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Philip Zec (1909–1983): The Controversial Political Cartoonist Who Shaped British History

British political cartoonist

Philip Zec

Philip Zec, born on December 25, 1909, and passing away on July 14, 1983, distinguished himself as a British political cartoonist and editor. Transitioning from the advertising industry to the realm of political satire due to his profound disdain for the ascent of fascism, Zec made a substantial impact. His contributions to the Daily Mirror included a series of incisive and biting cartoons aligned with the newspaper’s editorial stance. Notably, he found himself on the Nazis’ list of individuals earmarked for immediate arrest in the event of a British invasion during World War II. Furthermore, Zec’s VE-day cartoon is renowned for its pivotal role in shaping the Labour Party’s 1945 general election campaign.

Philip Zec

Born: 25 December 1909

Died: 14 July 1983

Nationality: British

Occupation: Political Cartoonist, Editor

Notable Work: VE Day Cartoon, “The price of petrol” Cartoon

Legacy: Influential political cartoonist during WWII

Philip Zec cartoon

A Venomous Pen and the Daily Mirror 

Upon joining the Daily Mirror, Zec’s distinctive cartoons complemented the newspaper’s editorial direction. His illustrations, characterized by their biting commentary, left an indelible mark. Notably, during the tumultuous times of World War II, Zec found himself on the Nazis’ list of individuals to be immediately arrested in the event of a British invasion.

VE-Day: A Cartoon That Shaped History 

One of Zec’s most iconic moments came on VE-Day, where his cartoon played a pivotal role in shaping the course of the Labour Party’s 1945 general election campaign. His pen wielded a profound influence on the political landscape.

Early Life and Artistic Journey 

Born into a family of eleven children to Simon Zecanovskya, a Russian Jewish tailor who had fled oppression in Tsarist Russia, young Philip Zec displayed his artistic talents early. He earned a scholarship to the Saint Martin’s School of Art at thirteen. Following his graduation, Zec embarked on a career that initially led him to Arks Publicity, an agency specializing in radio advertising. Remarkably, at only 19, he established his commercial art studio, serving advertising agencies such as J. Walter Thompson.

Philip Zec cartoon

The Daily Mirror Era 

In the early 1930s, the Daily Mirror transformed, adopting the format of an American-style tabloid. It was during this time that William Connor, Zec’s former copy editor at Arks Publicity, who had joined the paper, recommended Zec for the role of political cartoonist. Zec became a part of the Daily Mirror team in 1937.

Despite having no experience in cartooning, Zec was granted complete creative freedom by H. G. Bartholomew, the Mirror’s editor at the time. Working with Connor, who used the pen name “Cassandra,” Zec provided illustrations to accompany “Cassandra’s” column. As World War II unfolded in 1939, it became a defining influence on Zec’s work.

In stark contrast to the caricatures of his contemporaries, Zec portrayed the Nazi regime as snakes and vultures, highlighting a sinister aspect rather than portraying them as mere buffoons. He extended this approach to Hitler’s allies, drawing figures like Pierre Laval as toads. This anti-Nazi sentiment was deeply rooted in Zec’s Jewish heritage, and it was reciprocated by Adolf Hitler, who included Zec on his “black list” of individuals to be arrested in the event of a British invasion.

In 1941, Zec designed a now-iconic propaganda poster titled “Women of Britain – Come Into the Factories.”

 

“The Price of Petrol” and Controversy 

In 1942, Zec’s cartoon titled “The Price of Petrol” ignited a political firestorm that threatened the very existence of the Daily Mirror and cast Zec as a traitor. Published in the March 6, 1942, edition, the cartoon depicted a Merchant Navy seaman adrift at sea, clinging to the wreckage of a ship seemingly torpedoed by a German submarine. The caption beneath read: “The petrol price has been increased by one penny – Official.”

Originally, Zec intended the caption to be “Petrol is Dearer Now.” His goal was to illustrate the severe consequences of wasting fuel, including the risks faced by seamen transporting it. However, William Connor, using the pen name “Cassandra,” suggested the revised caption, believing that Zec’s initial effort lacked impact.

