Michael Cummings was born in Leeds on 1 June 1919. His mother was an artist, and his father was A. J. Cummings, political editor of the Liberal News Chronicle. Cummings was brought up a Liberal, and as a child went on a picnic with Lloyd George. As a teenager, he later recalled, he even went through "a rabid socialistic phase."
Cummings was educated at The Hall, Hampstead, and at Gresham's School, Holt. From the age of sixteen he was determined to be a cartoonist , and by 1939 had already started drawing cartoons for the left-wing Tribune, then edited by Michael Foot. During the war Cummings was a draughtsman with the Air Ministry, drawing aeroplane parts, but from 1943 he also worked for Punch, at first signing himself "A. S. M. Cummings". From 1945 to 1948 Cummings studied at Chelsea School of Art, where he was taught by Graham Sutherland and specialised in etching. In 1948 he returned to Tribune, doing illustrations for the book review page, and - encouraged by Foot - occasional political cartoons.
Uncertain of his future as a cartoonist, Cummings took a course at the Institute of Education, University of London, and got a job as an art master at St Albans Girls' Grammar School. However, he only stayed a term because an opportunity opened up in Fleet Street. In 1948 Strube was sacked by the Daily Express, and Cummings' father gave him an introduction to Lord Beaverbrook. He passed him to the paper's editor, Arthur Christiansen, and in 1949 Cummings was given a three months' trial engagement. However, Christiansen did not think Cummings satisfactory, and he was saved only by the intervention of Beaverbrook, who thought he should be given another chance. According to Cummings, the turning point came when Beaverbrook received a call from Churchill praising Zillyboy Shinbag, his cartoon Labour MP. Churchill also wrote to Christiansen in December 1949 that "Cummings may well become one of the greatest cartoonists of our time."
By the General Election campaign of 1950 Cummings had found his feet. In 1953 he took over Punch's 'Essence of Parliament' illustrations from A. W. Lloyd, and in 1958 he also began regular work for the Sunday Express. As he alternated with Giles on the Daily Express, Cummings was now producing four cartoons a week for Beaverbrook. In his early work for the Tribune he had drawn with a fine line, but he developed a bolder style, with a solid black line, to suit the design of the Daily Express. He enjoyed the work, recalling that "we had incredible freedom under Beaverbrook": "He was an exceptionally brilliant journalist. He knew people would only do their best work if they were allowed to do what they bloody well liked...I was able to go for the Tory Party to my heart's content if I wanted to."
In fact Cummings followed a right-wing political line that was supported by the majority of the paper's readers, although his freedom was limited by the domestic nature of that readership. In 1963 the Profumo affair offered him a wonderful opportunity for cartoons, but, as he remembered, it also brought him into conflict with the editor of the Daily Express. "The best one I did was Keeler as a mermaid beckoning the Tory ship on to the rock with poor old Profumo's eyes popping out of his head with excitement. Being a mermaid, of course I gave her bare bosoms. The editor summoned me and stormed: 'Michael, I will remind you that this is a respectable family newspaper.' So back to the drawing board Christine went for masses of tumbling hair to hide her vital parts."
Cummings became a constant opponent of the Labour Party, and Harold Wilson was a particular target after becoming Prime Minister in 1964. However, Cummings joked that at first he found Wilson "incredibly difficult because he had a face that looked like the underside of a chamberpot": "I had to give him black and heavy bags under the eyes to make him look distinctive. Thank God he began to smoke a pipe." Labour MP Tony Benn, who was a constant target of Cummings, deplored "the viciousness and unpleasantness" of his work, noting that he "puts a hammer and sickle on anyone he doesn't agree with."
Other critics pointed to his attitude to coloured immigrants. A cartoon showing a boatload of golliwogs arriving in Britain caused complaints, and on 3 March 1965 a cartoon in the Daily Express, suggesting that Britain's immigration policy would lead to race riots, led to an unsuccessful protest to the Press Council that it was "a direct and calculated insult to coloured peoples both in Britain and America." Soon afterwards Cummings told one interviewer he believed that he was having an impact on this issue, "because of the angry letters." Cummings' cartoons on this subject continued to attract protest. On 21 April 1968 he reacted to the Race Relations Bill with a cartoon suggesting it would be used to force companies to employ unsuitable workers, which brought another unsuccessful protest to the Press Council.
The climax of protest came at the end of 1971. On 17 October 1971, NUJ members on the Scottish Daily Express objected so strongly to Cummings' cartoon for the next day's paper, featuring "Father O'Brezhnev Missionary to Ulster", that they stopped the presses, and over 350,000 copies were lost. The International Press Institute condemned this as "a serious threat to freedom of expression". Cummings' cartoon of two days later, published on 20 October 1971, suggested that Harold Wilson was more concerned for interned IRA members than for dead British soldiers, and brought another protest to the Press Council by a Labour MP. The editor, Ian McColl, explained that it was "part of the object of political cartoons to arouse strong feelings", and the complaint was rejected. On 24 November 1971 another Cummings cartoon, attacking trades unions, drew a letter of complaint to the Daily Express from the printing union, which Cummings proudly cut out and stuck in his album.
