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Victor “Vicky” Weisz: A permanent sense of sorrow

“He really wanted to use the cartoon to change the world, to try to engineer opinions.”

On 22 February 1966, the political cartoonist Victor “Vicky” Weisz took an overdose of sleeping pills and died at his flat in north London. He was 52. The previous day, he had filed a portrait of Denis Healey, a gracefully limned arrangement of simple, black lines and smudged eyebrows, which was used on the cover of that week’s New Statesman– the same issue that would carry his obituary.

Writing hastily to deadline, the then editor of the NS, Paul Johnson, praised Vicky’s generosity, wit and moral judgement. “Vicky loved his subjects,” he wrote, “even – perhaps above all – those whom he flayed most mercilessly. And they loved him.” A flurry of letters arrived the following week. Some doubted Vicky’s elan. The screenwriter Heinrich Fraenkel wrote of a lifelong weariness: “For those of us who knew Vicky as a young man, even as a boy, he never seemed to have been young at all.”

Weisz was born in Berlin in April 1913 (were he still alive, he’d be celebrating his centenary with the New Statesman). He studied at the Berlin University of the Arts and drew sports and theatre caricatures for the radical journal 12 Uhr Blatt until it was taken over by the Nazis in 1933. His father, Dezso Weisz, was a Jewish-Hungarian goldsmith who committed suicide in 1928.

Fearing the rise of Hitler (whom he had lambasted in the press), Vicky fled and arrived in London in 1935. He freelanced for the Evening Standard, Daily Telegraph and News Chronicle, where he became a staff cartoonist in 1941.

Vicky was assiduous and rarely satisfied with his work. Michael Foot called him “the best cartoonist in the world” yet the man doubted his own talent. He drew Hugh Gaitskell as a fiery, angular knight and John Foster Dulles as a refrigerator; he transformed Harold Macmillan into “Supermac”. Politicians relished seeing themselves depicted by Vicky and offered him notes.

Quick draw: a cartoon showing Vicky caricaturing Harold Macmillan, first published Octovber 1958.

Every Monday, at precisely 12 noon, Vicky would arrive at the NS offices on Great Turnstile to present his latest cartoons. In person, he appeared like one of his drawings: a small, broad-jowled man with a sweeping comb-over. He wore thick, round glasses and dressed in black. “He really wanted to use the cartoon to change the world, to try to engineer opinions,” said the cartoonist Stan Franklin. Norman Mackenzie, writing in the centenary issue of the NS, recalled Vicky having “a delightful sense of entertainment but a permanent sense of sorrow”.

One letter the NS received after his death came from Bishop William Simon, soon to be archbishop of Wales, who had written to Vicky in August 1960 to compliment him on a Macmillan cartoon. He received no reply. Four months later, on 25 December, a parcel appeared on Cathedral Green. It was the original drawing, wrapped in a parcel almost as large as the artist who had sent it, “with Christmas wishes”.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What makes us human?