This cartoon provoked intense reactions from figures like Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Minister of Supply Herbert Morrison, who accused Zec of insinuating that petrol companies profited at the expense of British lives, especially those in the merchant navy. The controversy resurfaced four decades later, courtesy of Les Gibbard, with similar political consequences as Britain once again faced war.

Morrison went as far as to dub Zec’s piece a “wicked cartoon worthy of Goebbels at his best.” He conveyed his displeasure to Cecil Thomas, the Mirror’s editor, asserting that only an unpatriotic editor would allow such publication. Ernest Bevin, the Minister of Labour, argued that Zec’s work negatively impacted the morale of the armed forces and the public.

Churchill even called on MI5 to investigate Zec’s background, which uncovered no evidence of subversion beyond Zec’s left-wing sympathies. Simultaneously, the Mirror’s shareholder registry was scrutinized to assess whether the newspaper should be shut down. After thorough deliberation in the House of Commons, the government opted for a severe reprimand.

Philip Zec (1909–1983)

“Don’t Lose It Again” – VE Day 

Zec’s contribution to VE Day resonated deeply with the public three years later. Depicting a wounded soldier offering a laurel symbolizing victory and peace in Europe, the caption read: “Here you are. Don’t lose it again!” This cartoon had such a profound impact that Herbert Morrison sought Zec’s assistance in Labour Party publicity for the 1945 General Election. In a remarkable turn of events, Morrison issued a belated apology, and on the morning of the election, “Don’t lose it again!” graced the entire front page of the Mirror. The accompanying text urged the nation to vote for the Labour Party as the path to lasting peace.

Post-War Contributions and Legacy 

Following World War II, Zec assumed the director role at the Daily Mirror and eventually joined the Mirror Group’s board. From 1950 to 1952, he served as the editor of the Sunday Pictorial while continuing to create cartoons for the Daily Mirror until his departure in 1954. He was succeeded by Victor Weisz, better known as ‘Vicky.’ In 1958, Zec bid farewell to the Mirror Group and joined the Daily Herald, where he remained until 1961. Beyond his editorial work, Zec also served as a director at The Jewish Chronicle for 25 years and assumed the role of editor at the New Europe newspaper.

The Final Years and Legacy 

In the later years of his life, Philip Zec lost his sight. He passed away on July 14, 1983, at the Middlesex Hospital in London.

In 2005, a biography penned by his brother, Donald Zec, was published under “Don’t Lose It Again!” – a poignant reference to Philip Zec’s memorable VE Day cartoon. This biography is a testament to the enduring impact of Philip Zec’s political cartoonist and editor work.

Read also: William Ellis Green (1923 – 2008)

FAQ about Philip Zec

1. Who was Philip Zec?

Philip Zec was a British political cartoonist and editor known for his influential work during World War II.

2. What made Philip Zec famous?

Zec gained fame for his controversial political cartoons, including one that led to a political furor during the war.

3. What was his most famous cartoon?

Philip Zec’s most famous cartoon was the VE Day cartoon, featuring a wounded soldier handing over a laurel, representing victory and peace in Europe.

4. Why did one of Philip Zec’s cartoons cause controversy?

A cartoon by Philip Zec published in 1942, titled “The price of petrol,” caused controversy as it was interpreted as a comment that petrol companies profited at the expense of British lives during the war.

5. What was the impact of Philip Zec’s work on the 1945 General Election?

Zec’s work, especially the VE Day cartoon, played a significant role in the Labour Party’s 1945 general election campaign, leading to a belated apology for his earlier controversial cartoon.

6. What was Philip Zec’s legacy?

Philip Zec’s legacy lies in his influential political cartoons that shaped public opinion during World War II and beyond, despite the controversies they stirred.

7. When and where did Philip Zec pass away?

Philip Zec died on 14 July 1983 in the Middlesex Hospital, London.

8. Is there a biography of Philip Zec?

Yes, a biography titled “Don’t Lose It Again!” by his brother, Donald Zec, was published in 2005, recalling the caption to Philip Zec’s famous VE Day cartoon.

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