Self-referential covers 3: the recursive John Bull

John Bull 1946 March 2 first edition in colour with a cover by Clixby Watson

John Bull 1946 March 2 – first edition in colour with a cover by Clixby Watson

This John Bull cover marked the 1946 relaunch of what was one of the biggest-selling magazines with a fresh editorial approach led by a full colour cover. Since its launch, John Bull had always been a monochrome weekly magazine, with advertising on the cover since the 1920s and throughout the war. It dated back to 1906 as the brainchild of the swindling MP Horation Bottomley. It may well have been the biggest-selling magazine until the great success of the BBC’s Radio Times in the early 1930s.

The cover was by Clixby Watson, one of the most sought-after illustrators of the era (and the only Clixby I’ve ever come across). Watson had illustrated Woman magazine since the 1930s along with many other magazines. As well as promoting the magazine, the image promotes the idea of actually buying magazines at a news-stand. Such self-promotion seems to be lost of today’s publishers, who spent their value page space encouraging their readers to put the magazine and turn instead to their mobile phones or television sets.

Scenes of buying magazines – on the street or at railway station stalls – was a regular theme on magazine covers in the first half of the 20th century.  Publishers promoted the retail buying and distribution chain – a link that is being lost today as even the biggest news chains focus on other goods and even charge publishers extra for new launches. The publishers have reacted by adopting the historical US model of focusing on subscriptions, or moving online.

In theory, the illustration is repeated ad infinitum in each cover – it is a recursive, self-referential cover. The composition of the John Bull cover above is very good, as is the the sense of light. Watson uses the angles and diagonals in the image – and the pointing pipe – to focus on the stall holder and everyone is engrossed by the sight of the magazine. Note that ink and paper were still rationed at this stage – and would be until 1952 – so the appearance of a new colour magazine will have made a splash.  The publisher was Odhams (later IPC/Time UK).

This 1946 holiday season cover from John Bull forecasts a web fate for the slumbering  gent

This 1946 cover from John Bull forecasts a wet fate for the slumbering gent

The second John Bull cover here is a twist on the self-referential theme. The cover of the issue that has fallen from the hands of the snoozing holidaymaker predicts the fate that lies in store for him – the tide is coming in and he will soon be up to his waist in seawater. Though at least his hat looks safe.

So there are at least three types of self-referential cover:

  1. recursive – featuring the cover itself within itself: John Bull colour relaunch above and Woman’s Own colour relaunch in 1937. It’s interesting that these fiercely rival publishers – Odhams and George Newnes – should both use the same idea to mark relaunches;
  2. self-referential to other issues of the same title: Woman’s Own 1931 and 1935. What would be the criteria for the choice of cover? Obviously, you would want to to be strong visually, both the main image and the masthead in particular, but also a significant issue – perhaps a bestseller;
  3. self-referential with a twist, John Bull at the seaside, above.

To see almost 500 magazine covers and pages, look out my book, A History of British Magazine Design, from the Victoria & Albert Museum, the world’s leading museum of art and design

 

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2 Responses to “Self-referential covers 3: the recursive John Bull”

  1. Self-referential covers at Christmas | Magforum Says:

    […] In computer coding circles, the act of a routine calling itself is known as ‘recursion’ and was popularised in home computing by BBC Basic in 1980. A similar ‘recursive’ illustration approach as Tit-Bits on a different title can be seen on a 1946 issue from John Bull. […]

  2. On this day in magazines: Top Spot in 1958 | Magforum blog Says:

    […] like that of Michele Manning above dominate the covers. The 14 February is notable for having a self-referential cover, whereby Manning is shown with a copy of Top Spot from the previous […]

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