Charting the explosion of illustrated journalism

A new book traces the rise of press graphics from the early 19th century over a 100-year period. We hear from author Alexander Roob about what led to this golden age of illustrated media, and why it’s still relevant today

Before the paparazzi, before photojournalism, certainly before smartphone footage, there was the illustrated press. Alexander Roob’s new book weaves links between the different kinds of graphics published by the media – from documentary illustrations to caricatures – which rose exponentially throughout the 19th century.

In the introduction, Roob notes that “press graphics have tended to be consigned to the bottom of the drawer with various kinds of ephemera, the lowest category that is relevant for no more than a day, and left there to be forgotten”. He believes there are several reasons for this. “On the one hand, press graphics are mass products and as such not very attractive for a collector’s market,” he tells CR, with interests such as profit often dictating the value of such artefacts. At the same time, the fact that graphics are limited to a certain place and time also narrows their appeal. “Press graphics usually refer to very specific national or regional political and social contexts, a fact that doesn’t help to promote a broad reception.”

Taking 1819 as his point of departure, Roob traces the developments that changed and propelled the course of journalistic illustrations over the next century. From the establishment of wood engraving workshops within newspaper publishers to the “advent of chemigraphy in the late 1860s” – an innovation that he says “provided completely new prospects for drawing” – these technological evolutions opened up stylistic evolutions of their own, leading to a surprisingly varied spread of tastes and techniques.

Top: Ladies’ Meeting of the Toxophilite Society by Lucien Davis, from the The Illustrated London News, 1894; Above: The Capitalist Vampire by Walter Crane, from Justice, 1885