This essay connects journalistic illustrations of the Titanic disaster with Théodore Géricault’s 1819 painting, The Raft of the Medusa. It finds echoes of the form and scenography of the painting in the way that the events of that night off the Grand Banks were visualized in weekly illustrated magazines published in London, and argues that such echoes contributed to the truth effects that were achieved. The essay begins by setting the scene in terms of the technical conditions under which journalistic pictures were made and published when the Titanic sank, and then it discusses some of the ways in which the Raft of the Medusa was referenced and recycled in English art and magazine illustration in the years between 1819 and 1912.
In 1912 the technologies of picture-making in magazines of the Illustrated London News (ILN)genre faced both backwards, towards reliance on the work of artists to visualize the news, and forwards, towards a world in which the photograph came to monopolize the visual reporting of every sort of news.1 A generation earlier such magazines had had an enormously powerful cultural role, with something like a monopoly of mass-circulation printed pictures of the news and features sort, aimed at the top end of the market. They had a global reach, both in terms of their circulations and in terms of the way that they shared pictures with each other: the ILN, for example, frequently printed pictures that had been published for French magazines such as L’Illustration (Fig. 3), andvice versa, while republishing links were also in place between the Graphic and Harper’s Weekly in and after the 1880s. And in 1882, virtually all the pictures that magazines of the ILN genre printed had been made through the work of trained artists of one sort or another. In Realizations: Narrative, Pictorial, and Theatrical Arts in Nineteenth-Century England,Martin Meisel makes a fecund distinction between ‘realization’ and ‘illustration’ as he maps the congruence of fine art and literary ambitions, and sensibilities in theatrical productions and mises en scène in Britain in the nineteenth century. The journalist-artists whose work is at the core of this paper were in Meisel’s sense ‘realizers’. My use of ‘scenography’ to describe the resource that such realizers found in Géricault’s legacy was not consciously derived from his book, but is certainly an example of how cultural producers work by drawing on a resource bank even while they do not reflect on the fact.2
In the first half of the 1880s, the pictures such magazines printed were handmade wood-engravings from artists’ pen or wash drawings, or such wood-engravings from photographs, or photomechanical relief line blocks of artists’ pen, chalk, or scraper board drawings.3By ‘photomechanical’ I refer to the hybrid process that, in a first phase, exposes a negative onto a sheet of copper or zinc. The sheet has a photosensitive coating which, instead of turning black under the effect of light, turns insoluble, and resistant to acid. The metal plate is washed, so that only the latent acid-resist image survives: that is the ‘photo’ bit. In the second phase the image is then etched in stages to produce a relief surface that can be printed together with type: that is the ‘mechanical’ part.4
By 1912 the way magazines acquired images and turned them into printing surfaces had changed in several ways. The half-tone screen, an optical-cum-chemical process that turns the continuous tone of a photograph into larger and smaller, but equally black, dots had been in continuous trial-and-error development since the early 1870s, and by the early 1890s had been well enough domesticated for it to become the default technology for the relief-printed reproduction of photographs (whether of cones of light from the ‘real world’ fixed through a lens, or of studio photographs of paintings and sketches).5 By 1912 photomechanical half-tone screened versions of photographs of the-world-out-there, and of artists’ drawings or wash sketches, had found their way into daily newspapers, as well as into weeklies and monthlies, all across the first world. Wood-engraving was making its journey to the technological graveyard and to a post-war resurrection as a graphic artists’ medium mostly within the orbit of the private presses.6
By 1912 the cultural position of magazines of the ILN genre was also transformed from the situation a generation earlier. The market for expensive illustrated weeklies was fragmenting and diversifying under the combined impact of three crucial developments. The first was the seemingly limitless supply of paper that the wood-pulp revolution had brought.7 The second was the elimination of the skilled handwork bottlenecks both in image capture and in the making of printing surfaces that the photomechanical half-tone screen had brought. The third was the ‘domestication’ by 1900 of Mergenthaler’s linotype machine, which removed that other skill bottleneck, in the composing room.8 The emergence of paper as an almost-free good had entailed an explosive growth in display advertising, so that by 1900 advertising agencies were increasingly looking for niche readerships for their clients’ products, and finding them in a wide range of new magazines and magazine types: in newly established sporting magazines, in the proliferating range of women’s magazines, theatre magazines, magazines about country life, about contemporary art, and the collecting and celebration of second-hand works of art. The impact of this market fragmentation on magazines of the ILN genre was severe. The Titanic thus sank as the sun set on one sort of illustrated journalism, but before the new world of photojournalism, as exemplified in Life or the Picture Post,had had time to develop its own truth claims, reality effects, and aesthetic conventions.
