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Pictures In The Papers
Born in the 1840’s, the era of the woodblock and the “view taken from nature,” early pictorial journalism left behind a matchless treasure of history
June 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 4
As the earliest specimen of photojournalism, the London print was a historic achievement. But in terms of technical enterprise, it was simply astounding. The picture began with “a very great many” small silver daguerreotype plates which were copied in pencil by an artist working on top of the column alongside M. Claudel. (Thus he could, as the paper explained, fill in “small deficiencies … from nature.”) After being fitted together, the whole picture was copied again on a prodigious block of Turkish boxwood, which all engravers preferred to use because of its special hardness. This block, however, was not a single piece of wood; the engraving was done across the grain, and even the best boxwood limber did not provide cross-section slices more than six or seven inches wide. It was for the Illustrated London News —and in part for this very picture—that Charles Wells of Lambeth perfected a method of fastening boxwood sections together with bolts inserted through channels in the back, to form a single smoolh surface of very large size. This was far superior to gluing or cementing, and it made possible the printing of full-page and double-page pictures on the presses used by newspapers.
In the case of the great London print, the drawing was done on the full-sized block, which was then unbolted in the back, and the sixty separate sections of boxwood were distributed among nineteen engravers for cutting. Already these quick-fingered experts were doing their job in assembly-line fashion—certain specialists engraved only architecture, others did trees and foliage, and others shaded in the “tints,” which was the term used for light and shadow effects. We are told that this one engraving took two months to complete, “the work never stopping night or day.” Finally, because the outsixed block was much too valuable to risk in a steam press, where heat and moisture might warp the wood, it was pressed into soft clay, and a solid metal stereotype was cast and used for the actual printing.
On May 28, 1842, in its third issue, the Illustrated London News published its first “candid” picture—“ A SCENE IN THE NURSERY AT CLAREMONT ”—showing the young Queen Victoria holding the Prince of Wales on her lap. Some Britishers thought that this invasion of privacy was unpatriotic and probably illegal, but the Queen didn’t seem to mind. The editors, as usual, fended off criticism with a bouquet of graceful prose: Our Artist has chosen for illustration one of those happy moments of maternal life when the magnificence and etiquette of the Queen is put aside by womanly tenderness for the expression of a mother’s love… But far be it from us to intrude further upon the sccresy of such domestic scenes, although the feelings of all fathers and mothers amongst her Majesty’s most loving and loyal of all subjects, cannot be prevented following her in thought and with heart…
A few months later the Illustrated London News published the first double spread of pictures ever to appear in a magaxine or newspaper, thus opening up the layout techniques that arc still standard in pictorial journalism. The subject of this coup d’oeil , as the caption writer called it, was a tour of Scotland by the Oueen and her handsome Consort, Prince Albert. The paper boasted that its “distinguished artist” had secured “a position near the immediate escort of our Sovereign during the whole progress of her journey.” This was the first time an artist-reporter was assigned to cover a running story at any great distance from home.
By the time of the Crimean War in 1854, the Illustrated London News had developed all the basic techniques for reporting great events in pictures. Beautifully executed views of fortifications, harbors, and camps—often much more revealing than photographs—were rushed from thebattlefront into print, along with pictures of violent combat for which the “special artists” endangered their lives. One artist sketched the Odessa bombardment from the mast of a British warship. The paper also made use of wet-plate photographs, the first time a war had been so reported. As a Christmas bonus for 1854, the editor presented his readers with a magnificent foldout drawing of the doomed charge of the Light Brigade, a scene that lived long in British hearts.
In our own Civil War the Illustrated London News did a great service by allowing its artist-correspondent, Frank Vizetelly, to spend most of his time with the Confederate armies. It printed 133 of Vizetelly’s drawings; these are now the only extensive source for viewing the fighting from the Southern side, beginning in 1862 at Fredericksburg and ending with Jefferson Davis’ flight from Richmond, in which Vizetelly took part. A few of the artist’s original sketches are now at the Harvard College Library. But most of them, along with everything else in the paper’s invaluable pictorial archives, were destroyed by Luftwaffe bombing raids in the dark days of the Second World War.