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Brief history of Look and Learn

Beginning

Steve Holland, our honorary archivist, has written a detailed history of Look and Learn, available here as a PDFAdobe PDF document.

In January 1962, a brand new paper arrived in newsagents around the UK and across the world. Its 24 pages contained a wide range of articles on history, nature, literature, astronomy and art. Half its pages were printed in full colour and the paper was beautifully illustrated by some of the best artists of the time. Look and Learn, as the new paper was called, was bright, spirited and fun, a weekly for the new generation of children who had grown up in the austere years after the war. For the next twenty years and over a thousand issues, Look and Learn entertained as it educated and is still remembered fondly by parents and grandparents.

Look and Learn was the brainchild of Leonard Matthews, the Director of Juvenile Publications at Fleetway Publications, the London-based publisher whose story papers and comics had entertained children for over seventy years. Look and Learn, however, was a fresh idea from Matthews, who had been with the firm since 1938, gaining experience at every editorial level before being promoted to the company’s board of directors.

Leonard Matthews

Leonard Matthews

In his new position, Matthews planned to bring a new slate of titles to the group to replace some of the long-running and, by then, old-fashioned titles. He drew some of his inspiration from European papers; on a visit to Italy he picked up copies of Conoscere and La Vita Meravigliosa, two popular educational magazines published in Milan. When he suggested a new paper modelled on these, the idea was turned down, the board fearing that a new weekly would be damaging to their existing titles, The Children’s Newspaper and the The Children’s Encyclopedia.

Rival publishers Purnell had no such problem and brought out a British edition of Conoscere in January 1961 under the title Knowledge. This was an up-to-date part work which built, week by week, into an encyclopedia with the added attraction of colour.

Matthews reassessed his original proposal and took it to the board once more and, this time, was given the go-ahead to produce a dummy. Matthews had set up a department for just such a task and responsibility for its preparation was passed to the Experimental Art Department. In charge at Experimental Art were editorial director David Roberts and art director Trevor Newton.

Among the artists at Experimental Art was Jack Parker, who had begun his Fleet Street career at the offices of Everybody’s, a general weekly magazine which was taken over by Fleetway in 1950. Parker had had a falling-out with his new employers and joined a rival firm, but was tempted back when Matthews set up his new department. As the magazine was coming to fruition, Parker was invited to become art editor of the new paper.

David Stone, another émigré from Everybody’s, was appointed editor and Freddie Lidstone, a long-time sub-editor with Fleetway and sometime playwright, his deputy. With the dummy approved, the new magazine, boldly titled Look and Learn, was put into full production in the autumn of 1961.

First issue of Look and Learn

First issue of Look and Learn

The first issue, dated 20 January 1962, lived up to its editor’s claim that it was “a treasure house of exciting articles, stories and pictures.” At 10¼" by 13½" (26 x 35 cm) it was larger than most children’s comics then on the news-stands and with half of its 24 pages in full colour it stood out from Fleetway’s black and white comic papers. A photograph of the young Prince of Wales, Charles, dominated the first cover, alongside a painting of the first Charles, Prince of Wales from 300 years earlier. For the most part, Look and Learn would dedicate the front cover to a single painted illustration on a variety of subjects, from famous characters in books to famous dogs in history.

Elsewhere in this first issue, colour photographs and colour illustrations helped tell the history of Rome and reveal the wonders of nature; you could learn about Vincent van Gogh, the Grand Canyon, how Japanese children celebrated the festival of Shichi go san or how to keep a Basset hound. Other articles probed the depths of space for life amongst the stars and below the ground for oil; the story of Parliament was magnificently illustrated across the centre pages; equally superb was the first leg of a trip exploring the history of towns and villages along the road from London to Dover; and for those readers who enjoyed stories as well as history, nature, science and art, there was a feature on Sinbad and the famous author and explorer who had translated his adventures plus the opening chapters of ‘The Children’s Crusade’ by Henry Treece, and Jerome K. Jerome’s famous ‘Three Men in a Boat’.

The premise of Look and Learn was to delight and inspire the imaginations of its young readers. To advance this principle, the features were clearly and briskly written and illustrated by some of the finest artists of the era resulting in a magazine of unmatched quality. Look and Learn drew on artists from across Europe - primarily from Italy and Spain - as well as on the cream of talent from Britain, Peter Jackson, C L Doughty, Ron Embleton and Sep E Scott, to name but a few. The paper had, indeed, been designed around the work of famous historical artists like Fortunino Matania, who was able to contribute new artwork to the paper in his final years.

