Twelve (6): The Observer, 1988: Dolores Fairman/Phelps


Dolores Fairman (now Phelps)

Dolores Fairman

1 I had graduated from Kingston in 1982, with a varied portfolio that included magazine design, animation and illustration, in a generally punk style. I had no idea what part of the industry I wanted to join; I thought I wanted to be like Malcolm Garrett. But after the usual period of idealistic unemployment eventually found myself working as a layout artist/art assistant in magazine publishing, changed jobs a few times, ending up at Haymarket [Press, publisher of trade magazines] with Swiss typographer Roland Schenk as my cranky, infuriating – but supremely talented and highly principled – boss. My partner Kieren Phelps was illustrating full time for various clients such as the Radio Times and The Listener, and never went out on weekends – always working! I decided I must change my 9 to 5+ drudgery and that if I could get just three black and white illustration commissions a month, I would be earning the same as I was at Haymarket. I was lucky enough to be living in what they called a ‘short term let’ in Limehouse, a council flat with less than perfect amenities, so I had been able to save £1300 with which to launch my freelance career.

I stopped work, spent six weeks putting together an illustration style (I had two styles at first actually) and a portfolio of speculative work. I then raided Kieren’s list of contacts, made notes from the mastheads of magazines in WHSmiths and spent time on the phone getting names of art editors from reception staff of various publishing companies. The first jobs came from the Nursing Times, from a very lovely art director, Hussein Mohamed, who had given Kieren a lot of work and who often had black and white pages that needed livening up with illustrations. Being a weekly, deadlines were short, and it was a great practice ground. My big break came when I got a chance to see Martin, John and Shem at the Observer. I got the Sue Arnold series in June 1986, and it was one of the proudest moments of my life! One of the images is still in a frame in my house.

By 1988 I guess I was quite established though – in a meteoric rise kind of way. I had an agent (Sharp Practice) and was earning high wages doing advertising and corporate work. I was regularly working for The Observer, Radio Times, Sunday Times and many women’s magazines. The cracks were starting to show in the economy by the late 80s, and I didn’t know it, but my meteoric rise was headed for an equally meteoric crash!

2 I can’t give a proper answer to the first part as I wasn’t allowed to join the Illustration stream at Kingston. Brian Love (I love you, Brian, but I won’t forgive you for this!) the Illustration head, said: “I see you more as a designer…” I was allowed to do a couple of the drawing modules in the second year at Kingston, though for my third year I decided to pursue animation as a middle way that allowed me more scope for my music-orientated focus. For the second part of this question, see above!

3 Living and working in London, being able to walk into all sorts of glamorous offices with familiarity as if I had a right to be there. The Observer, the Sunday Times, the Radio Times, National Magazine House, IPC tower! Being young and wearing Vivienne Westwood clothes, the feeling of being a part of a generation that had questioned and upturned the depressing, oppressive 1970s and broken through so many social barriers. I guess I was lucky, and to some extent living in a London bubble, but it was very relevant to me and my experience of social mobility, having left a Hastings comprehensive school at 15 with 5 ‘O’ levels, mum on benefits, no support structure except from the State. Where is the support structure now?

4 I don’t work as a commercial illustrator any more, I do personal and research projects and collaborative work, but I am an illustration educator and am in close contact with many practitioners. So my experience is relevant, but no longer first hand!

Form, content, and platform:
Form. I do think that one of the roles of illustration has always been to provide dynamic, graphic interest on the page (or screen) for mainstream publications, that can’t always rely on avant-garde typography or fantastic photography. Neville Brody famously didn’t use illustration, but in a magazine full of huge letterforms, geometric shapes and outlandish fashion, there was no need for it. This hasn’t changed, and the new generation of illustrators seem even more keenly aware of the power of graphic impact, helped by the amazing tools they now have at their disposal, and encouraged by pioneers such as Blexbolex and Nobrow Publishing.

Content. Illustration is about providing a visual solution for a (usually text-based) problem. It’s up to the illustrator to point out where their particular brand of problem-solving will be most effective, and this location is a shifting one. When art directors (and that sometimes, has to be the illustrators themselves) see that illustration will solve that problem, a job is born. But it takes a talented individual to find that niche!

Platform. Illustration commissioning is now so much more international, which gives art directors more choice and makes the industry more competitive. The print magazine and book publishing industry is being financially squeezed (my London Book Fair experience bears this out) and books are possibly becoming less popular as Generation Rent need to be more mobile and can’t lug too many books around with them. This said, the applications for illustration are enormous. Illustration as part of the ‘image-world’ has to compete with any other image, fine art, archival/retro/historical images, photography, textile design. So it’s incredibly competitive and can have a lot to do with entrepreneurial talent and skilled social media use. Then there is social art, street art, zines, clothing, film and TV concepts, production design…

5 Well, I guess it has to be the ‘My Name Is Aurelia’ project, which is 450 or so images visually describing the text my mother left me when she died. She narrates her memories of being a refugee from Spain in 1937, part of the 4,000 other children who arrived at Southampton from Bilbao to escape the Spanish Civil War. For a little over a year up to December 2018, I produced a daily image using various types of rubber stamps and ink-transferred shapes.

