Britain in print: A history of UK magazines

A new survey of British magazine design contains plenty of forgotten gems, but falls short of reflecting the very best in editorial inventiveness and art direction

A History of British Magazine Design; Anthony Quinn, V&A Publishing, £30

There have been very few books about the history of magazine design and William Owen’s Magazine Design, published a whopping 25 years ago, is still the most reliable international survey for anyone with a serious interest in the subject. Now, in Anthony Quinn’s A History of British Magazine Design, we have the first historical overview of national magazine publishing from the 1840s to the present.

The task is gargantuan. Anyone who has gone through the pages of an entire series of just one long-running magazine in a library, perhaps while undertaking research for a thesis, will know what is involved. The back cover of Quinn’s book lists 162 magazines – from About Town to The Illustrated London News, from Punch to Zembla – which feature in his survey, but even this is only a fraction of what has been published. Quinn has relied heavily on the holdings of the National Art Library at the Victoria and Albert Museum, the book’s publisher. To narrow the scope, he has concentrated on consumer magazines, though he does include a few trade and specialist titles “where relevant”. Although this makes sense in purely logistical terms, it runs the risk of skewing the story of magazine design, since it’s entirely possible that non-consumer titles feature significant visual innovations, while the newsstand is prone, by definition, to more formulaic treatments.

Photographic reportage
An early example of photographic reportage, this is a page from a four-page supplement by Phil Robinson, ‘An amateur photographer at the zoo’, was published in the September 5, 1885 issue of The Graphic (The Graphic Ltd). The engraved illustrations were made from the photographs of CJ Hinxman.

As so often with graphic design books, where the aim is to pack in piles of illustrations, author and publisher strike an awkward balance between detailed historical exposition and glitzy showcase. The longest text is the introduction, which jumps around distractingly, and each chapter begins with a two-page outline followed by thematic spreads with captions for each magazine. “The mass-market weekly”, for instance, covering 1880 to 1920, addresses the photographic era, the power of advertising, upmarket magazines, the popular women’s market and weekend newspaper supplements. As with the other chapters dealing with the early decades, Quinn includes some fascinating material that only social historians are likely to know, such as the demure Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, launched in 1852. In one of the book’s most telling early examples, he shows all four pages of a report about a zoo [see following spread], published by the Graphic in 1885, with 15 photographs fully integrated into the text. In the coming decades, this revolutionary half-tone process would make possible a new international genre of highly designed magazines based on photojournalism.

In his preface, Quinn notes that this isn’t a book intended only for designers, but he doesn’t explain how conceiving the survey in broader terms (if that is what he has done) has influenced his selection and commentary. Despite the clear promise made by its title, A History of British Magazine Design often seems to lose sight of design and becomes a rambling history of magazine publishing; even the captions are full of digressions. A spread about “Image manipulation in the 1950s” shows how a photo of the actor Douglas Fairbanks was inserted into a picture of Woman’s Own running on the presses, so that he appears to pick up a copy of the magazine. Years before Photoshopping became an issue, this is a flagrant photographic fabrication and it might have prompted an examination of the prevalence and ethics of these techniques in magazine journalism. Instead, Quinn spends b half a column talking about how the repro department that altered the image had been asked in 1941 to adapt their ultra-fine screens to help enrich uranium – a total red herring.

The Economist (August 22, 1959), designed by Reynolds Stone, published by Economist Newspaper Ltd; Motif (November 1958), drawing by Charles Mozley, published by Shenval Press; About Town (March 1961), Cornmarket Press; Flight (May 24, 1945), published by Flight Publishing
The Economist (August 22, 1959), designed by Reynolds Stone, published by Economist Newspaper Ltd; Motif (November 1958), drawing by Charles Mozley, published by Shenval Press; About Town (March 1961), Cornmarket Press; Flight (May 24, 1945), published by Flight Publishing

If the images of magazines published before the 1960s are truly representative, then it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that British magazine design was sedate and unadventurous in its early days, when measured against, say, the astonishing graphic inventions of Vu in Paris in the 1930s. In my view, though, the book underplays the photographic impact of Lilliput, Weekly Illustrated and Picture Post. If Industrial Arts from the 1930s can be included, then why not Robert Harling’s exquisitely tailored Typography magazine from the same era? Twenty years later, Quinn leaves out Herbert Spencer’s Typographica, while including Ruari McLean’s Motif, which was nowhere near as well designed, though Motif has much finer spreads and covers than the ones he selects. And why no place for the magnificent Architectural Review?