Thus in 1912 picture editors presenting, and picture consumers looking at, pictures of events were still operating in a visual culture defined by the resources and conventions of hand-originated and handmade illustration/realization.9 They were also still living in a world where news travelled at electric speeds, pictures only as fast as the steamship or the railway. Until the global telegraphic system could transmit pictures effectively over thousands of kilometres, the world, which for a generation had been a global village for short news texts of the sort that were sent by telegraph, was still a set of discrete information communities for news pictures. Two maps will make the point. The first shows the global network of telegraph lines directly accessible in 1901 by the London-based Eastern Telegraph Company (Fig. 1). Through that network and its feeder links, short messages could be sent around the world in minutes. The second is an isochronic map of the world, showing fastest scheduled journeys, for people and thus for pictures, from London in 1920: the United States out to Minneapolis or New Orleans is in the four- to eight-day band; Tibet, the heart of Africa, much of northern Australia, and the Empty Quarter of the Arabian peninsula are all at least seven weeks away from Charing Cross (Fig. 2). Pictures from such places (indeed, from every place) had to make their journeys to editorial desks in London on real pieces of paper, glass, or celluloid. The first optically scanned photographs had been transmitted down telegraph wires over ‘national’ distances in 1906 (Fig. 3). However, no transoceanic cable services for pictures were available until after the First World War, and no wireless services until 1926; Figure 4 gives some idea of the technological limitations of long-distance radio transmission of images even then: the degraded picture (below) had taken an hour and three minutes to transmit. In 1912, magazines of the ILN genre were thus well used to coping with the two-speed circulation of news and pictures in their global market; used to delays of weeks or even months before a news story could be given its visual representation; used to thinking of their visualization work as summative and commemorative. During the Boer War, for example, more than eight weeks might pass before front-line sketches or photographs could be turned into front-page pictures, as in this Parisian front page from 31 March 1900 showing British dead in the aftermath of the defeat at Spion Kop on 24 January, news of which calamity broke in London on 26 January (Fig. 5). This picture originates in what must have been a terse and powerful photograph, its terseness and its power probably heightened in its reinterpretation as a wood-engraving.
Editors could not normally expect sensational iconography and imposing composition to be delivered by photography. It was the job of art, the job of the magazines’ artists and art editors, to reanimate schematic sketches and callow snapshots, as well as stories well past their front-page sell-by date. The sinking of the Titanic provides an instance of this process at work. This essay frames the problem not so much in terms of the management, prolongation, and reanimation of news-sensation, as in terms of the production and reproduction of myth, and of the ways in which representations of the unknown are received as true. It considers the use made to these ends of Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa (Fig. 6), as it was interpreted and redeployed for other catastrophes and other invocations of hope and despair at sea. The paper will examine the way that reporting of the Titanic disaster followed the practice of other magazine illustrators making use of the compositional and narrative schema offered by Géricault’s painting.10 It will place the visual reporting of oceanic sinkings and rescues in a more general discussion of the ways, and the extent to which, photographic reporting was and was not replacing the sort of ‘realizations’ that artists had, for seventy years by 1912, been making for the illustrated magazines.
The paper discusses the Raft of the Medusa, both as a resource for picture-makers and as a dimension of meaning available to the interpretative communities served and structured by news magazines of the ILN genre, in the generation before the Titanic sank. Standard histories of photography tend to assume that with the development in the 1880s of fast dry-plate negatives, and by 1890 of roll film, the camera had become an easy image-capture technology to use, and therefore swiftly displaced the sketchbook as the primary tool of visual journalism. In fact handmade illustration survived as a reporting tool until the First World War and beyond, for a range of subjects. The introduction of photographs into journalistic illustration depended on the development of the half-tone screen. That technology began to be a reliable process among specialist printers using special presses and paper in the second half of the 1880s. Its generalized uptake had to wait for accurate, robust, and easy-to-use optical screens to come on to the world market; the Philadelphia firm of Max Levy made that breakthrough in 1893.11 Even then, however, it took a while for photographs from the real world to supplant wash, chalk, and pen drawings as the preferred originals from which to reproduce pictures via the new technology. The reasons for that technological and cultural conservatism are complicated; but one, certainly, was that handmade pen or wash drawings could identify key details, synthesize elements from a range of sketches and library pictures, and make narrative and symbolizing points much more succinctly and effectively, and thus command and direct the attention and imagination of the viewer more strongly than a photograph could (it seemed then) ever hope to do.
