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The Graphic, 1869–1932

Authored by Andrea Korda
Published on 19th September, 2023 17 min read

The Graphic, 1869–1932

Launched in December 1869 by the artist and engraver William Luson Thomas, the weekly newspaper The Graphic got off to an advantageous start by prioritising visual storytelling and high-quality illustrations. Before its first anniversary, the newspaper boasted that 

the high reputation of the Artists employed…and…the care and finish with which the Engravings of THE GRAPHIC are executed… have induced an opinion in some quarters that THE GRAPHIC is ‘too good to last’.[1]

Of course, The Graphic did last, continuing publication until 1932. In subsequent years, art historians and literary scholars have studied its pages. The Graphic’s emphasis on artists and artistry, evident in the quote above, has made it especially interesting to art historians, who have considered the mutual influences between The Graphic and the fine arts in Britain.[2] Yet The Graphic’s emphasis on visuals was not unique for its time. As literary scholar Alison Hedley has shown, newspapers — even illustrated newspapers like The Graphic and its closest rival, the Illustrated London News (ILN) — were becoming increasingly visual in the latter part of the nineteenth century.[3]  

In this essay, I begin with a discussion of the distinctive aspects of The Graphic that have attracted the attention of art historians like myself, highlighting the role that art and artists played in Thomas’s vision for the newspaper. Next, I consider The Graphic in the context of what Hedley has called “the new media landscape” of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, calling attention to the technologies that helped shape this landscape.[4] Finally, I will consider the newspaper’s readership and the varied ways that nineteenth and twentieth century readers may have consumed The Graphic’s pages.  

Art and Artistry in The Graphic’s Early Years

On 6 September 1869 Thomas announced his intention to start a new weekly newspaper in a letter to the artist Luke Fildes. Thomas envisioned it as “a high priced paper, the very best we can get together by the combination of the best writers, artists, engravers and printers”.[5] With this paper, Thomas aimed to give greater authority and freedom to artists and engravers, in comparison to the system in place at the ILN, where draughtsmen and engravers had been typically treated as factory hands on a production line.[6] To begin with, Thomas reserved shares in the newspaper that were kept exclusively for contributing artists, who were then consulted on decisions concerning the newspaper.[7] He also welcomed original submissions and encouraged artists to choose their own subjects. The artist Hubert von Herkomer, who went on to become a celebrated Royal Academician, recalled that when he turned up at Thomas’s office and asked to be supplied with subjects, he was told firmly that he must look for his own subjects. At first, Herkomer resented this response, but in retrospect, he wrote that “they were the words I needed: they were the making of me as an artist!”[8] 

Encouraging artists to contribute illustrations on subjects of their own choosing meant that Thomas gave these artists some authority in deciding what would constitute the weekly news. This approach — where images provided the starting point for news stories — was emphasised in The Graphic by a format adopted on 15 July 1871, during the magazine’s second year of publication. In a newly introduced section titled “Our Illustrations”, texts played a supporting role in relation to the images included in surrounding pages, explaining what was pictured and describing the conditions under which the illustrations were made. This approach was in stark contrast with the ILN in its early years. There, according to writer and publisher Henry Vizetelly,  

the system pursued with regard to the majority of engravings of current events… was to scan the morning papers carefully, cut out such paragraphs as furnished good subjects for illustration, and send them with the necessary boxwood blocks to the draughtsmen employed.[9] 

The first full-page illustration that appeared in the very first issue of The Graphic on 4 December 1869 was Luke Fildes’s “Houseless and Hungry”. This resulted from a commission from Thomas for a drawing on any subject of Fildes’s choosing.[10] The illustration is typical of those singled out as unique within the newspaper’s pages. “Houseless and Hungry” treats the topic of poverty with artistry, while also calling attention to modern social institutions that responded to the challenges of urban poverty, such as the police force, workhouses, and charity schools. This is similar to other illustrations from The Graphic’s early years, such as “Night Charges on Their Way to the Station” (11 December 1869), “The Children at Dinner in the Orphan Working School, Haverstock Hill” (9 July 1870), and “Shoemaking at the Philanthropic Society’s Farm School at Redhill” (18 May 1872). The Graphic’s illustrations tended to provide a closer and more engaged look at their subjects than illustrations published in the ILN around the same time, which are characterised by a more distant and detached viewpoint.[11] In “Houseless and Hungry”, for example, the perspective offers the viewpoint of a present, embodied observer and the figures are pressed into the foreground of the image, close to the newspaper’s readers. The figures are also large and detailed, with the result that they appear as distinct individuals worthy of compassion and assistance.  

