Joe Lee was born in Burley-in-Wharfedale, near Leeds, on 16 May 1901. He won a scholarship to Leeds Grammar School, and showed such a talent for art that, in about 1915, his widowed mother managed to find enough money for him to attend Leeds College of Art. Here his contemporaries included Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, and Henry Carr. Lee left the School of Art in 1918, and in 1919 took a correspondence course with Percy V. Bradshaw, sending specimens of his work to London papers. Despite the rejections, his mother found £20 for him to go to London, where he freelanced until the money ran out. He then found a job in the art department of an advertising agency.
Lee's first published cartoon appeared in The Bystander in 1920, and in the following year, when still only nineteen, he became political cartoonist on the ailing Pall Mall Gazette, with a Press Gallery pass for the House of Commons. Strand Magazine described him as "the youngest of the men of his craft who have now an established reputation." Lee spent hours sketching from the Gallery, and never forgot the disillusionment of discovering "the contrast between a Member's official utterances on the floor of the House, and the private opinions that Member afterwards expressed in the smoking-room."
In 1923 the Pall Mall Gazette was absorbed by the Evening Standard, and Lee moved on to the Liverpool Daily Courier, as cartoonist and Art Editor. In 1924 he returned to London to work on the Sunday Express, and also did some work deputising for Strube on the Daily Express. However, at this time Lee had left-wing sympathies, and in 1926 he resigned from the Sunday Express over its coverage of the General Strike. He managed to support himself with freelance work, producing a daily political or social cartoon for the Daily Chronicle, as well as syndicated cartoons for Allied Newspapers, and cartoons for Bystander, Tatler, Sketch, London Opinion, Punch and others. He then persuaded the editor of the Daily Mail to take him on, and, although the initial project failed, Lee stayed on as general artist for the paper. In 1933 he even created a comic strip - "Pin-money Myrtle" - which ran for several years.
In 1934 Lee sent four trial cartoons to the London Evening News, one of which was published on 14 May 1934 as the first of a series entitled "London Laughs." In these cartoons Lee proved particularly adept at depicting cricket-loving colonels, chubby and slightly vulgar ladies with sparkling jewellery, and dapper City gents. With the outbreak of war in September 1939 the Evening News changed the title of the series to "Smiling Through." These were also popular, and within a few years Lee was producing two cartoons a day - "Smiling Through" for the Evening News, and another for the Allied Group of provincial papers, published in Manchester, Glasgow, Cardiff, Sheffield, Middlesborough, and Aberdeen. In May 1945 "Smiling Through" reverted to the original title of "London Laughs" - although in 1946, when Lee visited the United States, it briefly appeared as "New York Laughs".
In 1949 Lee moved to Wokingham, outside London, sending his cartoons to the Evening News by train. As a contemporary account noted, Lee travelled into London on only two or three days each week, drawing his cartoons at home. To satisfy the daily publishing schedule he worked on two cartoons simultaneously, using separate drawing-boards: "At 7.30 every morning the raw material for the cartoonist's work arrives in the form of a specially-early delivery of all the daily papers. During the next two hours he squeezes the news, which is so often mainly depressing, for humorous ideas. Then, with the best two in mind, he sets out for an hour's walk. As he crosses fields or calls on farm friends, 'London Laughs' take shape ready for drawing-board and pencil the moment he gets home. By lunch-time two have been lightly sketched in."
After sketching the roughs, Lee spent between two and four hours "inking in" the two cartoons, before sending them to the paper by the 10.10am train next day. Because he relied on the morning papers of the day before publication, Lee was always two days behind the news, and when his cartoons reached the Evening News the editor had the job of deciding "whether the laugh will 'hold' - whether events sustain the idea of the cartoon." If they had not been overtaken by events the cartoons went into the paper. In 1963 the CCGB presented Lee with an award for Special Services to Cartooning, and in July 1966, having become the longest running daily cartoonist in history, with almost 9,000 "London Laughs" appearing in the Evening News, he retired to Norwich.
Lee's politics gradually changed, and by now he was a "vociferous Tory." Even in retirement he continued to produce political cartoons three days a week for the local Eastern Daily Press, and to work for children's comics such as Wham! and Whizzer & Chips. In addition Lee drew advertisements, including some for British Railways. Lee was influenced by Rowlandson and Phil May, and worked mostly in black and white using a brush and watercolour. His second marriage was to the painter Kathleen Seaman, daughter of the writer and editor H.W. Seaman. Joe Lee died on 15 March 1975.
- Percy V. Bradshaw They Make Us Smile (London, 1942), pp.55-7.
- CSCC Archive, cutting of article by Felix Barker, 1951.
- CSCC Archive, cutting from Evening News, 29 April 1966.
- Mark Bryant Dictionary of Twentieth-Century British Cartoonists and Caricaturists (Ashgate, Aldershot, 2000), p.138.
119 catalogued originals [JL0001 - 5795, incomplete sequence]
1 catalogued original GAX00089