A Review of the Himalayan Journal Front Covers

W. M. (Bill) Aitken

Volumes 1 to 29 need not detain us because all have severe grey covers reflecting a sober age and the stiff upper lip values of British males. (Of the almost one hundred elected expatriate officers of the club, only Mrs H. P. V. Townend a vice president in 1939 breaks the mould of gender.) To prove that there was some daring locked up in those, for the most part establishment breasts, after the very early numbers of the Journal where the contents were printed on the cover imitating the fashion of all serious periodicals of that time, the style switched instead to print boldly on the cover full sized club logo depicting the chorten from Rongbuk. Magnifying a heathen symbol would have shocked the Anglican clergymen who in Halesowen conceived the Alpine Club some seventy years before the Himalayan Club saw the light of day in Shimla in 1928.

A chronological survey from the start of the era of illustrated covers to the present (volumes XXX to 68) reveals how the Journal’s editors have all been willing to experiment and adapt to changing printing technology. Soli Mehta was the first of these pioneers and HJ XX introduced a half page black and white photo (of the Annapurna area?) without any caption perhaps because the modest editor had taken it himself. This and HJ XXXI both had a detachable jacket, creating the obvious problem that without the jacket the Journal was rendered nameless. The HJ XXX1 cover was a full page uncaptioned view of a high camp that heralded the nagging problem of where and how to overprint the Journal masthead for best effect without disrupting the photographic composition. In this case the sepia tinted photo allows clouds rolling in to swallow up the title. This issue marks the end of the long relationship with the famous Baptist Mission Press of Calcutta: the printing job was transferred to Bombay (Mumbai) for editorial convenience. Following this transfer the use of Roman numerals would soon be dumped. Possibly someone pointed out that though the Romans had traded with the east coast of India, Mumbai would not appear on the map for another thousand years! Soli Mehta also abandoned the Journal’s subtitle ‘Records of the Himalayan Club’. Ominously the very next issue includes a page of corrections of which there are nearly as many factual errors as there are typographical.

HJ XXXII’s cover marks the last half page black and white photo (featuring Baruntse.) The cover of HJ XXXIII has a close up of the summit of Machapuchare but the reproduction fails to do justice to the noble aspect. Or could the problem be traced to that perennial annoyance of scrimping on the office ink? The covers of volumes XXXIV to 46 are all of black and white photographs showing a steady improvement in quality by the increasing emphasis on the contrast between snow and rock. ‘Camp 4 on Everest South West Face’ the caption for HJ XXXIV well illustrates the precarious nature of its perch where a line of Whillans’ Boxes seem to be straining at the pegs to glissade into the gloaming. For added effect there is a spectral setting sun, a favourite editorial aid that helped provide guts to their requisite glory. No less than six other covers (HJ 41, 45, 52, 53, 60, 68) include this visual Hallelujah effect that invokes heavens blessings to shine upon them. Having just survived three months of an unrelenting Mussoorie monsoon I appreciate the significance of the phrase ‘a ray of hope’.

HJ 35 is the bumper golden jubilee issue with Harish Kapadia’s colour photo of Nanda Devi from the south Sanctuary as cover. It introduces Harish as assistant editor and his influence is immediately apparent in the useful inclusion of a list of plates. This is an altogether highly pleasing cover where all the elements gell, despite the Journal masthead being placed in the middle of the Sanctuary meadows. Significantly the seriffed font is in lower case and does not in any way infringe on the grandeur of the two floating peaks of Nanda Devi. Later editions would miss this clue of how modest type size in lower case and an elegant seriffed font of subdued tone could make all the difference.

HJ 36 sees Harish emerge as full editor assisted by Roy Hawkins. The cover photo taken by James Wickwire along the northeast ridge of K2 is a bit steamed up but at least succeeds in concealing the horrific voids all around. By contrast HJ 37 features on its cover the fluted column of Gauri Shankar captured by Major P. A. Cullinan, superbly reproduced. To compete in excellence of clarity is Rajul Mehta’s superb black and white sketch of Sudarshan Parbat, a collector’s item making it to the cover of HJ 38.

Bernard Odier’s photographs often make it to cover display, a runner up being Chris Bonington. HJ 39’s cover illustrates the tremendous fall of Gasherbrum II and on the front of HJ 40 Fotheringham’s distinguished frame of Shivling’s final sections showing Bonington reaching the summit provides a happy balance between climber and objective where the honours seem to be shared. The appearance of the HJ 41 cover shot of Tso Moriri lake by Romesh Bhattacharji is a bit spooky, more like a lowering Loch Ness than Ladakh. The famous photograph of the Loch Ness monster incidentally was taken by a gentleman emerging from a pub with a few drams inside him.

