"The pen is mightier than the sword", a cliche old but true, was dusted off by the late columnist Jean Rook when she did an anniversary interview with her fellow Daily Express staffer, Michael Cummings. This was some years ago when Cummings was already on the way to establishing a record for a cartoonist's spell with a single newspaper. By the time he officially retired from Express Newspapers in 1990 he had worked there for over 40 years, and after several more years of freelancing for both the Daily and the Sunday Express, it was not far short of the half-century.
Michael Cummings was born in Leeds in 1919, in the aftermath of the Great War. His father was A.J. Cummings, a political columnist of the period who would achieve Fleet Street fame as the political editor of the old News Chronicle. Clearly the seriousness of the father was a major influence on the growing boy, who chanced to have an obvious instinct toward drawing.
The young Michael had a good education, starting with The Hall in Hampstead and moving on to Gresham's School in Norfolk. Then he went on to art school, studying at the Chelsea School of Art for three years before he was called up into the Royal Air Force. Able to make use of his artistic ability, the RAF made him a Draftsman and he was posted to the Air Ministry. Here he drew aeroplane parts for the duration, and on discharge promptly resumed his arts studies at Chelsea.
Cummings had been aiming at a career in political cartooning since his school days, and freelanced the odd sketches here and there. His first success came with the left-wing weekly Tribune in 1939, a paper that reflected his own political leanings. He returned to the Tribune after the war where the editor, Michael Foot, gave him steady work as an illustrator for the book review page. Now and then a political picture would get published, and it became increasingly obvious where Cummings's future lay.
In 1948 his father encouraged him to try for a cartooning job on the Daily Express, where he had heard there was a whisper that Giles, the country's leading cartoonist, was seeking some relief from the day-after- day drive of turning out the newspaper's regular editorial cartoon. Lord Beaverbrook, the paper's proprietor and a lifelong enthusiast for cartoons and cartoonists, spotted the young artist's potential and could see that Cummings' style, more serious and more life-like than that of Giles, would make an interesting contrast if the two cartoonists were alternated.
Unhappily for Cummings, his editor did not at first agree, and sacked the young man after a three month's trial. However, Beaverbrook intervened and insisted that the newcomer was given another chance. He was, and this time won through.
Cummings and Giles now drew three editorial cartoons a week each, with Cummings getting the extra one in the Sunday Express. The alternation of Giles' comical cartoon family up to their "Casey Court" capers in very realistic settings, with Cummings' hard-edged caricature of political personalities and parties in highly imaginative set-ups, worked brilliantly, and everyone was satisfied from editor and proprietor down to the reader in the bus.
Despite Cummings' caricatures of everyone from the Queen on down, he was appointed OBE in 1983, and by 1989 had published 5,000 cartoons. Many of these were republished in annual albums which ran from 1954. The first was entitled These Uproarious Years.