While the sheer quality of the paper might have been more appreciated by parents than children, the target audience was also well served: the breadth of coverage in Look and Learn was vast, the writing never dull and the artwork always attractive. As editor David Stone wrote: “Look and Learn is not a comic, or a dusty old encyclopaedia pretending to be an entertaining weekly paper. It is really like one of those fabulous caravans that used to set off to strange and unknown places and return laden with all sorts of wonderful things. In our pages is all the excitement, the wonder, the tragedy and the heroism of the magnificent age we live in, and of the ages which make up the traditions which shape all our lives.”

A fabulous caravan

Heavily promoted in magazines and on television, Look and Learn was an immediate success, selling hundreds of thousands of copies. It was so successful, in fact, that Jack Parker recalls: “In its third week we hit a million copies which was outstanding for a paper of that type. I think it was the most successful launch they’d ever had and it got all its development and launch costs back in about seven weeks which was unheard of.”

Although he was credited as launch-editor, David Stone was only briefly on Look and Learn. When the paper was launched, the new editor John Sanders was already at the helm having joined Fleetway from the Daily Sketch where he had worked as a features editor.

Publication run: 20 January 1962 to 17 April 1982
Total issues: 1,049
Editors: David Stone (1961)
John Sanders (1961-65)
John Davies (1965-69)
Andy Vincent (1969-77)
Jack Parker (1977-82)

It fell to Sanders to marshal the features for Fleetway’s new “fabulous caravan” and these included features written by historians like Leonard Cottrell, John Prebble, Robert Erskine and Alfred Duggan, novelist and traveller Bruce Graeme, zoologist Maurice Burton and naturalist Maxwell Knight. Many others were written by Fleetway staffers like David Le Roi, Look and Learn’s science and technical editor, Pat Brookman and Michael Moorcock, later to become an award-winning novelist.

The early issues set the tone of the paper for the next twenty years. The centre pages were always dominated by a full-colour image of one of Great Britain’s historic buildings, in the first issue this being the ‘The Houses of Parliament’ by Peter Jackson and the rear cover by Jackson’s look at the lively history to be discovered via a trip down ‘The Dover Road’. These back-cover features became a mainstay of the magazine and, over the years, carried some of the paper’s most memorable features, ranging from Jackson’s explorations of ‘The Cinque Ports’ and ‘The Manchester Road’ to Ron Embleton’s ‘The Bath Road’. Between 1962-65, the main artist was Italian Ferdinando Tacconi, who covered an amazing range of subjects, from the history of ‘The Route to the Moon’ and ‘The Story of the Trans Siberian Railway’ to epic voyages down the Mississippi and the Nile. Biography also had a place with the stories of David Livingstone, Admiral Anson and others appearing in full colour.

Look and Learn roamed the world with its ‘Colour Camera’ photo features; the animal kingdom and wonders of nature were ever popular; history, literature and art also played a major part in the paper’s contents. A typical issue would carry a range of features covering everything from ‘The Golden Age of Greece’ and ‘Great Beginnings’, about famous inventors and inventions, to ‘John and Jane Citizen’ which looked at how governments were created and how changing laws of the land affected everyday life. Text stories ranged from abridgments of ‘The Otter’s Tale’ by Gavin Maxwell (better known under the title Ring of Bright Water) and ‘The Pickwick Papers’ by Charles Dickens to Biggles by Captain W E Johns and a series of Billy Bunter yarns by Frank Richards.

The remit of Look and Learn to educate as well as entertain was well fulfilled and even after the initial fanfare was over, the magazine settled down to a very comfortable circulation, never falling below 300,000 copies a week during the editorship of John Sanders.

John Sanders

John Sanders

Sanders had ambitions to move into Fleetway’s mainstream - the children’s’ comic strip papers - and, in 1965, left Look and Learn to edit another of Leonard Matthews’ creations, Ranger, a mix of features, stories and strips that Matthews hoped would take off in the way that the Eagle had fifteen years earlier. Ranger proved too expensive and old-fashioned for its target audience and folded after only 40 weeks, to be merged with Look and Learn (no 232, 25 June 1966). This was not the first merger as Look and Learn had already incorporated two other papers, The Bible Story (no 141, 26 September 1964) and The Children’s Newspaper (no 173, 8 May 1965), although neither merger had made any real impact, although the decision to close The Children’s Newspaper had meant that editor John Davies was now free to take over at Look and Learn.

