Ark magazine

The history of Ark magazine, the Royal College of Art’s student publication which ran from 1950 to 1978, is explored in a new book put together by the college’s critical writing in art and design programme. Here, professor David Crowley and the book’s editorial team reveal how Ark attempted, despite its flux of content and staff, to stay abreast of rapidly changing times

“To publish a magazine is”, according to writer Gwen Allen, “to enter into a heightened relationship with the present moment.” Both topical and ephemeral, magazines express the contemporary moment in a way that few other cultural products can. When Jack Stafford, a student at the Royal College of Art, launched Ark in December 1950, there was a great deal at stake in being ‘contemporary’. Britain, emerging from the aftermath of the Second World War and the dissolution of Empire, and the Royal College of Art, then already more than a century old, were both reinventing themselves.

Post-war Britain – in the eyes of many commentators – was an intolerant place, with rigid morality and without real social mobility. Designer Alan Fletcher recalled the stifling atmosphere and all-pervading austerity of the postwar years: “Britain in the 1950s was indescribable, it was like a grey Salvation Army blanket”. But things were about to change. By the time Ark ceased publishing in 1978, the country had been through a series of major social, political and cultural reforms – higher education had been reformed and thoroughly expanded; the birth control pill had become freely available; homosexuality had been legalised and gender equality laws were now on the statute books. Over the same period, the class system had come under attack from a new generation of ‘kitchen sink’ writers and dramatists, and British Pop music had launched a global offensive. What is surprising about Ark – a student title published three times a year until the 1970s – is that it was more in sync with these social and cultural changes than any other magazine of its era.

Last year we hit on the idea of collecting the best material from the magazine and reprinting it in an anthology. It would be Ark’s greatest hits. Little did we know how challenging this task would be. The list of artists, designers and writers who contributed, including Sir Sacheverell Sitwell, the situationist Ralph Rumney, visionary architect Cedric Price, novelist Len Deighton and Martin Luther King – reads like a fantasy dinner party. In fact, so remarkable is the line up that it is easy to forget that Ark was a student magazine.

Even when we’d made our choices of which articles to reproduce, the task of representing the magazine’s appearance that we gave our designer, Jörg Schwertfeger, was just as hard. The design of Ark – its multifarious covers, page layouts, grainy black and white photographic centrefolds, multi-coloured transparent overlays, illustrations and even its unique advertisements – was treated with just as much care by its editors as the written content.

More than just a medium for documenting and reporting “viewpoints” as Stafford put it in his first editorial, Ark offered RCA designers an opportunity to explore print. The magazine made a regular feature of the visual essay for instance; two of which are reproduced in our anthology – Rumney’s The Leaning Tower of Venice in Ark 24 and poet George MacBeth’s The Humming Birds in Ark 38 [shown here and on the page following this spread]. With their photographic content, framing and storyboard-like form, both essays point to a kind of cinematic sensibility then being introduced to book and magazine publishing elsewhere – most notably in Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore’s The Medium is the Massage in 1967.

So why was Ark so inventive and so long-lived? The answer might lie in the changeability of the teams of writers and designers who put it together. Most of its editors were students of the Painting School at the RCA who had shown talent as writers, and were given a full sabbatical fourth year to prepare three issues. Art direction and the layout of the adverts which appeared in Ark were the task of the School of Graphic Design (though the designers usually only got one shot at the role). This practical arrangement had real benefits: articles on art and design appeared in most issues, making the magazine less narrowly specialist than its rivals. Moreover, when Pop Art swept through British art in the 1950s, it was precisely the openness of the painters to the graphic image – pioneered by Ark – which made the RCA a hot spot for Pop.

In his preface to our book, Rick Poynor speculates on the benefits of this turn-over of talent with an eye on magazine publishing today: “A redesign is a major event. It must be given careful thought and introduced to readers as a necessary and positive departure. Evolution in editorial content is gentler and is most noticeable when a new editor takes over, though it can still take time to become apparent. A successfully installed editor will occupy the role for years. Ark’s mission, on the other hand, required continual transformation.”

Transformation does not mean revolution. And in fact tension between the editorial teams and the college management was rare, perhaps surprisingly so. Good circulation figures (3,000 copies per issue in 1963) and the prestige attached to the title ensured college support, even when the magazine recorded a financial loss. This said, Ark 34 (1963) which featured caustic images including a montage of Princess Margaret’s face on a bikini-clad body [shown top left on previous spread], tested the college’s promise of editorial freedom and the issue was pulped.

Ark and its editors were in tune with the social and cultural changes underway in post-war Britain until the middle of the 1960s, often acting as a kind of cultural barometer forecasting social and cultural change and highlighting the anxieties of living in the Cold War. It is perhaps surprising then that at the end of the decade, the magazine was largely untouched by the desire for social change that others felt so strongly elsewhere in Britain. Students were being radicalised by the war in Vietnam and opposition to Apartheid in South Africa; by the rise of feminism; and by the spread of various branches of revolutionary politics such as Maoism. Ark had little to say on any of these themes. After being in sync with social changes underway in Britain, it dropped the pace.

Closely tied to the college and dependent on the advertising that funded the production of what remained a relatively up-market title, it was unable to mount the kind of significant critique of social conventions, consumerism and of power which was being demanded by the Counter Culture. That was the moment when Ark seemed to lose its contemporaneity. It struggled thereafter, with college staff stepping in to keep the magazine alive in the 1970s.

This was a relatively rapid fall from grace. Only a few years earlier in 1963, Mark Boxer, editor of the Sunday Times Colour Section, had written of Ark: “The pop-graphic movement may be instant nostalgia, but this is the very guts of visual magazines.” Boxer’s idea of instant nostalgia hints at Ark’s clairvoyance: its editors were quick to spot new ideas and images on the rise. But, during its heyday in the 1950s and early 1960s, Ark did much more than that: its writers, authors and designers seized the magazine as a means of participating in the present. 1

David Crowley is head of the critical writing in art and design programme at the Royal College of Art in London. Ark: Words and Images from the Royal College of Art Magazine, 1950-1978 is written and edited by the programme’s students. It is available from cwadrca.bigcartel.com; £15

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