Colonial illustrated newspapers were part of an explosion of imagery in 19th-century Europe, North America and Australia, catering to an ascendant middle class. They were characterised by an expansion of oil and water-colour painting, the invention of photography and the development of a popular illustrated press. Indeed, the papers occupied a 50-year hiatus between the invention of photography in England and France in 1839, and the development of the photo-mechanical half-tone process in the United States in the late 1880s. Before this, illustrators’ sketches, photographs and paintings were nearly always reproduced as wood engravings.
This printing technique was developed in England at the turn of the 19th century, and involved engraving across the end-grain of the very hard boxwood, which allowed for much finer detail. It was adapted by the Penny Magazine for the mass production of images in 1832, since the extreme hardness of boxwood also allowed for tens of thousands of images to be printed from a single block without any significant deterioration in image quality. When the Illustrated London News was launched in 1842, a mass audience had ready access to mass-produced, informative and visually realistic imagery of people, places and events for the first time.
The starting point in producing an illustration was the original image. This would be copied on to a woodblock, in reverse, and then engraved. The block was usually a composite of several smaller blocks held together by a system of bolts and nuts. (This was because the trunks of the box tree rarely grew larger than 20 centimetres in diameter, and when sliced across the grain to produce woodblocks it was difficult to obtain a block larger than 12 x 12 centimetres.) It meant that the composite block could be taken apart again, and the various sections engraved separately at the same time, hastening the production process. When the block was put together again, the master engraver would knit the image together across the adjoining sections. The completed block was then ready for printing. When looking at newspaper illustrations, faint lines can sometimes appear to run vertically or horizontally across the image; this is the legacy of a composite block.
In colonial Australia, the first illustrated newspaper was the Illustrated Sydney News (first series, 1853–55). In Victoria, following the gold rushes, there were numerous short-lived attempts at launching illustrated papers. Their failure was due to a combination of a lack of start-up capital, production problems (a shortage of skilled labour, inadequate equipment, limited supply of materials), targeted readership—the pastoral establishment or itinerant gold-seekers—and regularity of issue. This last factor was the most critical, as proprietors insisted on following the example of the Illustrated London News, which was published weekly, yet even by 1861, Victoria had a population of little more than half a million, whereas that of Great Britain was nearly 29 million. The circuit-breaker was the Newsletter of Australasia (1856–62), which pioneered the idea of monthly publication linked to the departure of the monthly Royal Mail vessel to England.
In 1861–62, two of Melbourne’s established daily newspaper businesses launched monthly illustrated newspapers. The Victorian newspapers were the Illustrated Melbourne Post (1862–68), launched by the Melbourne Herald, and the Australian News for Home Readers in 1861, ceasing publication as the Illustrated Australian News (the last of the 19th-century illustrated monthlies) in 1896, established by the Age. They were followed by the Australasian Sketcher (1873–89), founded by the Argus. In New South Wales, a second series of the Illustrated Sydney News (1864–94) was launched by Gibbs Shallard & Co., a stationery and printing firm. Their success was due to more start-up capital at a time when the earlier production problems were being resolved and social tensions between the aforementioned targeted readerships had diluted. Monthly issue was also more appropriate to colonial demographics, and distribution was facilitated by an expanding railway network, especially in Victoria with the opening of railway lines to both Ballarat and Bendigo in 1862; the network spread further over the next three decades.
Between them, these papers produced an estimated 12,000 images across a broad and varied subject range. These subjects may be classified as four thematic groups. ‘Material culture’ depicts the physical progress of European settlement from a perceived pre-contact wilderness to a recognisable Western society. It comprises subjects such as buildings, streetscapes, panoramas of cities and towns, manufacturing and commerce, and infrastructure such as transport, maritime activity and the telegraph. In the ‘civic culture’ theme, there are civic occasions (processions, balls, opening ceremonies, funerals), portraits, leisure (sports and outdoor relaxation activities such as picnics), the arts (theatre, music, fine art) and the volunteer militia, which was an alternative to sport for men. With ‘frontier culture’, there is the interaction with the Australian landscape, with imagery of landscapes, Indigenous people, mining, rural life and natural disasters (fire, flood, drought). Finally, there is ‘beyond Australia’, with most imagery relating to New Zealand and the Pacific Islands, but also covering Europe, Asia, North and South America, and Africa.
In July 1888, the Illustrated Sydney News became the first Australian newspaper to publish a half-tone reproduction of a photograph. It was to be the death-knell of monthly illustrated newspapers, as they were superseded by their weekly newspaper stablemates, which had begun carrying a few wood-engraved illustrations in the 1860s. Better placed to take advantage of the introduction of the cheaper and faster half-tone process, as well as the new linotype machine, ‘companion’ weekly newspapers become lavishly illustrated, complementing their non-illustrated daily parent papers. Increasingly, illustrations were being included in dailies as well, especially the tabloids.
The period after World War I saw the launch of an increasing number of tabloids and the advent of both radio and the cinema newsreels. Illustrated newspapers cum magazines would continue to be published in the 20th century, including Pix (1938–72) and the Australasian Post (1946–96).
REFs: P. Dowling, ‘Chronicles of Progress: The Illustrated Newspapers of Colonial Australia’ (PhD thesis, 1997) and Index to Imagery in Colonial Australian Illustrated Newspapers (2012).