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At Work With: Penny Martin, The Gentlewoman
At work with

At Work With: Penny Martin, The Gentlewoman

Penny Martin is editor-in-chief of The Gentlewoman, the biannual magazine that like its brother Fantastic Man is a flagbearer for contemporary independent publishing. It offers a clear alternative to mainstream women’s magazines, its choice of cover stars – including Adele, Angela Lansbury, Beyonce and most recently Vivienne Westwood, all shot in black and white – symbolising that difference. Before launching the magazine in 2010 Penny was chair of fashion imagery at the London College of Fashion and before that editor-in-chief of SHOWstudio. Here she looks ahead at her week with issue nine of her magazine still fresh on the newsstand.

Portrait of Penny by Thomas Lohr

Where are you today?
I’m in my home office in Ealing, west London – I moved here six or so years ago from Clerkenwell and I really love it. I thought the commute would be punishing but in fact the distance from the town centre and from the office has been really beneficial.

What can you see from the window?
Our small back garden, which our cat Betty polices relentlessly and over the fence, the kitchens of a Japanese bakery. These are Victorian terraces made of particularly lovely golden bricks. It’s quite pretty; I’m very lucky. Previously, I lived in Spa Green – the amazing social housing blocks built by Lubetkin in the 1940s, which was a totally different style of living. I didn’t think I’d ever be able to make the transition but it’s worked out well.

Are you a morning or evening person?
I’m infuriatingly energetic in the morning and quite sleepy by mid-evening.

What’s your favourite magazine this morning?

Well, I’m a diehard Fantastic Man fan, always was. But the only magazine I’ve had a recent subscription for is The New Yorker. I say recent because I had to stop it; I couldn’t keep up with a weekly and all those unread copies were making me anxious.

The Gentlewoman
is the first magazine you've edited. Have you been enjoying the process of making a magazine?

I did edit a website, of course, which isn’t a million miles away and even curating an exhibition has some similarities to the process and hierarchy of information. But yes, there was a lot to learn and the early stages were quite nerve-racking; I am so respectful of the other magazines in our stable – Fantastic Man and BUTT – that I didn’t want to be responsible for besmirching the brand in any way by producing anything lacklustre or worse. I must say, I absolutely love it – working with such intelligent people is the best job in the world. But I don’t think I’ll ever feel completely at ease; I quite like the feeling that I haven’t learnt everything there is to know and the sense that we haven’t made our best issue yet.

It’s easy to understand The Gentlewoman in opposition to mainstream women’s magazines, but where do you look to for positive inspiration?

I think less about other magazine forms and more about the women interviewees as a starting point. Perhaps that’s a little disingenuous – obviously, I’m working with an extremely experienced and knowledgeable team and you only need to mention a typeface or a particular historical shoot for everyone to immediately understand what you’re thinking. But there’s a strong institutional emphasis on not repeating either ourselves or anyone else and in not looking back (“yesteryear” is probably the worst insult in our editorial meetings) so you have to look to the little details of modern life for ideas about the way the people you are writing about live and think. You know, the piece on the folding coat-hanger in the current issue (above). That started as an unfortunate incident when my Céline blazer came back from the coat-check with a new hump where it had been slung on a hook. For me, that’s far more interesting than a piece about, I don’t know, the trend for floral patterns. That said, maybe floral patterns could be a great story if they were photographed close-up by brilliant photographers like Maurice Sheltens and Liesbeth Abbenes, who often do our still life stories. You see? The most inspiring thing isn’t actually the clothes, for me it’s people.

Sadly there are only two issues of The Gentlewoman a year. What are you doing in-between issues?
Ha, we work all year on those two issues! Most of the time, it’s spent trying to convince women who are highly suspicious of fashion magazines to participate. It’s a time-consuming business.

What are you most looking forward to this week?
Kirsty Wark’s book launch. I read the advance copy – it’s called ‘The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle’ – and completely loved it as it’s set in the tiny village on the Isle of Arran where my mother grew up. It’s a strange coincidence since it’s all about a house with a very splendid garden and my brothers and I always used to wonder who lived there. Perhaps everyone did.

What are you least looking forward to this week?
A funeral, I’m afraid.

What will you be doing after this chat?
Our contributing editor Andrew Tucker is roasting a chicken as we speak and I’m about go get in a taxi to his extraordinarily beautiful flat. He’s been buying a lot of 18th and 19th century paintings, which he assures me are going for a song at auctions so no doubt there will be some ceremonial unveiling. And perhaps a little toast to the new issue.

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