Philip Zec was born in London on 25 December 1909, the fourth of the eleven children of Simon Zecanovsky, a Russian émigré tailor, and his wife Leah Oistrakh. Philip Zec's grandfather had been a rabbi, and his parents had come to England to escape tsarist oppression.
Zec attended Stanhope Elementary School and, at the age of thirteen, got a scholarship to St Martin's School of Art, after which he moved into commercial illustration. Zec joined Arks Publicity, an agency whose managing director owned Pye Radio, and which specialised in advertising for radio companies. Zec became Art Director, and worked on several campaigns with a copywriter named Bill Connor, who became his best friend. In 1932 Connor left to join the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, and Zec left to set up his own commercial and photographic studio, working for advertising agencies.
At J. Walter Thompson Connor worked with Basil Nicholson, who in 1931 had created the famous "Night-Starvation" advertising strip for Horlicks. In 1933 Guy Bartholomew ("Bart") was appointed editorial director of the Daily Mirror, and decided to revive its fortunes by transforming it into an American-style tabloid. The aim was to attract fresh advertising revenue by targeting young working-class readers with disposable income, and he hired the J. Walter Thomson agency to assist in the redesign and carry out market research. The agency worked very closely with the Daily Mirror, and in 1935 Connor actually became a writer on the paper, producing a column over the signature "Cassandra." Then, when Hugh Cudlipp left as Features Editor in 1937, Nicholson took his place.
Nicholson sent Connor to ask Zec's advice on finding a political cartoonist to work alongside W.K. Haselden, the Daily Mirror's general cartoonist. As Zec recalled, "I had been doing a little bit of work and helping them to start some strips on the American style." These included Steve Dowling's "Belinda Blue-Eyes" - a copy of the New York News' "Little Orphan Annie" - which began in 1936 and was scripted by Connor. Nicholson and Connor were considering hiring Louis Raemaekers, famous for his work during the First World War, who was then drawing the Flippie Flink cartoon for the Dutch newspaper Telegraaf. Zec pointed out that Raemaekers was approaching seventy, so Connor asked if Zec could do the job. "I thought he was insane", Zec recalled, "as I'd never done a cartoon before and didn't propose to." However, he produced some trial examples, and Bart approved them, saying "I want one of these every day, starting now."
Zec becamne Daily Mirror political cartoonist in 1939, but was uncertain what Bart required. He showed him one of the early cartoons, and asked "Is that what you wanted?" As Zec recalled, "he didn't like that a bit", and replied "What do you mean is that what I wanted? Is that what you want? Whatever you've got the nerve to draw, I've got the nerve to publish." Zec was given complete freedom. He thought up his cartoon in the morning, and had it finished by 1.00pm. He then handed it to the blockmaker for the first edition, which was ready for distribution by 6.00pm. "There was no censorship, directorial or editorial, of any kind", he recalled: "I was free to do exactly as I pleased. I did my one for the day and sent it to the blockmaker and that was it."
Zec and Connor worked in the same room, and Connor often wrote the captions for the cartoons. Zec recalled that "if he had an idea for a cartoon I'd use it - if it was a good one." He admired the work of David Low, later recalling them as "perfect cartoons": "I couldn't see how they could possibly be improved." However, Zec did not want to copy Low's style, and, after the outbreak of war in 1939, put more venom into his drawings, preferring to depict Nazis as snakes, vultures, toads or monkeys rather than the strutting buffoons of Low's cartoons. Along with Low, Neb, Butterworth and many others, his name appeared on Hitler's death-list.
Zec's most notorious Daily Mirror cartoon appeared on 5 March 1942, and showed a torpedoed sailor clinging to a raft, over the caption "The Price of Petrol Has Been Increased by One Penny - Official." This was one of a series attacking profiteers, and the original caption, which Connor rewrote, was "Petrol is Dearer Now." A storm of controversy, and government condemnation, followed. The Home Secretary, Herbert Morrison, described it as worthy of "Goebbels at his best plainly meant to tell seamen not to go to sea to put money in the pockets of the petrol owners." Zec was horrified at this interpretation, but questions were asked in the House of Commons, and for a time it seemed that Morrison might close the Daily Mirror, as he had the Daily Worker.
In contrast, Zec's VE-day cartoon was widely acclaimed. It depicted a wounded soldier handing over a laurel representing victory and peace in Europe, and the caption read "Here you are. Don't lose it again!" When Herbert Morrison asked Zec to help with Labour publicity for the 1945 General Election, Zec reminded him that he had branded him a traitor during the war. Morrison said that "everybody makes mistakes", but Zec pressed for, and received, an apology. On election day Zec's "Don't lose it again!" cartoon was reprinted by the Daily Mirror, and occupied almost the entire front page.
After the war Zec became a director of the Daily Mirror, and head of its strip-cartoon department. In 1950 he succeeded Hugh Cudlipp as editor of the Sunday Pictorial, remaining in the post until 1952. He continued to draw for the Daily Mirror, and in 1954 gave Reg Smythe his first staff job on a newspaper, choosing him over Derek Fullarton to draw the Daily Mirror's regular "Laughter at Work" cartoon. Later that year he finally gave up drawing cartoons for the Daily Mirror, where he was succeeded as cartoonist by Victor Weisz ("Vicky"). In 1958 he left the Mirror Group altogether, and moved to the Daily Herald as Political Cartoonist, remaining for only three years and deciding not to renew his contract.
Zec spent twenty-five years as a director of the Jewish Chronicle, and was also Editor of New Europe. Philip Zec died in Middlesex Hospital, London, on 14 July 1983.
- CSCC archive, transcript of interview with Philip Zec by Keith Mackenzie, 8 June 1978.
- Terence Lancaster "Portrait of the Artist", Daily Mirror, 15 July 1983, pp.6-7.
- The Times, 15 July 1983, p.14 col.6, "Mr Philip Zec: Fleet Street Cartoonist."
- Reg Smythe with Les Lilley The World of Andy Capp (Titan Books, London, 1990), p.18.
- Mark Bryant Dictionary of Twentieth-Century British Cartoonists and Caricaturists (Ashgate, Aldershot, 2000), p.250.
40 catalogued originals [PZ0001 - 0040]
1 box photographs of cartoons from pages of book
1 large photocopy on board
50s; 60sback to top