This communicative competence is evident on almost any page of any such journal around 1900. A centrefold picture from the ILN of the aftermath of the sinking of the Titanic, as survivors are met stepping off the Carpathia in New York, exemplifies it (Fig. 7). The image has strong compositional movement. From the static left-hand edge of the picture, a slew of humans, and of Human Interest, spills out, pushing towards the right-hand side. In the left background, through a gap in the wall of the pier building, we see the tunnel-like gangway, supported by a yoke from a crane, emerging from the dark; alongside that we glimpse a davit and the prow of a lifeboat in an echo of the Titanic’s agony. This little graphic passage acts as a memento mori, an awareness that is also evoked in the picture’s emotive caption. Ernest Fuhr, the artist of the wash drawing, has arranged the scene so that from the centre-middle ground towards the right of the image we can read a set of narratives: some completed; some opened but not yet closed; some, the viewer must suppose, uncloseable except through a life lived in bereavement. A couple embraces, she returned alive to him. Behind them a mother, cloaked like the Virgin Mary, and her two children walk towards a future without a husband or a father. A handsome girl in a stylish hat searches anxiously through the waiting crowd. Looking forward out of the picture space, she interpellates us as part of that crowd. Behind her a middle-aged man supports an elderly woman weighed down by her loss. Behind his stooping figure another woman raises her hands and rushes towards a man in a bowler hat: we do not know whether they meet in grief or joy. Behind them there is another dark void, much more ambiguous than the entry-void on the left. Above it there is a wooden structure with a Z-shaped diagonal brace. In the left foreground two officials, figures of authority rather than actors in the drama, close the side of the composition, and a tense man looks over the picket fence, so that his unseen but anxious gaze and the evidently anxious look on the handsome young woman can be understood to meet each other, between them framing the reunited couple and the ever-sundered family. The caption has already told us that we live in the valley of the shadow of death; it may not be by accident, therefore, that this scene of human interest, of life and death, unfolds in a space beneath an A and a Z, an alpha and an omega.
The composition is nothing special for the pages of a magazine of the ILN genre at the time; it is no more than workmanlike in its engaging manipulations. It manages the relationship between staginess and snapshot quality with competence; it knows what sorts of effects and gratifications can be delivered, and how to make a picture deliver them through compositional devices, tropes that encapsulate or hint at narratives, and ‘real allegories’.12 In its orchestration of so many themes of human drama and so rich a set of allegorical harmonics, it does work that photography could never hope to do except through fantastic good luck, or a montage. Such sophisticated but ready-to-use power over eyes and heartstrings is hard to give up, even in a context in which ‘real news’ photographs were available, sent back to Europe on fast liners steering more southerly courses than had the Titanic.
The Titanic ran into that iceberg because of the refusal of her captain to take account of a known danger. One thousand five hundred and fourteen people died when she sank, at least in part because officers and crew were both incompetent and obsessed by status, so that they protected those they thought important and let lower ranks and settler classes fend for themselves. I put the matter thus crassly to draw the parallel with the affair of the French frigate La Méduse. Ninety-six years earlier, in July 1816, on a voyage to re-establish French colonial rule in Senegal, that ship had run aground on a shoal off the coast of Mauritania, because her incompetent captain would not steer clear of a known danger. Once aground, lower ranks and settler classes received short shrift. The senior naval and military officers and the richer passengers all had places in the boats. The raft, made from the ship’s store of replacement timber, was loaded almost entirely with ‘other ranks’. One hundred and forty-five men and one woman crowded onto it. This group included a score of sailors and a dozen settlers, but most were ordinary soldiers. Seventeen sailors decided to wait for rescue on the Méduse herself. After the boats cut the raft’s tow ropes on the first day of the journey to the coast, fifty kilometres away, those on board did not have much food or water or power of locomotion. There were mutinies, murders, cannibalism, and plenty of deaths from thirst. When the survivors were rescued, a dozen days later, only fifteen people remained alive; five of these died soon afterwards.