A number of early contributors to The Graphic went on to achieve success as artists and earn recognition from London’s Royal Academy, including Fildes and Herkomer, as well as Frank Holl, Lady Butler (known as Elizabeth Thompson when she worked for The Graphic), Henry Woods, Edward John Gregory, Robert Walker Macbeth, and Frederick Walker.[12] Some of Fildes’s, Herkomer’s, and Holl’s most notable paintings were based on socially-conscious drawings of subject matter that appeared first in The Graphic, including Fildes’s Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward (1874); Frank Holl’s Deserted—A Foundling (1874) and Gone (1877); and Hubert Herkomer’s The Last Muster (1875) and Eventide: A Scene in the Westminster Union (1878). In most cases, the initial illustrations that gave rise to the oil paintings were also conceived as works of art. As Tom Gretton has explained, magazines like The Graphic “imagined themselves not merely to be harnessing art’s resources, but also to be producing images with an authentic claim to be works of art”.[13] 

The Graphic and the New Media Landscape

While The Graphic got its start as a result of Thomas’s unique vision for the newspaper, its distinctiveness did not last long. By the early 1870s, the ILN began imitating the bolder style of illustration adopted at The Graphic, so that the two newspapers began to look increasingly indistinguishable as the years passed, especially when we consider the variety of subjects that took their place alongside The Graphic’s socially-conscious subjects.[14] In the first issue, for example, “Houseless and Hungry” was joined by a portrait of the Queen, Paris fashions, and illustrations reporting on the recent opening of the Suez Canal. The Franco-Prussian War, which began in July of 1870, also provided subject matter during the newspaper’s first year of publication and has been credited with sustaining the interest of the paper’s readership.[15] 

Moreover, every issue featured news from around the British Empire. Like the illustrations highlighting social issues, The Graphic’s depictions of life around the British Empire and of the broader world were also rendered in a bold style that heightened their immediacy. But in the absence of any push towards compassion or social action, the immediacy of the images is more readily interpreted as a strategy for attracting and entertaining readers. Considered in this light, The Graphic appears to have participated in what contemporary critics and historians have described as the increasing commercialism and sensationalism of the press.[16] While some critics believed that this “New Journalism” “pandered to the lowest tastes of their readers because that was the shortest way to their pockets”,[17] others explained that more visuals, shorter texts, and sensational titles were necessary “to get your ideas through the hurried eyes and into the whirling brains” of newspaper readers.[18] At least one critic thought that The Graphic played a significant role in the development of “New Journalism”, suggesting that “social paragraphism began with the oldest of the so-called society journals about 1869”.[19] 

The transition from a textually oriented to a more visually oriented media landscape, seen clearly in the pages of The Graphic and described by literary scholar Alison Hedley, was facilitated by technological changes that offered new ways to reproduce images.[20] Though Thomas established a reputation for The Graphic in its early years by collaborating with artists and engravers, The Graphic’s large-scale operations also participated in what Gerry Beegan has described as “the transformation of wood engraving from the artisanal workshops in the late 1840s to the assembly line systems of the 1880s”.[21] New technologies that made use of photography, such as photorelief line process (first used in The Graphic on 13 September 1879) and the halftone process (first appearing in The Graphic on 6 September 1884) contributed to the shifting status of both artists and engravers within the pictorial press.[22] We also know that not all of The Graphic’s illustrations were created by artists. In his recollections on “The Making of the ‘Graphic’,” Thomas suggested that he prized “a direct sketch from Nature” above all else. He also recounted how The Graphic had made use of “sketches and photographs of subjects of interest” that had come “pouring in, not only from our own special artists, but from the general public, more particularly from military and naval officers scattered over the world”.[23] 

