London Opinion - the most influential cover
by Tony Quinn
London Opinion was one of the most influential magazines in the world. Yet, you have probably never heard of it: the reason being that it closed in 1954 when it was taken over by Men Only. However, you will undoubtedly recognise this cover, from 5 September 1914, even if you have never seen it:
London Opinion cover of Kitchener
by Alfred Leete: 5 September 1914
This cover, by Alfred Leete - and, yes, it was in black and white - inspired one of the most successful poster advertising campaigns ever (and I do not use the word ever lightly). It showed the pointing figure of Lord Horatio Kitchener, secretary of war responsible for the British war effort, with the words: 'Your country needs you.' The idea was taken up by the government in its recruitment campaign for volunteers and has been credited with encouraging three million men to sign up in the first two years of the war (conscription was introduced in 1916) .
London Opinion's editor and Leete (1882-1933), who was a printer from Weston-super-Mare but switched to illustration when Punch used one of his drawings in 1905, clearly felt driven to bang the drum for the war effort. In the same issue as the Kitchener cover was this half-page cartoon:
London Opinion cartoon by Alfred Leete 5 September 1914
The wimp above - have you ever seen a more chinless wonder? - is the one who doesn't sign up; the volunteer soldier is the one who gets the girls. What more attractive image could there be for a young man in Britain?
The London Opinion cover and subsequent posters rendered Kitchener- already a national hero from the Boer War - as one of the most famous faces in the world. He was made a Knight of the Garter, Britain's highest honour, a year later (though that couldn't save him from his fate in being lost at sea on HMS Hampshire when she was sunk by a mine on her way to Russia in 1916).
Leete's London Opinion cover idea was widely copied at the time, from Russia to Italy to the US - where it inspired an iconic Uncle Sam image of the country, akin to Britain's John Bull - and other countries:
Russian version of Kitchener poster from
London Opinion was published by Pearson / Newnes and was one of the best-selling magazines for half a century. In January 1907, it ran a limerick competition that sparked a national craze. Millions of people entered these competitions in many publications and 'a kind of national madness took hold', said Bob Turvey in the Financial Times. The number of entries grew so much that the magazine started asking for 6d postal orders, the proceeds of which were used to fund bigger prizes. In a statement in the House of Commons, the postmaster-general said that in the last six months of 1907, 1,140,000 6d postal orders were bought - half as many again as the usual 700,000-800,000.
Among today's famous names who cut their teeth in the magazine were Keith Waterhouse - Billy Liar, Flook, Budgie, Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell - who was first published in London Opinion at the age of 15, and Norman Thelwell, the horsey cartoonist, in March 1949. Dennis Gifford has described London Opinion at this time as 'probably the funniest magazine of its era'.
In 2002, Leete's iconic Kitchener poster (with Eric Field identified as the copywriter and Caxton Advertising the agency for the various versions) was nominated as 'the best recruitment advert of all time' by advertising trade weekly Campaign. In 1999, the same magazine had identified it as the second best poster of the century after Saatchi & Saatchi's 'Labour isn't working' of 1978.
The influence of the Leete illustration of 1914 lives on to this day, as in this Economist cover from September 2008:
And the Daily Mirror (1 May 1997) ran an image of Tony Blair, then prime minister, with the slogan 'Your Country Needs Him' on its front page.
So, is Leete's London Opinion the best magazine cover in history? Technically, no: it was (according to a Kitchener biography) done in a rush and cannot not match the quality of many images, even from the Victorian era. The monthlies had much better production values in terms of their use of colour, plate-making and paper. However, how may covers find themselves being imitated - for an item about the credit crunch - by the influential Economist almost a century later?
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Campaign (1999) 'Poster advertising awards,' 15 October
Campaign (2002) 'The 10 best recruitment ads of all time,' 17 December, p9
Gifford, Dennis (2004) 'Obituary. Norman Thelwell: Prolific cartoonist famed for his popular strip about a half-pint heroine and her dimwitted pony,' guardian.co.uk, 10 February
Pollock, John (2001) Kitchener, Constable
'Straight and true,' Nottingham Evening Post, 14 April 2001
Turvey, Bob (2007) 'For better, for verse,' 5 May 2007, FT Weekend Magazine, Financial Times, p22
Wroe, Nicholas (2001) 'A legend in his lunchtime [Keith Waterhouse],' The Guardian, 14 April