Timeless (II)

Volume One, Issue 1 (left) with a painting by Chet Reneson on the cover, and our November, 2023 issue, sporting a painting by Brett James Smith. If that cover is not timeless, what is?

by Terry Wieland

According to Oxford, the definition of elegance, dating from 1797, is “refined tastefulness.”

In my previous piece here, I quoted Beau Brummell as the originator of good taste in men’s clothing.  He once said, “If men turn to look at you in the street, you are not well dressed.”  Of course, men and women did turn to look at him in the street, but only in order to admire and, if possible, to emulate.  He was always immaculately and tastefully dressed.

One way to recognize elegance is timelessness.  If something made a hundred years ago is still attractive, and does not appear dated or old-fashioned, chances are it’s elegant.  Think of one of those gossamer lavender evening gowns from the Edwardian era.  That’s elegant.

Almost fifty years ago, Ed and Rebecca Gray founded Gray’s Sporting Journal.  It was to be a literary magazine devoted to hunting and fishing, but not in the standard hook-and-bullet style of Outdoor Life.  Unlike the Big Three, which were embracing photography and how-to, Gray’s would publish fiction, poetry, and art, as well as non-fiction, all devoted to the outdoors.

Gray’s first art director was DeCourcy Taylor, and much of the credit for the new magazine’s appearance belongs to him.  The very first issue, in 1976, had a gleaming white cover, with the name in classic black serif type, framing a painting by Chet Reneson.  In a world of magazine covers that competed by shouting at you in garish colors and sensational headlines, Gray’s Sporting Journal stood out because it was none of those things.

One of Beau Brummell’s dicta was that, to be well-dressed, a man should wear only black or midnight blue, combined with snowy white and occasionally a buff waistcoat.  Dark, clean, understated.  The Gray’s cover, front and back, fulfilled those requirements, and has—with one or two ill-advised deviations—done so to this very day.  In the mid-‘90s the Expeditions & Guides annual was sometimes given a different design, but those missteps are best forgotten—like the time your tailor talked you into a polyester dress shirt.

The astonishing thing is that Gray’s design was settled on in the mid-1970s, the decade that good taste forgot.  Remember what you were wearing in 1975?  We had polyester bell bottoms, outlandish sideburns, shirts with collar points five inches long, and pseudo-Edwardian jackets with lapels that stretched to the horizon.  And all in outlandish colors or psychedelic paisley.

The best place to see how truly awful it all was is to look at your (or your parents’) wedding photos.

Let me tell what you’ll see, most of the time:  The groom and his sidekicks will look like a failed garage band in electric-blue ‘formal’ wear.  The bridesmaids might not be much better, but the bride?

Brides (or brides’ mothers) don’t make mistakes:  She’ll be in an elegant white gown that could have graced her mother, her grandmother or, going the other way, her granddaughter far in the future.  The classic white bridal gown is one of western civilization’s most timeless creations.  Regardless of her actual status, on her wedding day a bride is always a virgin.

To the best of my knowledge, Ed Gray and DeCourcy Taylor did not aim to be virginal.  They did, however, aim to be classic, and they succeeded.

With the magazine’s perfect-bound spine (as opposed to the usual saddle-stitched construction of most magazines at that time) the white cover made Gray’s Sporting Journal an elegant addition to any bookshelf.  It also looked right at home on the most upscale coffee table, and unlike that other suburban coffee-table favorite, Architectural Digest, the inhabitants would actually read Gray’s from cover to cover.

Gray’s subscribers also began collecting the magazine, issue by issue; some devotees had them bound in hard covers, a year or two at a time.  A couple of years ago, I found two such books in an antique store outside San Antonio.  One is 1976, the other 1977.  Whether he continued, or where subsequent volumes might be, I have no idea.  But I gladly handed over a hundred bucks for the pair.

For many years, Gray’s operated a clearing house of sorts for readers seeking to buy complete sets of back issues, and for those, usually heirs, wanting to sell.  We still get enquiries about both buying and selling.  There is no question that a complete collection of Gray’s is an asset to any bookshelf.

In May, 2025, we are publishing our 50th Anniversary issue.  It will be twice our usual number of pages but otherwise remarkably similar to the first issue from 1976.  It will be elegant as always and not look dated in the least—which is not something you can say about many things that had their origins in 1975.

Gray’s shooting editor Terry Wieland remembers the day in 1985 when he walked into a bookstore and saw a copy of Gray’s Sporting Journal on the rack for the first time.  It stood out like a white Arabian in a herd of draught horses.  On such trifles do our destinies hinge.