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This article is taken from PN Review 111, Volume 23 Number 1, September - October 1996.

Theory: a Day in the Capital John Needham

The old man scrutinising the Lowe cartoons on the gallery wall could be a cartoon himself. Tall, thin and stoop-shouldered, with a hooked nose and a sharp eye, he looks like a stork in the shallows, poised to strike. The 'belt' holding up his white flannel trousers seems to be a tie - regimental, probably, or collegial - and his linen jacket and straw boater, though well-kept, seem rather worn. A retired army officer perhaps, but, in appearance at least, the reverse of a Colonel Blimp. He would have looked at home in Tonbridge Wells half a century ago.

My perception of him is evidently influenced by the works on display - Lowe's classic anti-fascist cartoons of the nineteen-thirties, with their planes, tanks, and propaganda, and great dictators; all the modern machinery of wars and lies. They seem almost to sum up 'the twentieth century'. And Lowe's own style, striped down to a few bold strokes, seems quite in keeping.

My historicising impulse was triggered even as we approached the exhibition hall - the New Zealand National Library - by the striking contrast between its modernist walls, with their serried ranks of concrete wedges, and the old parliament buildings across the road, with their newly restored Victorian-classical marble pillars. We - I'm with a friend whose current occupation is literary biography - have just failed to penetrate the latter. A trail of builder's ramps and walkways led us to a side entrance with plate-glass sliding ...


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