Tory magazine
‘Tory’ spread from About Town (March 1961, cover shown on previous page), Cornmarket Press. Terence Donovon photographed prime minister Harold Macmillan for the issue, under the art editorship of Tom Wolsey. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

As the 1960s begin, we are on better travelled ground and there are a good number of canonical images: Tom Wolsey’s ‘Tory’ spread, with massive type, from About Town, Harri Peccinotti’s ‘Why can’t they stay at home?’ cover about immigration for Nova, and a cracking 1965 cover from Mark Boxer’s shortlived London Life, illustrated by future rock star Ian Dury, who was studying at the RCA. Then we have the Sunday Times supplement, Oz, Time Out, Spare Rib, and on to The Face, i-D, City Limits and my old stamping ground, Blueprint, shown in one of the book’s many clunky juxtapositions b on the same spread as Gruner & Jahr’s women’s magazine Prima, notorious for its overcrowded pages, which have since become ubiquitous. After that the book tails off in a gaudy mishmash – Big K magazine, anyone? Is the lad mag Maxim, plastered with clumsy cover lines, really worth a full page? Recent independent magazines, which might have furnished plenty of signs of contemporary renewal, receive a single, uncommitted spread at the end.

: A montage made from 15 photographs by Bert Hardy showing the arrival of Queen Elizabeth II at the Paris Opéra from Picture Post (April 20, 1957), Hulton. “Some of the joins can be seen on close scrutiny, if one follows the lens distortion at the edges of the original images,” writes Quinn. “Also, note that several of the Republican Guard in polished helmets lining the staircase have not drawn their sabres, suggesting that those parts of the montage were taken before the Queen entered the room”
A montage made from 15 photographs by Bert Hardy showing the arrival of Queen Elizabeth II at the Paris Opéra from Picture Post (April 20, 1957), Hulton. “Some of the joins can be seen on close scrutiny, if one follows the lens distortion at the edges of the original images,” writes Quinn. “Also, note that several of the Republican Guard in polished helmets lining the staircase have not drawn their sabres, suggesting that those parts of the montage were taken before the Queen entered the room”

Anyone who loves magazines and cares about their design will gravitate to this survey because it offers a display stand of material, much of it, especially the older pieces, unavailable elsewhere. What it lacks, a fatal flaw in a history, is a firm critical, narrative and aesthetic sense of what is highly significant in the development of design and what is of secondary interest, b or entirely irrelevant to the theme. Certain figures made notable innovations – Stefan Lorant, Herbert Spencer (entirely absent here), Tom Wolsey, Michael Rand, Terry Jones, Neville Brody – and their work could have been explored much more thoroughly. The only way to elucidate art direction is to reproduce entire features; single spreads are never enough. Too many spreads are shown at a miniscule, single-column width, while covers are pointlessly enlarged. The book needed more rigorous editing. It has no bibliography and V&A Publishing must know this is a vital tool for readers and researchers in any study aiming to be a serious investigation of its subject. 1

A History of British Magazine, Design by Anthony Quinn is published by V&A Publishing; £30. More details at vam.ac.uk

Anthony Quinn, author of A History of British Magazine Design, responds to Rick Poynor’s review, below:

Rick Poynor’s review of my book, A History of British Magazine Design is perceptive in assessing its strengths and limitations [‘Britain in Print’, CR August, above]. Prime among the latter is the neglect of trade magazines. But, as he says, surveying 170 years was a gargantuan task. In the 1990s alone, there were 7,000 titles, something fewer than half of them consumer. ‘BMD’ – as the book is known at the V&A – was seven years in the making; bringing in trade publications would have ensured it never came out!

There has been relatively little published about magazines: contrast Revolutions from Grub Street, a business history of magazines in 288 pages, with the seven-volume Cambridge History of the Book in Britain. Further, to read some media texts, you would think magazines did not exist. However, writers are waking up to magazines and 50 books now quote from my website, magforum.com. Hopefully, BMD will provide inspiration for more.

Going forward, the review makes several excellent suggestions, more runs of article spreads in particular. He wishes I had expanded the 1950s picture manipulation pages, but going into the many such issues BMD raises would have changed the nature of the book as an overarching survey. Readers can, though, pick up on the dozen other examples of picture manipulation, from 1887 to 2009.

Everyone who sees BMD asks about this magazine or that, and Mr Poynor questions Big K, but you only have to turn to an early i-D to see the influence of the dot matrix aesthetic that permeated such computer user magazines.

Given the ground to be covered, many BMD pages try to kill several birds with one stone. The use of Motif from 1960 that the review mentions is one. Here is Penguin books (and Eagle) designer Ruari McLean championing the sans-serif, as he had done since the 1930s. The spreads show a type by the young Matthew Carter, who comments that the incentive for type designing “has passed from book-production to publicity and advertising” – a perceptive comment. The backlash came four years later from Ken Garland’s First Things First and was repeated in 2000.

Finally, McLean wrote Magazine Design in 1969, the first book of its kind. The typographer and House & Garden editor Robert Harling savaged the book in the Times Literary Supplement, arguing that “magazine art editors seem almost as big a menace to the freedom of the printed word as Irish priests and Greek colonels”. Now, there is a topic for debate.

More from CR

Mondial: a beautiful new brand magazine from Rapha

With some thought-provoking content and an aesthetic inspired by Twen and vintage cycling magazines, Rapha’s new publication Mondial offers a stylish alternative to sport and gear-focused titles, and a beautiful showcase of the brand’s products.

Lecturer Design Management

Kingston University

Design Assistant

Cultureshock Media