It seems to me not impossible that the parallel with the Raft of the Medusa was in the minds of many who struggled to come to terms with the scandalous as well as tragic loss of the Titanic; but I cannot know that, and do not wish to argue it. What I want to do is to show the fertility and persistence of Géricault’s painting in the bank of representational resources available to journalistic illustrators in London in the latter third of those ninety-six years; to consider the relationship between borrowing and the involuntary echoing of a compositional theme, and the nature and limits of the intertextuality that art history conventionally calls ‘influence’.13
The ocean-going wooden sailing ship, which maintained a dominant position in world trade into the 1890s, was no doubt ‘the most dangerous vehicle ever regularly used by man’.14 Steam-driven iron- or steel-hulled ships had come to dominate some specialized passenger and mail-service routes, including the north Atlantic, well before that date, but the continued reliance of world trade on sail meant that right through the nineteenth century ships and sailors continued to be lost in horrifying numbers. Though only a small fraction of the total number of losses had much news value beyond Lloyd’s, journalistic illustrators had plenty of opportunity to make pictures of ships sinking, ships burnt, ships aground on reef or shoal or shore, and perhaps particularly of (statistically rare) rescues from any of these. It took some sort of hook for such an event to make it to the pages of magazines of the ILN genre. Normally that required that the calamity should have happened to a steam-driven passenger ship, probably with home-country owners, and that the survivors should be rescued at sea. These criteria explain the magazine’s interest on our behalf, but they do not give any particular distinctiveness to the scene to be represented. Two topoi emerged: the scene of a boat and/or people and wreckage close to a ship in the process of plunging beneath the waves (Figs. 8 and 9); and the scene of a crowded and desperate collection of humans on a raft or in a small boat, converging in the vast ocean with a bigger boat and rescue: the scene with which the rest of this essay is concerned.
Though journalistic illustrators, like poets, sometimes got shipwrecked, they very seldom managed to keep their pencils sharp and their paper dry, let alone their attention from wandering, while that was happening; so they did not tend to produce sketches sur le motif. Thus even ‘eyewitness’ pictures drawn by participants were ex post facto visualizations; the same goes for artists’ renderings of eyewitnesses’ verbal accounts such as those that populated the pages of the ILN genre in April and May 1912. That fact reminds us that journalistic illustrators of news stories, perhaps particularly of sensational stories, work in the same way as all artists always do. Maritime disaster illustrators, just like painters whose pictures have landed in the Louvre or the National Gallery, always made their pictures up. Illustrators and easel painters had to make the same sorts of decisions about the relation between fore, middle, and background, about where to put the horizon, about compositional masses and narrative impetus; they all used the same toolbox of available genres, handed-down modes, tropes, and models. Just like any trained easel painter, maritime disaster realizers for the press had to decide how they would use the opportunity of figure drawing, and about how much of history painting’s conventions they would let flow over into marine painting and its formulae.
In this, they were working in just the way that painters always worked: picking up a compositional device here, noticing and copying an arrangement of figures there, making paintings that contain, at the very least, elements of homage. Géricault had not worked in a different way. As an academically trained artist with a visit to Rome already under his belt, he had an overflowing reference book to work with: Michelangelo’s Battle of Cascina (1504) may have been in his mind’s eye, and a hundred pictures of naval fights and wrecks could have given him both theme and treatment of heaped bodies on a raft or boat. It is conceivable that the scene in the lower left-hand side of John Singleton Copley’s gigantic Siege and Relief of Gibraltar (1791) may have figured in his reference set. It could have been brought to his attention either by his Anglophile teacher Carle Vernet, who had been a frequent visitor to London in the early 1790s, or through William Sharp’s 1810 engraving of the painting (Fig. 10).
Géricault produced a painting in which the axes of life and death, hope and despair, past and future, structure the action and the canvas. Action is split between foreground and background. The wind blows from right to left; that is to say, in terms of the standard narrative thrust in western art, back towards the past: that is the direction in which the raft is moving. Rescue is sighted on the horizon towards the right-hand edge of the canvas. On the raft the figures compose themselves into two pyramids. The left-hand pyramid contains death, resignation, despair, and the thrust towards the past; the right-hand pyramid encloses almost all the people who have seen the rescuing ship and the hope of a future. In 1819, the composition may have communicated a political allegory of the condition of France under the Bourbon Restoration, but in any case it delivered both a powerful iconography and a fertile scenography.15
The painting made an immediate impact, relaying the earlier impact of Alexandre Corréard’s sensational exposé of 1817, which had prompted a play by William Moncrieff, performed early in 1820.16 After its exhibition in the Paris Salon in the summer of 1819, the canvas was shown to large crowds in Bullock’s Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly for much of the second half of 1820, and in Dublin early in 1821, where Moncrieff’s play, revived in London after the picture arrived, was also performed.17 A lithographic version was published in London in association with those exhibitions. The canvas was bought by the French government after Géricault’s death in 1824, and was back on the walls of the Louvre from 1826. References to its form and iconography were quickly seen, for example, in large paintings by J. M. W. Turner such as The Battle of Trafalgar (1821–22) and A Fire at Sea (1835) (Fig. 11); and in ‘documentary’ images such as William Smyth’s sketch (1825–26) of a raft in the Pacific Gambier Islands (now Tuamotu).18 The Belgian artist E. K. G. Wappers recycled Géricault’s composition in his huge Episode During the Belgian Revolution of 1830 of 1834. A two-colour mezzotint copy of Géricault’s painting was published in London in 1832 (Fig. 6); and in 1834 the Raft turned up as an illustration
