The magazine that started it all

A 50-year retrospective show celebrates the great photography in The Sunday Times Magazine, but little about its design history is revealed

The Sunday Times is a strange beast. The main section is one of the few remaining broadsheet newspapers in the UK, although its folded pages wrap round a series of tabloid sections, bound supplements and magazines. Only the Sunday Telegraph competes in terms of volume of pages; other ‘serious’ Sundays – The Observer and The Independent for instance – have contracted in recent years as economic reality hits home. Yet the Sunday Times continues to pump out multiple lifestyle sections whilst, along with its daily sibling The Times, losing money for their parent company, News International.

Like its broadsheet format, the paper itself is reassuringly old-school. I hadn’t looked at it for several years and found it remarkably familiar; of course there have been changes but they’re minor. While the daily edition of The Times has been successfully reinvented as a tabloid with the help first of Neville Brody and latterly design director Jon Hill, the Sunday newspaper feels desperately overdue for a revamp.

How very different from 50 years ago. In 1962, as a new exhibition at London’s Saatchi Gallery highlights, the newspaper responded to calls for colour ad sites by launching the first colour newspaper supplement. Within the resolutely black and white world of newspapers the idea of a colour magazine was seen as absurd. Even then-owner Roy Thompson regarded the idea with suspicion, predicting that it would be a disaster.

Instead, the new Sunday Times Magazine was an immediate success. Whether by design or through the kind of serendipity that new launches often rely on, the magazine arrived just as the swinging 60s kicked off. The two quickly became synonymous. Although launch editor Mark Boxer has described the influence of news weekly Picture Post on his thinking, our memory of that magazine remains stuck in post-war black and white gloom. Boxer’s magazine both reflected and helped create the bright colours of the new decade.

Although heralded as celebrating the magazine as a whole, the anniversary exhibition is primarily concerned with the images commissioned for it. Thus most of the two rooms are taken up by large backlit transparencies of work by the great and the good of photography. Presented in chronological order, these start with a David Bailey shoot from the launch issue featuring Jean Shrimpton wearing Mary Quant. There, in a single commission, you have a defining moment of the 60s – has another magazine ever so successfully set out its stall in a launch issue?

The large images continue up and down the rooms, reflecting the breadth of content. Excerpts from fashion stories sit alongside selections of war reportage from Ronald L Haeberle and Don McCullin, art projects by Ken Griffiths and Sam Taylor-Wood, and the celebrity portraits of Eve Arnold and Uli Weber. There are many great pictures but summing up 50 years in such a limited space is restrictive, and the choice of backlit presentation leaves the different images feeling very similar when part of the appeal, indeed, the story of the show, should be difference.

More interesting are the occasions we see the photography as it was originally used. A couple of the light boxes present photos of magazine layouts, and these immediately demonstrate that context is all. A couple of spreads from a story about the ‘Great British Theatre’ show how Arnold Newman’s portraits took up as much space on the page as possible, uncropped and carefully edited, mixing colour with black and white. I would have liked to have seen how the presentation of the Bailey/Shrimpton shoot differed to that of the Vietnam reportage. What do you do with colour, typography and design to combine such different subjects in one magazine?

Better still are the few glass cases containing letters and artefacts including copies of the magazine. The abstract, almost psychedelic colour patterns of the original dummy cover reveal intent behind the editorial team’s desire to reflect the new decade, while the cover of the launch issue presented a grid of images from the Bailey/Shrimpton shoot, the single exception being the inclusion of one image of Burnley footballer Jimmy McIlroy. Together with the headline ‘A sharp glance at the mood of Britain’ and the promise of a new James Bond short story, it feels modern today in a way that the current iteration of the magazine struggles to match.

But this isn’t an exhibition about editorial design or any other aspect of magazine craft; it is about the images, and though barely more than a brief distraction from the larger shows mounted alongside it at the Saatchi, it manages to justify the Sunday Times Magazine’s reputation for strong photography while also making a case that they haven’t completely lost their mojo in that respect at least.  

The Sunday Times 50th Anniversary show was at the Saatchi Gallery, London SW3. Jeremy Leslie blogs at

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