For cover No. 42 Harish has chosen Dhiren Toolsidas’ fine study of the Rimo peaks in the East Karakoram. In soft contrast are the gentle summit slopes of Kumaun’s Suli Top featured on the cover of HJ 43 in a photo taken by Ramakant Mahadik. The cover of HJ 44 – the diamond jubilee issue - presents a selection of Spiti peaks shot in striking contrast by Harish Kapadia, two on the front and four on the back cover. This issue marks an increase in the size of type for both masthead and logo and the beginning of a fatal flirtation with Madam Sans Serif.

Volume 45 cover has Chris Bonington’s serene portrayal of the approach to Menlungtse which includes a corona effect. HJ 46 is something else and its cover photo of Thalay Sagar by Divyesh Muni makes a huge aesthetic impact. It is to my mind the pick of all the black and white covers. This issue records the passing of Soli and Hawk and the wisp of cloud above the mountain’s summit seems to welcome the arrival of these kindred literary spirits.

The new era of colour photography from HJ 47 onwards comes as something of a mixed blessing. Colour undoubtedly has the capacity to provide authenticity but too often ends up as a pretty postcard scene. Colour has yet to achieve the wizardry of black and white in uniting opposites. So far no colour photographer has produced work whose impact can compete with that of Vittorio Sella or Ansel Adams in capturing the living nature of mountains.

With colour came an increase in type size that extended to the club logo. Also the masthead accustomed to lower case in the black and white issues often appears in upper case. The cover of HJ 47, again by Bernard Odier shows the writhing Chogolungma glacier in the Western Karakoram to be a thing of living beauty and provides us with a timely reminder that the Himalaya is not just about verticality. In their constant reshuffling of scenes from various Himalayan regions taken at different altitudes, Journal editors through their choice of cover shots underscore the club philosophy of extending knowledge of Himalayan science, art, and literature as well as sport.

In several of the colour covers from HJ 47 to 68 I sense the larger and often un-seriffed type used for the masthead tends to compete with the photographic composition reducing the latter to background status and weakening the expectation that only a great cover can arouse. By printing the title in upper case on a snow field in red shadowed type, a dichotomy is created between subject and masthead. Modern taste in many fields seems to assume brutalism is the same as simplicity and stocky bland fonts are considered trendier than Baskerville or Sabon. To emphasise what is at risk of being sacrificed, the club published in 2001 A Passage to Himalaya edited by Harish Kapadia with a beautifully crafted cover, the photo of Aq Tash having been taken by the late Kaivan Mistry. The title is overprinted in Copperplate to give an exquisite final flourish. Kaivan’s back cover photo (outlined in a fine yellow border) is also outstanding and for a back cover this is as tasteful as it can get.

Journal No. 48 waxes romantic in its cover shot of full moon on the Gasherbrum group but fumbles by inserting the title above the lunar orb. HJ 49 provides an original cover of the artist Serbjeet Singh’s acrylic painting of a Himalayan panoramic overview. Unfortunately there is a mismatch between canvas and cover dimensions.

Wisely in my opinion the collage option has been foregone by the editors since the clarity of a single subject avoids the dog’s dinner invited by resort to the manifold. The 50th jubilee cover does host a collage but the outlay in this instance is fairly restrained. Volumes 51 and 52 offer artistic variations on how to arrange a truce between title placement and photographic integrity. Bernard Odier achieves a cover hat trick with his sensitive rendering of the austere beauty of the Yarkand river but the bulky stencilled masthead mars the mood on the front cover (HJ 51). Snapping at his heels is Chris Bonington’s groovy angle taken while climbing Drangnag Ri on the cover of 52. HJ 53 is the last experiment with a framed cover photo (till date) and presents Steve Berry’s almost numinous shot of the chaddar walk on the freezing Zanskar river - in winter (as if we need to be told.)

Volume 54 has a nifty variant for a cover showing a digital route up Baruntse. The less said about the back cover the better. HJ 55 provides another eye catching cover shot by Harish of the Siachen glacier. So intense is the light radiated that it gives me the illusion that the range of mountains rising in the background has been morphed on to the glacier. Motup Chewang contributes the cover shot for HJ 56 viewed from a high ridge on Gya. The masthead placed in bold red amidships indicates how easy it is to fragment a cover’s unity. To underline the proposition M. Taniguchi’s cover photo (HJ 57) of Kanti Himal affirms how the presence of a single subject can be amplified by the subdued positioning of the title.