Davies oversaw the biggest change in Look and Learn’s history to date as the merger brought with it a number of comic strips, some of which would require using precious colour pages. Fortunately, Look and Learn’s success had meant the pagination had risen from 24 in its early days to 28 since 1963; with the merger, this rose to 36 and later to 40 pages from 1967. “Incorporating RANGER Magazine” was now emblazoned under the Look and Learn logo on the cover and, after a few weeks, the comic strips were gathered together in the centre eight pages of the magazine.

Chief amongst them was the long-running ‘The Rise and Fall of the Trigan Empire’. Written by Michael Butterworth and painted in colour by Don Lawrence, the strip concerned a nomadic tribe from the land of Vorg on the distant planet of Elekton whose visionary leader, Trigo, dreams of building a fabulous city and uniting his people. A bordering - and technologically more advanced - state turns its attentions to expanding its borders, and survivors from other lands stream into Vorg where Trigo meets Peric, a great scientist and architect who turns Trigo’s vision into reality. Although derivative of Earth’s history (mostly Roman and Greek with elements from Egypt and feudal Britain as required by the plot), the strip was on an epic scale and its sweeping, extravagant battle scenes helped turn it into a classic.

The treasure house of knowledge

Like the treasure house it was, there were gems aplenty in Look and Learn - and not only amongst the features. Competitions were an important element of the magazine: as early as issue 27, the editor offered two readers the chance to win an all-expenses paid trip to Cape Canaveral in Florida. Look and Learn continued a long-running National Handwriting Competition that had begun in The Children’s Newspaper. The first new competition, in 1964, attracted over 250,000 entries and became a regular feature of the magazine; in the paper’s 1,000th issue (9 May 1981) the prizes amounted to over £10,000. Other competitions involved trips to Jersey to visit Gerald Durrell’s famous zoo and, in 1980, a group of prize winners were taken to Kenya as part of ‘Operation Drake’. A TV crew joined the winners at Aberdare to film a segment for the new ITV children’s show, Ace.

One of the most memorable events in the history of the magazine took place in 1977 when HRH Prince Charles, star of the paper’s first cover, helped judge the National Handwriting Competition and presented the winners and runners-up with their prizes on board HMS Belfast. After being introduced by John Sanders, the Prince gave a speech in which he mentioned that he was very familiar with Look and Learn as he had seen many copies around the Palace since it was a favourite of his younger brother, Andrew. Photos of the event made good copy for the magazine when they appeared in issue 837 (28 January 1978).

The years since Look and Learn had absorbed Ranger had seen many changes behind the scenes. Fleetway Publications’ juvenile division had been combined with another group of papers that had, during the 1960s, been relatively independent, although both departments were owned by the same company. The company name was changed to IPC Magazines in 1968, a change reflected in Look and Learn in January 1969. A month earlier, Look and Learn’s founder, Leonard Matthews, had left to set up his own publishing and packaging company.

Following the demise of Ranger, John Sanders had become an editor and managing editor before being promoted to Publisher of the Juvenile group and then to Editorial Director of the General Magazines Group which included the juveniles.

Soon after Sanders’ promotion, John Davies was replaced as editor of Look and Learn by Andy Vincent, who had joined Fleetway in 1953 as a sub-editor. When Vincent joined in 1969, he made a number of minor changes: Look and Learn had a tradition of carrying abridged serial stories - authors had included classic reprints by Jules Verne and H G Wells, plus more modern novels by Willard Price, Nina Bawden, Henry Williamson (Tarka the Otter), Geoffrey Household and Leon Garfield - but these came to an end. Comic strips became less prominent, although some fine work continued to appear alongside ‘The Trigan Empire’, notably ‘The King’s Musketeers’, drawn by Arturo Del Castillo, ‘Eagles Over the Western Front’ drawn by Bill Lacey, and some fine adaptations of classic novels by Gerry Embleton, Alfonso Font, Bill Baker and Jesus Blasco.

Vincent maintained the tradition of wide-ranging articles and continued to use many of the finest artists working in illustration. Peter Jackson, Pat Nicolle, C L Doughty and Ron Embleton remained faithful to the magazine, and newcomers of equal talent arrived over the years: Reginald B Davis, Angus McBride, Wilfred (Wilf) Hardy, Roger Payne, Richard Hook, Clive Uptton, Jack Keay and John S Smith to name but a few.

