 1952 he was employed as editor of the Sunday Pictorial while continuing to draw for the Daily Mirror until he left in 1954, succeeded in the role of cartoonist by Victor Weisz. In 1958 he left the Mirror Group altogether, and moved to the Daily Herald (later The Sun) until 1961. Zec also worked as art director of the Jewish Chronicle and editor of New Europe.
- Donald Zec (journalist), "Zec, Philip (1909–1983)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 accessed 16 Sept 2008.
- Michael Freedland "Donald Zec: He scooped them all…", The Jewish Chronicle, 26 March 2009. Accessed 26 February 2012.
- Mark Bryant, Simon Heneage (eds), Dictionary of British Cartoonists and Caricaturists, 1730-1980: 1730-1980, Scolar Press, 1994, p. 247.
- British Cartoon Archive: Philip Zec, University of Kent.
- Cassandra: Reflections in a Mirror by Robert Connor, Cassell (1969)
- Zbynek Zeman, Heckling Hitler, University Press, 1987, p. 9.
- Hugh Cudlipp, Walking on the Water: Autobiography, Bodley Head, 1976, p. 136.
- Contentious Cartoon by Dr Tim Benson, PoliticalCartoon.co.uk
- Joel Taylor, "Strokes of Genius", Camden New Journal, 6 May 2005.
- Chris Horrie, Tabloid Nation: The Birth of the Daily Mirror to the Death of the Tabloid, London: André Deutsch, 2003.
- Colin Seymour-Ure, Prime Ministers and the Media, Blackwell, 2003, p. 262.
- Zec, Donald (2005). Don't Lose It Again! The Life and Wartime Cartoons of Philip Zec. London: Political Cartoon Society. ISBN 0-9549008-1-2.
|Editor of the Sunday Pictorial