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The Sphere: Popular Imperialism as Entertainment for the Twentieth Century

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Authored by Martin Conboy
Published on 20th September, 2023 15 min read

The Sphere: Popular Imperialism as Entertainment for the Twentieth Century

The Weekly Illustrated — A Long Gestation

The mid-nineteenth century saw the emergence of weekly and monthly illustrated periodicals. These were designed to appeal to middle-class audiences throughout western Europe. They were unique at the time because they mixed informative and entertaining content, making them enjoyable to read. They attracted large numbers of readers. The most successful by far was The Illustrated London News (ILN). From 1842 it was able to locate London as the epicentre of a global, imperial culture.[1] The ILN attracted readers with its combination of image, text, and the vicarious experience of Empire.[2]  

Established in January 1900, The Sphere drew on the success of the Illustrated London News, which appeared to guarantee that a slightly tweaked version of the weekly illustrated made good commercial sense. A former ILN editor, Clement Shorter, moved from editing the ILN to launch The Sphere as a direct rival. Its editorial range was enormous, from photo essays to cartoon illustrations, from recipes to fashion hints, as well as reports from across the Empire and reviews of West End plays. Its volume was also impressive, with issues frequently exceeding 50 pages. Despite its cosy-sounding original sub-title, An Illustrated Newspaper for the Home, it was as globally ambitious as the hugely successful ILN. Indeed, The Sphere became increasingly assertive and confident, displaying a greater sense of identity. This transformation is evidenced by the paper’s decision to update its sub-title to The Empire's Illustrated Weekly

The attractions of illustrated weekly news publications were becoming more apparent as the nineteenth century drew to a close. At first, on the back of the success of wood-cut and engraving based publications, periodicals that could include photographs had all the allure of novelty. As with popular daily newspapers launched around the same time — the Daily Mail (1896), the Daily Express (1900), and the Daily Mirror (1903) — there was clearly room within the illustrated news market for direct rivals competing for overlapping and sometimes identical audiences. 

The Imperial Experience

The successes of these new launches can be attributed to improved rates of literacy, social ambition and, in the case of the most popular weekly magazines, an apparent desire to bear witness to and take pride in the achievements of Empire. It should not be forgotten that The Sphere’s launch took place in the midst of the Second Boer War (1899–1902), a conflict that led commentators such as J. A. Hobson to complain of the role of the periodical press in “coarsening public discourse” and adding to a general atmosphere of “jingoism”.[3] The success of The Sphere in a crowded and competitive market can be largely attributed to its ability to celebrate imperial glories and to cultivate and feed-off social aspirations. Its editorial mix and conservative political perspective likewise played a vital role in terms of attracting readers. Its primary goal was to establish a unique appeal, one largely centred upon the capital of the Empire: London. 

“The centre of The Sphere will be London but its surface will hold pictures and thoughts from all lands… showing things as they are and not how they might be.” 

By the turn of the century the Empire had become crystallised within the national imagination. This had been achieved at home chiefly by the constant flow of celebratory discourses in popular culture. Any new, well-designed magazine could exploit the popular imperial context given that imperialism, at the turn of the century, was part of the fabric of British life.[4] As such, imperialism could be presented as “normal” in contrast to any “ideological” opposition that may haven been articulated by opponents of Empire, providing a worldview, an “instrumental knowledge” for British subjects, that incorporated “militarism, monarchism and Social Darwinism”.[5] In fact, the techniques and narratives that framed colonial subjects were also deployed to represent the urban poor in Britain. Rather than provided any structural economic or social explanations of their plight, the urban poor were presented as somehow culpably adrift from mainstream society and worthy only of pity.[6]

Technology and News Production

A changed technological landscape had evolved since the mid-nineteenth century as a result of the ILN’s repurposing of wood-cut engraved images. Furthermore, the speed of transmission had been accelerated by the extension of the telegraph system across the Empire throughout the 1860s and 1870s. Towards the turn of the century, more reliable cables ensured that images, including photographs, could be speedily dispatched thereby making visually prominent newspapers and magazines more current in their offerings. Developing technological infrastructure was first and foremost a political/economic imperative, designed to facilitate communications across the vast Empire, but periodical publications benefitted from this accelerated information flow.[7] Thus, the fortunes of the Empire and the profitability of publications were interlinked. The construction of railways across the Empire further facilitated the development of a “pan-imperial unity”.[8] Improvements in the quality of paper likewise allowed for better quality reproduction of images, including photographs. Yet while the successful daily popular newspapers were still constrained by the printing technology of the late nineteenth century and so concentrated on brevity and speed, the weeklies could spend more time composing and printing their more visually-appealing wares. 

Illustration and Photography

Despite the attractions of photography and the timescales that allowed a publication such as The Sphere to source them from anywhere in the world and to deploy them to good effect, Shorter retained his confidence in the work of news artists who sometimes worked from photographic material or sometimes drew their sketches “live”. This was often essential, as in the case of Fortunino Matania. His influential work from the front during the First World War could not have been captured by photographers given the limitations of both cameras and film and the requirement for images to be in effect still-life.  