Cummings was strongly supported by his editors. On 6 August 1973 a cartoon about President Nixon compared the heat he was feeling over Watergate with a recent fatal fire in which thirty people died. McColl printed several critical letters from readers, and an explanation from Cummings, which led the Press Council to reject a complaint, although agreeing the cartoon was "undoubtedly offensive to some readers". In 1977 Cummings claimed to have "absolute freedom about the choice of ideas" for his Daily Express cartoons, but the editor, now Roy Wright, still had the final say in publication. As Cummings acknowledged, "if the editor doesn't like the cartoon he won't publish it": "What I usually do is rough out four or five ideas in pencil then present them to the editor in conference and we discuss which cartoon I'll do. There is a certain amount of give and take. He'll hardly ever oppose my choice if I am dead keen on one particular cartoon." Cummings roughed out his cartoons in pencil on A3 layout paper, and used a dip pen and brush with Pelikan black ink on Daler board - half imperial size - for the finished work. He would draw a new cartoon if the news changed, working up to 6.00pm - which he found "a terrible strain."
By 1989 Cummings had published 5,000 cartoons for the Daily Express and Sunday Express, but in the following year he was dropped by the Daily Express as too "dated". He certainly deplored the development of modern styles of cartooning - such as ITV's Spitting Image - which seemed to him "tasteless, sickly and sadistic." In 1990 he moved to the Daily Mail, but confessed two years later that "I have found it increasingly difficult to caricature real life": "The real world is becoming so lunatic and unhinged that it is going beyond caricature." In 1992 he began contributing to the Oldie.
Cummings retained his link with the Sunday Express. In 1994 he described his method of work, in which he produced five or six ideas for a cartoon, roughing them out quickly before showing them to Eve Pollard, the paper's editor. Pollard then chose her favourite. Cummings confessed that "sometimes I think one is my best and the editor doesn't, but my wife sees them all and usually says Eve Pollard has chosen the best one." In 1995 he started contributing to The Times, and in 1998 finally left the Sunday Express. He also drew for the French magazines L'Aurore, Paris Match and Candide.
Cummings saw himself as "a rude little boy speaking out at the awkward moment", but to many of his critics he was a bigoted racist and a reactionary. Amongst his fellow cartoonists, Vicky in particular hated Cummings, claiming - according to the journalist James Cameron - that "he was the only man entitled to draw with a Post Office nib": "He also despised his political attitudes and said he was a time-server." In 1983 Michael Cummings was awarded the OBE. He died in London on 9 October 1997.
- The Times, 26 May 1965, p.8 col.6, "Newspaper Picture Brings Censure."
- Michael Bateman Funny Way to Earn a Living: A Book of Cartoons and Cartoonists (Leslie Frewin, London, 1966), pp.9-14.
- The Times, 5 August 1968, p.3 col.2, "Protest Over Cartoon fails."
- The Times, 22 October 1971, p.2 col.4, "Cartoon 'Censoring' Protest"; 25 October 1971, p.2 col.5, "NUJ Resolute on Censorship"; 7 February 1972, p.4 col.3, "Press Council Rejects Cartoon Complaint"; 13 December 1973, p.7 col.1, "Summerland Confidential Memo Quoted".
- CSCC Archive, Keith Mackenzie's taped interview with Michael Cummings, 17 December 1976; transcript of Michael Cummings' interview by Rosette Glaser, 15 February 1977; transcript of Keith Mackenzie's interview with James Cameron, 14 July 1977.
- Michael Cummings "Masters of the Art of Fun", Daily Mail, 19 September 1992, p.25.
- Milton Shulman "It's Supermajor!", London Evening Standard, 6 August 1993, p.28.
- CSCC Archive, John Harvey "Stiletto in the Ink: British Political Cartoons", c.1994, pp.13-14.
- Geoffrey Levy "Cummings: A true gentleman with a pen he used like a rapier", Daily Mail, 10 October 1997, p.50.
- "Michael Cummings", The Times, 11 October 1997.
- Denis Gifford "Michael Cummings", Independent, 11 October 1997.
- The Express, October 10, 1997.
- Mark Bryant Dictionary of Twentieth-Century British Cartoonists and Caricaturists (Ashgate, Aldershot, 2000), pp.53-4.
External links: Obituary by Dennis Gifford published in The Independent 11th October 1997
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