Of the hundreds of series that appeared in Look and Learn over the years, two of the most fondly remembered appeared shortly after Vincent’s arrival. ‘Rogers’ Rangers’ began on the back cover with issue 420 (31 January 1970) and ‘The Story of World War I’, written by Michael Butterworth and illustrated by Frank Bellamy was serialised from no 437 to no 462 (30 May to 21 November 1970).

Despite its high quality, Look and Learn was suffering from declining sales, as were all children’s magazines in the 1970s because of the increasing dominance of television as a major as a source of entertainment and the boom in pop music which also siphoned away potential readers. New launches during the 1970s found it difficult to establish themselves in the way that Look and Learn had ten years earlier and found themselves amalgamated with their elder sibling. After this fashion, Look and Learn absorbed World of Wonder with no 686 (8 March 1975) and Speed & Power with no 724 (29 November 1975).

In 1977, the magazine’s long-serving art editor, Jack Parker, was appointed editor when Andy Vincent became a group editor. It was intended that another new companion magazine would be launched under the editorship of Bob Bartholemew, who, as early as 1962, had almost become editor of Look and Learn. Bartholemew’s new magazine, World of Knowledge was delayed until 1980 and, when it did finally appear, it lasted only a year.

Look and Learn was given a new look and the title changed to The New Look and Learn with World of Knowledge from no 983 (10 January 1981). Soon after, the paper celebrated its 1,000th issue (9 May 1981) and Jack Parker wrote a special editorial in which he offered all his readers his thanks for their support and encouragement over the previous 19 years and looked forward to producing the next 1,000 issues.

Sadly, it was not to be. Sales had continued to decline and, by 1982, were below the level at which Look and Learn was viable. It was decided by the management at IPC to fold the 20-year-old magazine and replace it with a new title that was more in tune with readers of the new decade. The last issue, no 1,049, appeared on 17 April 1982. The replacement, Look Alive, was cancelled after only five issues.

Annuals

As well as the weekly paper, Look and Learn had a companion annual published for Christmas each year called The Look and Learn Book. Two books were produced for its first year, The Look and Learn Book for Boys and The Look and Learn Book for Girls, both published in 1962. These were combined as one book the following year and The Look and Learn Book ran for a total of 23 years, ending with The Look and Learn Book 1986, published in September 1985. Other regular titles from the same group included The Look and Learn Book of 1001 Questions and Answers (17 volumes, 1966-83), Look and Learn Book of Wonders of Nature (9 volumes, 1967-75), Look and Learn Book of Pets (8 volumes, 1969-76), Look and Learn Young Scientist (2 volumes, 1969-70) and a variety of one-off volumes ranging from a summer special in 1963 to The Story of the Princes of Wales in 1969.

New beginning

In November 2004, more than twenty years after the last issue of Look and Learn, a newly-formed private company, Look and Learn Ltd, acquired from IPC Media Ltd the rights to the trade mark ‘Look and Learn’ and to the educational material in Look and Learn and various other magazines incorporated, directly or indirectly, into Look and Learn including: The Children’s Newspaper, Treasure, The Bible Story, Ranger, Speed & Power, Tell Me Why, World of Wonder, and World of Knowledge. IPC Media retained the rights to certain non-educational comic strips and, in particular, ‘The Rise and Fall of the Trigan Empire’.

Subsequently, in May 2006, Look and Learn acquired from IPC Media the rights, again with the exception of some comic strips, to a number of nursery magazines published at the same time as Look and Learn including: Jack and Jill (1954-85), Playhour (1954-87), Harold Hare (1959-64), Teddy Bear (1963-73), Robin (1953-69), Swift (1954-63), and Once Upon a Time (1969-73).

As a consequence of these purchases, Look and Learn now owns the rights to one of the largest and most beautiful archives of children’s illustrations in the world, more than a hundred nursery characters, and a text library of millions of words which covers most subjects of interest to children besides those that have arisen since 1982. In July 2006, we launched this web site primarily to revive interest in, and encourage use of, the illustrative material that appeared in Look and Learn and the other magazines. In recent years, the picture library has been substantially expanded to include a number of notable collections; and Look and Learn is now active as a picture library, specialising in historical pictures and vintage imagery.