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Andrea Korda, Printing and Painting the News in Victorian London: The Graphic and Social Realism, 1869-1891

Farnham: Ashgate, 2015, 205 p. ISBN: 9781472432988 (hbk)
Sophie Stokes-Aymès
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Andrea Korda, Printing and Painting the News in Victorian London: The Graphic and Social Realism, 1869-1891, Farnham: Ashgate, 2015, 205 p. ISBN: 9781472432988 (hbk)

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1The role of mechanical reproduction in Victorian visual arts is a stimulating area of research. The assumption that this process entailed an impoverishment of artistic expression is often taken for granted as against the tenet of originality and singularity that enabled advocates of the revival of the graphic arts to secure a niche in a highly competitive market. Printing and Painting the News in Victorian London offers a different picture as Andrea Korda aims to revise the dichotomy between the modern image (i.e. mass-produced, objective and realist) and the (avant-garde, Aesthetic) modernist image. She investigates the works of three key contributors to The Graphic, Frank Holl, Luke Fildes and Hubert Herkomer who ‘adopted the strategies of a commercial and mechanical mass culture as a means of revitalizing high art’ (2). She takes her discussion into the broader area of intermedial studies, using Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin’s concept of remediation to explore the interaction between the three artists’ newspaper illustrations and their Social Realist paintings.

2In order to set the terms with which she analyses The Graphic’s contribution to visual culture, Korda devotes her first chapter to the Illustrated London News (launched in 1842). The ILN’s cutting-edge marketing strategy relied on a discourse of mechanical objectivity underpinned by an effacement of the medium that promoted a sense of immediacy. Its emphasis on visuality, topical variety and objectivity—guaranteed by the mechanically reproducible image—contributed to build a large middle-class readership and to displace the ideal of truthfulness and grandeur hitherto conveyed by academic historical painting and history writing. This challenge was part of a larger trend as the popular print and photography redefined markers of taste and generic conventions. Korda also contextualizes the discourse of objectivity, focusing on how physical, technological and ideological processes were naturalized against the backdrop of scientific objectivity in the emerging field of physiology.

3William Luson Thomas launched The Graphic in 1869 as a commercial venture with an artistic bent and the periodical became a direct competitor of the ILN. An engraver by trade, he was influenced by the radical ideas and the critique of industrialism voiced by Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin and William Linton. Instead of reproducing the division of labour imposed by the ILN, Thomas granted a fair amount of independence to the artists that he commissioned as well as in some cases the status of owners or even shareholders. This is tackled in the second chapter in which Korda discusses word and image relationships in both periodicals, focusing on the changing significance of immediacy. A series of eloquent comparisons shows that ILN pictures relied on detachment and distance, whereas The Graphic foregrounded the viewpoint of an embodied observer, thus condoning the discourse of objectivity in an opposed way. Illustrations came to override the text and displayed what the author calls ‘strong objectivity’ as they engaged the reader in an empathetic relation with the subject, as shown by Van Gogh’s reaction to some of these images. However The Graphic’s visuals became increasingly sensationalist and commercial, paving the way for the New Journalism of the 1880s and 1890s. By the late 1870s both periodicals had very similar outlooks. Holl, Fildes and Herkomer had already started to remediate their illustrations into paintings.

4The next three chapters are devoted to each artist’s career and to the reception of their illustrations and paintings, tackling contextual issues such as circulation, exhibition and ties with the Royal Academy. Chapters 3, 4 and 5 examine in turn Holl’s, Fildes’ and Herkomer’s brands of emotive genre painting derived from their early illustrative work for The Graphic. All of them addressed contemporary social issues and attracted derogatory reviews once their depiction of urban poverty was translated from newspaper illustration to oil painting—an inappropriate topic for the medium. From 1873 Holl reused his depictions of urban poverty in his RA works, tapping into the iconography of the fallen woman but providing pictures characterized by a grim pathos that sets it apart. A similar path was followed by Fildes as he introduced the motif of the fallen man into genre painting. Herkomer first used The Graphic as a ‘testing ground’ (146) for his paintings, and then simply borrowed from its imagery and topicality, competing with illustrated news. The impressionistic techniques and rules of composition derived from the three artists’ illustrative sketches endowed their paintings with a sense of immediacy that engaged the viewer. Korda argues that Holl’s impressionistic technique and Fildes’s lack of finish contributed to the development of a new way of seeing defined as ordinary, realist vision, as opposed to the rising Aesthetic artistic vision. In chapter 3, this is seen to tie in with Walter Benjamin’s opposition between distraction and concentration, a stimulating analogy that is relevant as far as newspaper consumption is concerned but which does not fully account for the painterly aspects of Holl’s and Fildes’s works, or for Herkomer’s ambivalent artistic and commercial stance. One feels that the dichotomy between modern and modernist image that Korda sets out to recast is simply replaced by this new set of opposed terms while in other respects her account reveals more porous boundaries and fluid transactions. Indeed, the emphasis on the bodily reaction of viewers increasingly seen as unsophisticated is a useful defining feature of a socially entrenched mode of visualization but which perhaps overlooks the fact that physiology and empathy played a key role in late Victorian and Modernist art across the board (see Robert Brain’s The Pulse of Modernism).

5Chapter 4 delineates more precisely the way social and generic boundaries were increasingly blurred as Social Realist genre painting espoused the format of history painting and redirected its heroic content towards a new definition of heroic action and of the social and moral function of art. Korda traces the career of individual works from the 1870s (such as Fildes’s The Applicants and Holl’s Newgate) to shed light on the changing meaning that their imagery acquired with ‘translation from print to paint’ (120). Of great interest is their subsequent relocation to the art galleries of the upwardly mobile entrepreneurs—Lancashire cotton industrialists Thomas Taylor and Edward Hermon—and to the collection of the Royal Holloway College for women, set up by the ‘Prince of Advertisers’ Thomas Holloway who exhibited thus his own ‘benevolence and heroic philanthropism’ (133), as well as the educational role of such paintings. Chapter 5 traces Herkomer’s career in a slightly different way. Of the three artists under study, he is the one who engaged more actively with a redefinition of the artist’s social role, and aimed at a compromise between Aesthetic concerns and commercialism. Korda shows that his appropriation of ‘all visual forms’ (164) was a strategy that successfully served his career.

6The concluding chapter brings us to the early 1890s and the closing years of Social Realism. Korda looks at paintings by Fildes and Herkomer that reinstate the figure of the manly hero which prevailed in mid-century art. The implied viewer assumes a more detached position that accounts for their consensual reception. Prints of Fildes’s The Doctor (1891)—commissioned by Henry Tate—circulated widely, contrary to the three artists’ earlier Social Realist paintings, which Korda construes as their resistance to commodification—an interesting observation that is left open. Generally speaking the medial significance of engraving is given less prominence in this study and the umbrella term of ‘remediation’ does not always address the detailed interaction between social realist painting, interpretive or illustrative engraving and photography.

7These details aside, Korda’s study provides a very stimulating addition to the history of art from the 1860s to the early 1890s, and of its reception and circulation. Printing and Painting the News in Victorian London successfully reclaims an understudied aspect of Victorian visual culture and will appeal to specialists of illustration, painting, the history of mass media and the periodical press, and intermediality.

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Sophie Stokes-Aymès, « Andrea Korda, Printing and Painting the News in Victorian London: The Graphic and Social Realism, 1869-1891 », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 86 Automne | 2017, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2017, consulté le 16 août 2018. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/cve/3416

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Sophie Stokes-Aymès

University of Burgundy

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Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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