From my professional career, I would like to mention the anti-fur charity Lynx, for which I had the pleasure and honour to have designed several T-shirts and other products. The high point of the campaign was a photo I have of Paul McCartney wearing one of my T-shirts!

[Optional!] Visual problem-solver rides crest of new wave into neoclassical modernist doldrums! Or, “It was acceptable in the 80s; it was acceptable at the time…” (Calvin Harris)

As you can tell from her answers, Dolores is smart and perceptive, which is why she’s an excellent communicator and educator. She teaches part time on the undergraduate Illustration course at the University of Gloucestershire. Her Aurelia project is a really wonderful piece of work.




Twelve (1): On leaving The Observer, 1988

In 1988 I had just moved from Art Editing The Listener Magazine, a BBC publication with a strong tradition of using illustration as a means of dealing with often complex political and social subjects, to the Observer Magazine, the Sunday supplement of the Observer newspaper. I was Assistant Art Director, with responsibility for illustration. It was a new team at the magazine, put together by the AD, John Tennant. John had recently joined the magazine from being Michael Rand’s right-hand man at the Sunday Times Magazine, and he wanted to inject vitality and freshness to make it more than just an also-ran to the market-leader.

In the couple of years that followed we took a bold approach – we illustrated a whole feature on Ronald Reagan’s extraordinary “Star Wars” initiative, using Peter Brookes, Ian Pollock, Huntley / Muir and Jeff Fisher among others. We commissioned Brad Holland and Matt Groening (in his pre-Simpson days) and asked fashion illustrator Mats Gustafson to draw a portrait of Gore Vidal. We had fun.

We hit on the idea that our regular columns should be a showcase: Sue Arnold’s funny and spiky column (think Lucy Mangan or David Mitchell) would be illustrated by one artist in four-week slots – that would give 12 people throughout the year a month-long commission and a chance to have a themed set of work. For this slot, we used illustrators who were just getting established.

For our other weekly column, on wine, we decided that it would be great to use the talent emerging from art schools across Britain, giving 52 first-time job opportunities a year. We didn’t want to be prescriptive for either commission – we specified the finished size and left it at that. Of course, this resulted in some confusion. Still in art school-mode, some illustrators gave us four finished illustrations to choose from, as if it were a project with a crit at the end; artwork painted on bottles of wine; oil paintings that had to be reduced by 400%; collages of daunting complexity for the 50mm by 70mm space…

It was a fantastic time that came to an end when the entire art department resigned over the decision to back-date a pay cut for our freelance designers – they’d worked in good faith for an agreed fee. With the insouciance and arrogance of youth, we all figured we’d get another job without too much trouble. My colleague Shem Law (now Deputy Editor and Art Director of Radio Times) discreetly phoned a cross-section of the illustrators who had worked for us and asked them to paint portraits of me for a leaving card.


The resulting work provided a glimpse into the world of illustration as it was at that time. Creative Review ran a selection of the drawings and carried the story [the references to music in some of the responses was because I had an alternative career going on at the same time…] While thinking of potential features for an issue of Varoom! on the theme of nostalgia, I thought of that leaving card and wondered what those involved could remember of that period in their lives, and how their careers had subsequently developed, so I tracked down their emails and asked if they’d answer a series of questions.

1) Where were you, professionally and personally, in 1988? [i.e. just starting out/just left college/established].

2) If you came through the art education system, what was your experience of the way illustration was taught? If you didn’t, how did you arrive as an illustrator in London in the late 80s?

3) What do you look back on fondly about that time in publishing?

4) Do you think the place of illustrators or cartoonists has changed in the intervening years?

5) Can you pick one favourite or important project from your 30-plus year career?

[Optional!] If I asked you to sum up your career in one sentence, could you?

Over the coming weeks, I’ll post what those who answered told me about life in London, publishing, and illustration in the long-gone days of ’88.


One: Mats Gustafson

Reminded – by a photo of Mats Gustafson’s studio on Steven Bonner’s blog – of the time we commissioned Mats, I searched through an old suitcase and pulled out the job. The reason I remember it so vividly was for Mats presentation of his finished piece. We had recently redesigned the Observer Magazine (John Tennant was the Art Director and Shem Law and I were his deputies. The team also included Marcel Ashby and Jim Brewster). We had used a lovely Mats’ drawing in one of our dummy feature spreads to show the editor the kind of work that we were looking to commission (I can’t remember which editor—we had four in two years if I remember rightly, and redesigned the magazine three times in that period…). Dig the pasted-down dummy copy, cow-gummed onto a printed card grid. Nice run round!

So a few months later, when Gore Vidal would not be photographed, we thought it was a perfect opportunity to use Mats. As he was passing through from Sweden to New York he said he would deliver the artwork to our offices. So one day Mats turns up and proceeds to lay about fifty illustrations on our floor, explaining that he works by getting to know his subject’s face by painting quickly, over and over again, until he feels he’s getting closer to capturing something about them that seems vital and dynamic.

I quickly took a Polaroid of the studio before we started sifting through with Mats to fine down the choice. The finished spread is here. Note that between commissioning Mats and printing the illustration another redesign (not as good) had happened.

I wish I had managed to work with Mats again—his work is still as beautiful and mercurial as ever. See it at