The worst victim of promiscuous placement is Mark Richey’s potentially epic cover picture announcing HJ 58. Here the ultimate poetry of climbing gets rudely challenged by rufus interruptus. What deserves to be seen as a sensationally won insight on the grandeur of the Himalaya is reduced by the insertion of the masthead to become an Old Master’s canvas unrecognised for its stand-alone genius. Sadly HJ 59 repeats the shortcoming and Hiroshi Sakai perhaps feels his cover photo of the Teram Shehr plateau has been similarly ruptured. No Japanese brush artist is ever guilty of such intrusion in their scroll paintings which are remarkable for the artistic inclusion of additional matter.

The 60th volume avoids disunity by the choice of yellow ink in Melvin Redekar’s excellent close up of Cas van de Gevel against the glittering ice of Thalay Sagar, a satisfying cover complete with corona. Volume 61 is successful in diverting the masthead from the focus on the majestic passage of the river Siang taken on Harish’s exploration of the Brahmaputra. HJ 62 makes another welcome change from the ‘show us your muscles’ content of many covers to frame the soothing feminine watercolour painting of Kangchenjunga by the sturdy medical missionary T. H. Somervell.

This interlude of reflectiveness is followed by two more intrusions of the red peril. Martin Moran’s highly original capturing of Mount Kailash in Tibet along with its minor understudy in Kumaun (HJ 63) gets the disruptive treatment as does HJ 64. The latter cover depicts Mark Richey’s quirky snow cave bivouac site on Latok I. To some it may convey the drama of high exposure but to me it conjures up the Mad Hatter’s tea party in Disneyland. HJ 65 sees the abandonment of red ink for yellow and the result is an immediate reduction in visual confrontation. The cover shot of the stunning swirl of the Durung Drung glacier is by Harish presumably from the Pensi la. Extraordinarily this exalted view can now be seen from a bus window - though you may have to wait a week for the bus.

While Divyesh Muni’s ethereal study of Thalay Sagar on the cover of HJ 46 is my black and white favourite, Martin Moran’s close up of Rob Jarvis nearing the summit of Changuch (HJ 66) I find to be unbeatable as an expression of what human endeavour in the Himalaya is all about. This cover is the climax to years of editorial striving and makes the perfect farewell bow from Harish. You could argue the human presence in a photograph adds immediacy as well as scale.

The architecture of this cover is elemental where man (and title) have their appointed places and the above and below are at one. This is a classic symbol of the cocksure, an image that soars above the hostile opposites of Freud and the frigid. As it happens Martin Moran has also written my favourite Journal article in recounting his improbable trek to, and midnight climb of Nanda Kot after an immoderate feast, near the site where the Changuch photo was taken.

Rajesh Gadgil as Harish’s successor, aided by the first lady associate editor Nandini Purandare, seem to be quick learners. Their two covers in my survey avoid the shortcomings and cash in on the experience so hardly won by Harish’s long and devoted editorial innings. HJ 67’s cover features Harish’s shot of the elusive Kangto massif floating above a tribal stilted hut in East Kameng hinting at the mystique awaiting those privileged to tread this less known area of Arunachal Pradesh.

HJ 68’s acrobatic cover of Renan Ozturk snapped on Garhwal’s Shark’s Fin against the diamond dazzle of the sun’s rays is impeccably captured by Jimmy Chin. It echoes the lessons of layout learnt and crystallised in HJ 66. Together these two dramatic covers raise the bar and also the question whether the reader responds to the visually stunning or the inspirational.

As an amateur typesetter who purchased a tiny World War II letter press during the Emergency years these findings are open to question. Even if my reckoning is presumptuous it can serve to wrest from those better qualified opinions of more lasting worth. Reviewing all the covers makes you realise how nearly impossible it is for a single illustration to capture the elusive essence of the Himalayan experience: what makes us want to go there – and what compels us to go back. In spite of that a good many of the HJ covers succeed in pointing a finger in the right direction, surely the best (and overdue) tribute to the long hours of voluntary labour put in by the Journal’s editors.

A personal view expressing impressions created by the front covers of the Himalayan Journal over the years by a well known author and regular contributor to the Journal.


  1. This is a personal look by a non-professional at the evolution of the Himalayan Journal front cover. It hopes to stimulate opinion that will result in enhancing the Journal’s visual appeal. The illustrations, layout and typeface have been taken into consideration since only a successful fusion of all three elements makes for a memorable cover.
  2. HJ volumes were numbered in Roman till vol. XXXIV

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