Joseph Lee established his reputation as a newspaper cartoonist with the Pall Mall Gazette at the age of nineteen. Working for various periodicals during the 1920s and early 30s, he joined the London Evening News in 1934, when he produced his initial ‘London Laughs’.‘London Laughs’ comprised the first series of non-political topical cartoons in a British newspaper, and would make Lee the longest-running daily cartoonist in history. Joseph Lee was born in Burnley-in-Wharfedale, Yorkshire, on 16 May 1901, and educated at Leeds Grammar School as the result of a scholarship. He showed such a talent for art that, in about 1915, his mother found enough money for him to attend Leeds College of Art for three years, with the intention of his becoming an architect. Fellow students included Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore.
In 1919, Lee took a correspondence course in cartooning with Percy Bradshaw’s Press Art School, and sent specimens of his work to London. Despite rejections, his mother found £20 for him to go to London to take up a scholarship at the Royal College of Art.
However, following his arrival in the city on Christmas Eve, he was unable to pay his way and so produced freelance cartoons, eventually securing a job in the art department of an advertising agency.
In 1920, at the age of nineteen, Lee joined the Pall Mall Gazette as daily cartoonist and political writer, and was soon described by the Strand as ‘the youngest of the men of his craft who now have an established reputation’. After eighteen months, the gazette was absorbed by the Evening Standard, and he moved to the LiverpoolDaily Courier as cartoonist and Art Editor. From there he went to the Sunday Express, and also did some work deputising for Strube on the Daily Express. However, as a committed socialist, he resigned from the Express soon after joining it, in response to the paper’s line on the General Strike.
Through the late 1920s, Lee supported himself with freelance work, producing a daily political or social cartoon for the Daily Chronicle (from 1926), as well as syndicated cartoons for Allied Newspapers, and contributions to the Bystander, the Sketch, Tatler, London Opinion, Punch and others. By the early 1930s, he had also become a general artist for the Daily Mail, most notably creating its comic strip ‘Pin-money Myrtle’ (in 1933) which ran for several years.
In 1934, Lee sent four trial cartoons to the Evening News. One of these was published on 14 May 1934, so instigating the series ‘London Laughs’. ‘London Laughs’ comprised the first non-political topical cartoons in a British newspaper, and would make Lee the longest-running daily cartoonist in history when he retired in 1966. During the Second War, the series was retitled ‘Smiling Through’ while, in 1946, it was briefly called ‘New York Laughs’, when Lee was staying in the city. In the same period, he produced another daily cartoon for the Allied Group of provincial papers.
While apparently influenced by Rowlandson and Phil May, Lee certainly followed in the line of H M Bateman, and had a similarly strong grasp of the relationship between the classes of British society. Inexhaustibly creative, he received an award for Special Services to Cartooning from the Cartoonists’ Club of Great Britain in 1963.
Though Lee retired to Norwich in 1966, he continued to produce political cartoons for the local Eastern Daily Press (though now exhibiting a Tory bias), and worked for such children’s comics as Wham! and Whizzer & Chips. In addition he drew advertisements for British Railways and others. He died on 15 March 1974.
His work is represented in the collections of the British Museum and the Cartoon Museum; and the British Cartoon Archive, University of Kent (Canterbury).