Reading The Graphic Around the World

Due to the reach of the British Empire and the mobility of British people, The Graphic circulated around the world and reached a wide demographic.[24] Though it targeted an upper-middle-class audience with its high price (at sixpence per issue in 1869), this publication’s pages reached a far more diverse audience than its price would suggest. Beegan notes that “servants would often read their employers’ magazines”, while issues displayed in the windows of publishers’ offices “attract[ed] spectators who lingered over the pictures they contained”.[25] An illustration published in The Graphic on 1 December 1877 alludes to the newspaper’s wide range of readers and their varied reading practices. It portrays an upper-class, elegantly dressed, white (British or Dutch) man who has emerged from a shop in Capetown, South Africa with The Graphic’s most recent “War Number” in hand. He and his companions, who look over his shoulders at the newspaper, are contrasted with a cluster of men identified by the accompanying caption and text as Muslim labourers from Southeast Asia who crowd around the shop window “inspecting the pictures of our war number”.[26] This illustration suggests that there was a range of ways to engage with The Graphic and that its audience was by no means confined to upper-middle-class Londoners.

Both Beegan and Hedley have described the varied ways that illustrated papers like The Graphic may have been consumed. Beegan notes that “the reader turns the pages backward and forward, glancing rather than studying”, with the structure of illustrated news “allow[ing] readers to construct their own order, starting and ending where they wish”.[27] Hedley has called attention to the “subversive tactics” that readers may have brought to newspapers like The Graphic and offers examples of “opportunities for subversion that periodicals afforded readers”.[28] Hedley points out that readers might engage critically with the texts, images, and advertisements that filled The Graphic’s pages, producing interpretations that ran counter to the dominant ideologies of British imperialism and consumerism. In some cases, readers have left behind material traces of these interpretations in the form of scrapbooks, where cut-outs from The Graphic and other periodicals demonstrate the scrapbook maker’s abilities to appropriate, intervene in, and even subvert the newspaper’s contents (for an example, see Frederick Langton’s Scrapbook, c. 1870–1900, in the Victorian Things digital exhibit.) 

The digitisation of The Graphic by British Online Archives offers greater opportunities to engage with the newspaper’s pages and to witness firsthand its unique aspects, such as the illustration “Houseless and Hungry” published in its first issue, and those aspects that are typical of the period’s newspapers, including the increasing emphasis on visual reportage. By being available in our classrooms, libraries, offices, and homes through a digital interface, this version of The Graphic also allows us to engage with its pages in varied ways, to apply our own reading tactics, and so to arrive at fresh interpretations. 

 [1] “Preface”, The Graphic, vol. 2 (July–Dec. 1870).

[2] See Caroline Arscott, “From Graphic to Academic”, in Art and the Academy in the Nineteenth Century, ed. by Rafael Cardoso Denis and Colin Trodd (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000), 114–15; Tom Gretton, “Industrialised Graphic Technologies in Symbiosis with the World of Art: The Illustrated London News and the Graphic c. 1870–c. 1890”, in Art Versus Industry? New Perspectives on Visual and Industrial Cultures in Nineteenth-Century Britain, ed. by Kate Nichols, Rebecca Wade, and Gabriel Williams (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016): 140–57; Andrea Korda, Printing and Painting the News in Victorian London: The Graphic and Social Realism, 1869–1891 (Brookfield, VT: Ashgate, 2015); and Julian Treuherz, Hard Times: Social Realism in Victorian Art (Manchester: Manchester City Art Galleries, 1987).

[3] Alison Hedley, Making Pictorial Print: Media Literacy and Mass Culture in British Magazines, 1885–1918 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2021).

[4] Hedley, Making Pictorial Print, 26–62.

[5] William Luson Thomas to Luke Fildes, 6 Sept. 1869, Correspondence of or concerning Luke Fildes, MSL/1972/6977/1, National Art Library, London. Charging sixpence per issue when it launched in 1869, The Graphic targeted the same upper-middle-class audience as the fivepence-per-issue ILN

[6] On the ILN’s treatment of its draughtsmen and engravers, and Thomas’s conflict with the ILN which likely led to his decision to launch The Graphic, see Korda, Printing and Painting the News in Victorian London, 49–56. 

[7] Thomas to Fildes, 6 Sept. 1869, MSL/1972/6977/1; Luke Fildes to Henry Woods, 28 Oct. 1876, Correspondence of or concerning Luke Fildes, MSL/1972/6970/912, National Art Library, London; and Philip McEvansoneya, “Luke Fildes and the Launch of The Graphic”, Notes and Queries 46, no. 4 (Dec. 1999): 482. 

[8] Sir Hubert von Herkomer, The Herkomers (London: Macmillian, 1910), 148–9.