The representation of contemporary events was claimed as evidence of the objectivity of photography. It was felt that photographs depicted the reporter as an unmediated presence at the scene of the news, thereby giving published images what has been termed an “evidential force”.[9] This process could be harnessed for ideological purposes, however. For example, far from providing a critique of the social status quo, the use of photographs generally reaffirmed and invited viewers to support and participate in an imperialist power structure. As been pointed out, this reinforced the belief that the power of the camera could essentially code the authority of the state and, in doing so, could transform daily life according to pre-existing ideological preferences.[10] Before the emergence of smaller 35mm cameras during the mid-1930s, the bulk of cameras lent themselves more to staged events than to spontaneous snapshots. In stark contrast to the critique of the social and political mainstream evident in successful publications in the UK in the 1930s (such as Picture Post), The Sphere invited its audience to bond in the soft power of Empire as spectacle. 

The Launch

The first issue of The Sphere was published on 27 January 1900. It offered an early version of the paper’s signature blend of information about was going on in the home country, pedalling nostalgia for those abroad missing their homeland, and providing the opportunity for trans-imperial identification via a series of reports on life throughout the Empire – from everyday exploits to one-off, newsworthy events. Suffice to say, Empire newsworthiness became a finely crafted variation on the national agenda. The increasing reliability and speed of transport throughout the Empire, described above, meant that contemporary events had greater significance. If you could not be “out there” in the Empire or had returned to Britain and were still in touch with your experience of the colonies, this publication was for you. 

The first five editions of The Sphere have an allegorical pairing holding a symbolic globe on the front cover. One woman has “WEST” written upon a crown in her hair, the other is represented in generic “orientalist” costume. The initial sub-title of The Sphere, An Illustrated Newspaper for the Home, exudes respectability. It also invokes visions of domesticity while extending the concept of “home” to include the imperial context. The sixth edition of the paper moves to the more conventional daily press format of featuring advertisements on the front page. On 6 April The Sphere begins to have advertisements on the first page and a full image of a topical event from home or abroad on the following page.  

From its first edition The Sphere presented the Second Boer War as a battle between two “races” (p. 14). “A History of the War” goes along with what it acknowledged was an appeal to the “popular imagination” of the “splendid defence of Mafeking”. There are illustrated, eulogistic pen portraits of Field Marshall Lord Roberts (VC of Kandahar) and Major General Lord Kitchener of Khartoum (p. 16). These are complemented by observations on how “the splendid character of the rank-and-file shines out” (p. 18) and a double-page illustration of “Our brave colonials – securing food for our troops” (pp. 24–25). Although there is an unsurprising, pro-British slant to the coverage of the war, more noteworthy are the stories of human interest from the perspective of the Boers. These include an illustrated report on Boer prisoners on board a British ship making toy versions of their homesteads and animals to be sold in Cape Town (6 April 1901, p. 9).

In “The Rising Generation of the Coloured Races: The Westernising of the Children India, German East Africa and China” (11 January 1908), we see a paternalistic imperial philanthropy on display and a Westernising of “coloured races”. We also have the regular report on home activities. This particular edition focused on ice and snow throughout Britain. Both features evidence the increasing reliance on contemporary, high-quality photography as opposed to dependence upon engravings from photographic plates as in previous popular magazines. 

The First World War saw a further increase in the quantity and quality of photographic material, especially on their front pages. The press recognised the appeal of war-related news. Advancements in newsprint technology also allowed for better and speedier processing of photographic material. After the war, the British Empire Exhibition, held between 1924 and 1925, offered news material that appealed to a worldwide audience. This content emphasised London's significance as the centre of the Empire. Colour front pages became increasingly frequent, such as that which opened the Christmas edition, published on 24 November. This ran to 90 pages and was published in time to reach imperial outposts. Advertising for up-market tourism was as aspirational as it was indicative of the global purview of the magazine. For example, an advert published on 14 February 1931 featured a large illustration with the phrase “Cruise in Comfort to Lands You’ve Longed to See”. In it, the pith-helmeted traveller is now a tourist rather than an imperial conqueror. The Sphere’s global ambitions were being continually enhanced by developments in transport. After the First World War, ship and air transport were facilitating travel between continents. Longer editorial/advertorial pieces highlight European and other destinations via the specialised Sphere travel bureau. There are also regular columns such as “Petrol World” and “Women’s Sphere” reflecting changing transport and social opportunities.

The “Orient Number”, published on 28 November 1936, has a drawn colour image of two white men in pith helmets lounging at a port while indigenous workers busy themselves in preparing for the arrival of an ocean liner. In addition, there are some colour tints in coverage of several far eastern dominions such as Hong Kong, Malaya, Singapore and Ceylon with features on governance, people in charge, and aspects of the local economies. There is also an editorial claim for the harmonising potential of the Rotary Club. As always at times of national tragedy or celebration, a royal visit was covered, in this case King Edward’s visit to “stricken’ South Wales” (pp. 22–23). The visit is portrayed as a sympathetic gesture to unemployed and economically destitute communities, although the commentary is (characteristically) entirely devoid of any deeper analysis or explanation. It too takes the form of a picture essay of grateful people and a sympathetic dignified king. The same edition also features a single image of bombed-out housing in Madrid that brings the world of military conflict ever closer to the readership (p.13).

