Cover Stories

The Sunday Times Magazine was once a driving force in British editorial design. Simon Esterson attends an exhibition of some classic covers to see if its legacy still holds

The ground is covered with bullets, the American flag is tied to a branch and in the foreground a young American soldier, propped up against a tree, avoids direct eye contact with us in Don McCullin’s cover for the Sunday Times Magazine in March 1968, “Vietnam: Old Glory, Young Blood”. This is the only coverline, placed in a corner strip together with the titlepiece.

The magazine was created in 1962 by Sunday Times owner Roy Thomson as a vehicle to sell colour advertising when newspapers themselves could only print in black and white. The problem of what editorial content came between the adverts was only a secondary concern to the owner. However, under its first editor Mark Boxer, joined a year later by Michael Rand as art director, The Sunday Times Magazine escaped its commercially-driven origins to become one of the strongest editorial products of the 60s and 70s. It evolved the template for the newspaper colour magazine and, until recent years, was still the best.

The exhibition at the Proud Gallery in Camden of a selection of covers gives us a reminder of the magazine’s outstanding qualities and some hint of what was happening on its inside pages. Of course, these were never covers that had to fight it out on the newstand. As today, the magazine came wrapped inside the broadsheet paper so there was no need for multiple shouting coverlines. The cover could do whatever the editors wanted and there’s a huge variety of techniques on show here. Different illustration styles, black and white and colour photography, images bleeding or framed and no fixed typographic system for the coverlines.

For the October 1965 car issue – “Automania” – artist Alan Aldridge painted a real Mini in five days using 100 tubes of gouache and six cans of spray paint, took the car into a studio and photographed it. “The man’s half is basically a racing car, the woman’s side represents home, security, prettiness,” says the contents page. The commission matches the iconic swinging London illustrator with the iconic sixties car and it’s real, not just a Photoshop montage.

In contrast, the August 1965 cover marking twenty years after Hiroshima has a simply-lit still life of a watch stuck at the moment when its owner’s world exploded. The secret was in the mix of subjects: “the glamour and the grit,” as Rand says.

The magazine has had some distinguished journalists as editors: Godfrey Smith, Magnus Linklater and Ron Hall amongst them, but from 1963 until 1994 art director Michael Rand was its ringmaster, overseeing the flatplan, the photography and an art department that included at various times David King, Roger Law, Clive Crook, John Tennant and Tony Chambers.

King and Law were much more than designers. Acting as visual journalists, they initiated stories, wrote and took photographs. The combination of Rand and King probably marks the period when the magazine’s design was at its strongest: powerful typography and dynamic sequences of pages, in particular on King’s interests in Russia and China.

Law began as an illustrator and the magazine published his 3D caricatures of politicians and public figures. Under the studio name Luck and Flaw, he worked with his old friend Peter Law assembling huge Plasticine tableux, including the cover “United States of Europe” from November 1976. From these caricatures emerged the idea for the duo’s Spitting Image television programme.

The world’s best photographers shot for the magazine. Apart from McCullin; Snowden and Eve Arnold shot reportage stories while, later on, the large format work of Ken Griffiths and Red Saunders stands out.

What function do the colour magazines have today? As newspapers now have colour pages and many more sections, the magazines have struggled to seem different to the rest of the package they come with. The sort of revelatory photography the Sunday Times magazine pioneered has to some extend been replaced by television or just appears in the paper itself. The largest piece of photojournalism you can see these days is the Guardian’s centrespread eyewitness shot in its news section.

Journalistically there’s now so much lifestyle, celebrity and just plain old PR pretending to be journalism around it’s easy to make magazines that just look like every other magazine rather than create something special. Here in Britain, the Observer’s cycle of monthly specialised magazines about sport, women, food and pop music is probably the most interesting trend.

For the true inheritor of the Sunday Times tradition you need to look abroad to the New York Times

Magazine. It still has great journalism and photography and its style section, “T”, is one of the best art directed magazines in the world.

Cover Story: The History of the Sunday Times Magazine Cover was held at Proud Camden gallery in London.

Simon Esterson is a magazine and newspaper designer.


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