[9] Henry Vizetelly, Glances Back Through Seventy Years: Autobiographical and Other Reminiscences (London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1893), 232.

[10] Thomas to Fildes, 6 Sept. 1869, MSL/1972/6977/1.

[11] For an in-depth analysis of The Graphic and the ILN’s illustrations during The Graphic’s early years see Korda, Printing and Painting the News in Victorian London, 56–70. 

[12] “Graphic Artists”, The Graphic (6 Dec. 1890), 634.

[13] Gretton, “Industrialised Graphic Technologies in Symbiosis with the World of Art”, 146. See also Korda, Printing and Painting the News in Victorian London, 154.

[14] Treuherz also makes this point when he explains that The Graphic “was a general interest magazine, and cheek by jowl with pictures of beggars and workmen were engravings of fancy balls, new town halls, royal visits and portraits of famous people”. See Treuherz, Hard Times, 54. On the similarities between the ILN and The Graphic following the latter’s earliest issues see Gretton, “Industrialised Graphic Technologies in Symbiosis with the World of Art”, 150; Korda, Printing and Painting the News in Victorian London, 80; and Hubert Herkomer, “Drawing and Engraving on Wood”, Art Journal (1882), 168.

[15] Treuherz writes that “the early success of the magazine was largely due to the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War”. See Treuherz, Hard Times, 55. See also C.N. Williamson, “Illustrated Journalism in England: Its Development. – II”, Magazine of Art 13 (1890): 334–40; Clement Shorter, “Illustrated Journalism: Its Past and Its Future”, Contemporary Review 75 (April 1899): 481–92.

[16] On “New Journalism”, see Martin Conboy, Journalism in Britain: A Historical Introduction (London: Sage Publications, 2011); Mark Hampton, Visions of the Press in Britain, 1850–1950 (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2004); Joel Wiener, The Americanization of the British Press, 1830s–1914: Speed in the Age of Transatlantic Journalism (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011); Joel Wiener, “How New Was the New Journalism?” in Papers for the Millions: The New Journalism in Britain, 1850 to 1914, ed. by Joel Wiener (New York: Greenwood Press, 1988): 47–71; and Kevin Williams, Read All About It! A History of the British Newspaper (London and New York: Routledge, 2010).

[17] “The Morning Star,” National Observer 5 (18 April 1891),  552.

[18] T.P. O’Connor, “The New Journalism”, New Review 1 (1889), 430.

[19] “The New Journalism: Is There Not a Cause?”, Speaker 1 (1 March 1890), 223.

[20] Hedley, Making Pictorial Print, 5–6. See also Gerry Beegan, The Mass Image: A Social History of Photomechanical Reproduction in Victorian London (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).

[21] Beegan, The Mass Image, 47.

[22] Shorter, “Illustrated Journalism: Its Past and Its Future”, 490. On the photorelief line process and the halftone process, see Beegan, The Mass Image, 72–97. 

[23] William Luson Thomas, “The Making of the ‘Graphic’”, Universal Review (15 Sept. 1888), 85.

[24] As Thomas Smits has explained, audiences for nineteenth century illustrated newspapers were “far less national than scholars have previously assumed,” and their illustrations were “transnational products.” Thomas Smits, The European Illustrated Press and the Emergence of a Transnational Visual Culture of the News, 1842–1870 (New York and London: Routledge, 2020), 3. It is noteworthy that The Graphic depended financially on British imperialist interests, with much of the initial funding coming from British merchants in South America, as described by Thomas in “The Making of the ‘Graphic’”, 82.

[25] Beegan, The Mass Image, 37 and 31.

[26] “Excitement of Mahomedans at Capetown, South Africa”, The Graphic (1 Dec. 1877), 521.

[27] Beegan, The Mass Image, 14.

[28] Hedley, Making Pictorial Print, 64 and 78.

Authored by Andrea Korda

Andrea Korda

Andrea Korda is Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Alberta’s Augustana Faculty. She is the author of Printing and Painting the News in Victorian London: The Graphic and Social Realism, 1869–1891 (Ashgate, 2015), and a co-organizer of the Crafting Communities project ( Her articles on nineteenth-century British visual and material culture have appeared in The Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies, Victorian Network, the Journal of Victorian Culture, Paedagogica Historica, Word & Image, and Nineteenth-Century Art Online.

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