The Second World War was the peak of the photo-led weekly publication, with the appearance of many of its type across the aesthetic range, such as Picture Post and Life. Whilst bearing similarities in terms of appearance, these publications could have very different politics. After this brief ascendancy, the 1960s witnessed the decline of weekly illustrated news. This was largely due to the success of commercial television. Speedier photographic and printing techniques also brought the photo-essay into the remit of the daily press whenever they saw it as a useful editorial strategy. The Empire was likewise becoming dated. In the 1960s The Sphere’s launched its “Voice of the Commonwealth” series. This provided weekly updates on developments throughout Commonwealth countries such as Australia, Ceylon, India, Pakistan, and Ghana. This series clearly constituted an editorial attempt to move with the times. Yet The Sphere retained its traditional reverence for the monarchy. For example, the image of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip arriving at Ascot in 1964 already looks as if it was from an earlier, more deferential age.

Yet the editorial policy forged by The Sphere had proved a winning formula. The paper ran for an impressive 64 years, entertaining readers with a smorgasbord of subjects ranging from fashion to foreign affairs. Its success coincided with the rise of an aspirational middle-class and the cultural products targeted at it, often loosely defined in derogatory fashion as “middle-brow”. The success of competing and even overlapping publications was affirmed when, in 1928, Illustrated News Limited brought eight publications (the “Great Eight”) under its control including The Illustrated London News and The Sphere.

The Sketch, The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, and The Sphere were all dropped in the decades after the Second World War and the Illustrated London News was reduced in frequency from weekly to monthly, and finally to quarterly, before closing in 2003. The Sphere closed in June 1964 after 3,343 issues. Beyond technological and commercial challenges, perhaps it was also out of touch with the often observed decline in deference in a more egalitarian society. It also found itself in a world where unreflective celebration of Empire was less widely accepted as a cultural or political norm, especially as the Empire became dissolved into a Commonwealth of largely independent nations. Just as its audience and content had once successfully aligned, so its carefully constructed representation of the popular imagination had become outdated. 

[1] Martin Conboy, “Popular Pictures of Imperialism: The Illustrated London News in 1842”, in The Language of Discovery, Exploration and Settlement, ed. N. Brownlees (Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2020), 71.

[2] See P. W. Sinnema, “Constructing a Readership: Surveillance and Interiority in the Illustrated London News”, Victorian Review 20, no. 2 (Winter, 1991): 142–161. 

[3] See J. A. Hobson The Psychology of Jingoism (London: G. Richards, 1903).

[4] J. M. MacKenzie, ed., Imperialism and Popular Culture (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1986); V. G. Kiernan, The Lords of Human Kind: European Attitudes to the Outside World in the Imperial Age (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972); C. Kaul, Reporting the Raj: The British Press and India c. 1880–1922 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003).

[5] J. M. MacKenzie, “The Press and the Dominant Ideology of Empire”, in Newspapers and Empire in Ireland and Britain: Reporting the British Empire, c. 1876–1922, ed. S. J. Potter (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2004), 27.

[6] B. Beavan, Visions of Empire: Patriotism, Popular Culture and the City, 1870–1939 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2010), 65.

[7] Martin Conboy, Journalism, Technology and Cultural Practice: A History (Abingdon: Routledge, 2023), 42–43.

[8] S. J. Potter, News and the British World: The Emergence of an Imperial Press System, 1876–1922 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2003), 5.

[9] P. Twaites, “Circles of Confusion and Sharp Vision: British News Photography, 1919–1939”, in Northcliffe’s Legacy: Aspects of the British Popular Press, 1896–1996, ed. P. Catterall, C. Seymour-Ure and A. Smith (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2010), 97.

[10] J. Tagg, The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories (Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 1993), 63–64. 

Authored by Martin Conboy

Martin Conboy

Martin Conboy FRHistS is Emeritus Professor of Journalism History and co-director (with Professor Adrian Bingham) of the Centre for the Study of Journalism and History based in Sheffield. He has produced fifteen books on the language and history of journalism and is widely published in scholarly journals. With Professor David Finkelstein, he is the series editor for the three-volume Edinburgh History of the British and Irish Press: 1640-2017. His most recent publications are Global Tabloid: Culture and Technology (2021) co-edited with Dr Scott A. Eldridge II (Groningen), Cato Street Conspiracy: Plotting, counter-intelligence and the revolutionary tradition in Britain and Ireland (2019) co-edited with Dr Jason McElligott, with Professor Bingham volume three of the Edinburgh History of the British and Irish Press:1900-2017 (2022) and the monograph Journalism, Technology and Cultural Practice: A History (2023) He is active on the editorial boards of twelve journals including Journalism Studies: Media History, Journalism: Theory, Practice and Criticism and Memory Studies. His research has been funded by the AHRC, Marsh’s Library in Dublin and the Dutch NWO.

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