When, some years after that, I started looking at the grown-up newspapers which came into our house each Sunday, those colour magazines were the first part I ventured into. They were welcomingly different from the other larger pages of dense black newsprint.
At that time colour photographs in newspapers came only in these separate glossy supplements. When I think back to them now, it is not so much as a significant technical innovation or because I have strong individual memories, but because in recent years all publishing has become like them.
Colour moved into mainstream sections of newspapers 20 or more years ago. This made the colour magazine undistinctive. Yet today all surviving newspapers seem to still have one.
The regular features of colour supplements in the 1970s and 1980s were the topics which worked particularly well in colour: fashion, food, celebrities, foreign countries – and advertisements. Sometimes the photo-journalism about war and poverty sat incongruously side by side with the advertising pictures of consumption and luxury – as pointed out effectively by John Berger in his famous 1972 TV series on art, Ways of Seeing.
Another popular feature of the colour supplements was visual art, the current gallery and museum exhibitions. An article about the Andrew Wyeth show at the Royal Academy in 1980 provided inspiration for my first ever visit to the cultural life of London that summer. Some articles which I recognised were, amazingly, among the pages which John Berger flipped through randomly in another part of Ways of Seeing. Content and advertisements were often blurred when the latter pastiched the characters or poses of famous individual paintings in their scenes of domestic wealth and comfort.
One of the last examples of magazine coverage of art which I do remember was a Claude Lorraine exhibition in the 1990s which earned a cover entitled “Trouble in Paradise” in The Independent Saturday magazine. That the genre scarcely features nowadays suggests editors have a low opinion of readers’ interests – plus a lack of confidence in their own knowledge and judgement. The current Picasso 1932 exhibition at the Tate Modern has gained a good deal of media attention – it is easy to imagine how it would have been treated by the colour supplements of previous decades!
The recent tabloid rebranding of The Observer has retained the magazine but it is now almost identical to the review section. Similar type of paper, similar colours. A few regular features stay in one place rather than the other but they share an overall likeness. Profiles of arts practitioners and personal memoirs can feature prominently in either section, and therefore on either cover.
Peter Jackson’s article for In Publishing about The Sunday Times magazine in 2012 suggests that its gradual deterioration was the inevitable result of lowered budgets. He also identifies Andrew Neil’s flamboyant editorship of the paper in the 1980s when it became divided into many short sections of specialised interest, which diluted the impact of the original design, including the colour supplement.
Jackson’s article includes a solution proposed by former editor of The Sunday Times magazine, Robin Morgan: “I’d put all of the sections back in the newspaper and have a 150-page magazine that had a clean sheet to tackle anything it liked.” An idea which is likely to stay only an enticing fantasy in these dying days of newspapers – and as likely as there being less personal memoir and more visual art!