Pictures In The Papers

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O n May 30, 1842, a young Englishman named John Francis chew a pistol from his waistcoat pocket and fired a shot at Queen Victoria as she rode by in an open carriage. A police constable grabbed the would-be assassin just as he pressed the trigger, so his bullet whizzed harmlessly through the air. His effort made history nonetheless, for it became the subject of the first spot news picture in the world’s first pictorial newspaper, the still surviving—and still great— Illustrated London News .

This pioneer picture is reproduced in the portfolio thai accompanies this article. Pictorial journalism, as a distinct profession, technique, and business, is now 120 years old. Its newest productions are not necessarily its most handsome or entertaining—as the display of older American papers on the opposite page may suggest.

Of course some people have always expected that a public fed on pictures would stop reading words entirely. Pictorial journalism was still very young when William Wordsworth wrote a gloomy sonnet entitled “Illustrated Books and Newspapers”:

Now prose find and verse sunk into disrepute, Must lacquey a dumb Art that best can suit The taste of this once-intellectual Land. A backward movement surely have we here, From manhood,—back to childhood… Avaunt this vile abuse of pictured page! Must ayes be all-in-all, the tongue and ear Nothing? Heaven keep us from a lower stage!

Yet in spite of the Poet Laureate’s disdain, and much justified criticism over the years, the pictorial press as an institution has never slopped expanding. In numbers of individual papers and variety of interest, it probably reached its peak in the 1880’s and 90’s. But in total circulation and its mastery over popular taste, it was never more imposing than it is today.

To historians all this is uselul, and is even becoming essential. The intimate manuscript letters and diaries through which so much of the past is studied are rarely produced in this mechanized age. But intimate photography is everywhere, even behind the President’s rocking chair, and with it now is the electronic ear of television, which records whatever it hears. These instruments cannot read man s secret thoughts—at least not yet—but they perpetuate more facts about his activities than any previous period dreamed of.

The connection between picture news and history was stressed from the beginning. In the preface to the very first volume of the Illustrated London News , for the year 1842, is this charming example of Victorian promotion copy: What would Sir Walter Scott or any of great writers of modern times have given … for any museum-preserved volume such as we have here enshrined. The life of the times—the signs of its taste and intelligence—its public monuments and public men—its festivals—institutions—amusements—discoveries—and the very reflection of its living manners and costumes—all … these would have lain hid in Time’s tomb or perished amid the sand of his hour-glass but for the enduring and resuscitating powers of art… Could the days of Elizabeth or others as bright and earlier still be unfolded to us through such a mirror what a mint of wisdom might we gather… !

Of just as much captivating value then is such a book to the future. It will pour the lore of the Antiquarian into the scholar’s yearning soul, and teach him truth about those who have gone before him… This volume is a work that history must keep.

So far as the Illustrated London News is concerned, these words are lastingly true. Its bound volumes are a matchless treasury of the whole world’s history, as seen through English eyes. From the start it put special emphasis on the speedy gathering and dramatic picturing of news. Since nobody had done this before, it had to invent its own techniques.

All of its early pictures were woodcuts, drawn on the wood by artists and then engraved by craftsmen who were often artists too. But it began making use of photography before the end of its first year. It commissioned one M. Claudel, a manipulator of the newly invented Daguerrean apparatus, to build a stand on the Duke of York’s column, 120 feet high, and take the first photographic portrait of the city of London. The resulting print, distributed with the issue for January 7, 1843, was almost four feet wide and three feet deep, consisting of two engraved panoramas, looking north and south from the column. It is still the biggest pictorial bonus ever issued to subscribers of any magazine or newspaper.