to a contemporary wreck-and-rescue story, that of the Cybelle, in a broadsheet published in Seven Dials for the bottom end of the market for news and sensation (Fig. 12). It seems likely that the wood-engraving Catnach used had been copied not from Egan’s mezzotint, but from another source, since details of both the seascape and the drapery of the bodies are significantly different. The image was also recycled by caricaturists in England and in the United States, and doubtless elsewhere, in the generation after the painting was made. That John Leech and the editorial team at Punch,in 1851, could be confident that its readers would get the joke when it used Géricault’s painting as the basis for a political cartoon, shows that the work was very much alive in British visual culture at the time (Fig. 13). Leech drew the image the same way round as Géricault’s composition; it has been reversed in printing. For the most part Leech respects the ‘wind one way, hope the other way’ dynamic, but the flag on the Crystal Palace betrays his lubberliness.19
It is indeed possible to find a huge variety of images that may plausibly be taken to offer echoes of the Raft of the Medusa. Making meaning out of such echoes is a tricky task; absurdity and the playground of what Austin Powers might call consequence-free interpretative jouissance are real dangers. Take for example the 1857 masthead of the Brazilian political weekly O Povo (Fig. 14).20 Since the moment when the similarity between it and Géricault’s raft first struck me, I have seen the two as linked: the reference to Géricault’s painting sharpens the critical representation of the Brazilian ship of state as in danger, and makes the masthead more meaningful to me. Given the painting’s fame, it is at least likely that the designer in Recife would have been aware of it. It is highly unlikely, however, that the Raft of the Medusa was part of what the journal’s editors intended the masthead to denote, or part of the meaning that viewers in Recife in 1857 would have ‘read’ from it, or been expected to read from it.
The masthead of O Povo brings the matter of interpretative communities into focus.21 Does the fact that an intertextuality was available then to painters and illustrators as a dimension of their professional competence, and is now salient for art historians, mean that it was also available to magazine consumers in contexts of first reading-viewing? This essay will use two centrefold illustrations done in the 1880s, one in the ILN and one in its main British rival, the Graphic, to consider both the ways that illustrators could use the resources that Géricault’s scenography offered, and the ways in which an awareness of the relationship between Géricault’s work and these journalistic illustrations would have been part of the context in which reader-viewers understood the news, and found value in the magazines that brought them these pictures.It is likely that the caricature producers of Punch in 1851 expected their ‘public’, their ideal reader-viewer, to pick up the reference to Géricault’s picture. In doing so they would add force to the representation of a hopeless and rudderless ministry, and contribute to Punch’sironic running critique of the impact of capital-city tourism. It is not so immediately clear that the public of either the Graphic in 1883 or of the ILN in 1888 would have been expected by the editors of these magazines to produce ‘Géricault’s raft’ as part of the meaning of these wood-engraved centrefolds, nor what force such a recognition would add to the representation.22
On 24 February 1883 the Graphic published a centrefold picture of a rescue in the Bay of Biscay, after the Kenmure Castle had foundered in a gale on 2 February (Fig. 15). All eight passengers and seven of the eight crew members (out of thirty-eight) who had made their way into the only lifeboat launched, survived until picked up by a French ship on 4 February, to be landed at that ship’s destination, Boulogne, on 7 February. The boat’s passengers arrived in London on 9 February. By the time adequate survivor accounts emerged, it was too late to produce a big picture for the Graphic’s 17 February issue, and the decision was taken to wait a week and make a splash of the incident. The artist, J. Nash, one of the Graphic’s core editorial team, has used Géricault’s painting not only to fix the main elements of this design, but also to organize its narratives.23 As in the Raft, the wind blows towards the left / past, while the ship on the horizon, the track of the boat, and the pointing hands on board all drive the narrative to the right and the future. The composition also mobilizes Géricault’s organization of the relationship between despair and hope to articulate the spreading realization that rescue is at hand, even though Nash has not quite deployed Géricault’s twin pyramids of left-looking despair and right-looking hope. In the West End clubs and bourgeois drawing rooms that constituted the Graphic’s public, this centrefold had a complicated job to do. It was first seen two weeks and more after the story broke in London, so it had to find a way both of (re)specifying the action and of generalizing its significance, transcending its existence as mere news. The process of transcendence involved anchoring the incident in a visual trope. This anchoring could take place without reader-viewers being aware of the Géricault-ness of the schema deployed. But reference to this famous painting from the Louvre, a boat-train’s ride away in London’s doppelgänger metropolis, would surely have been recognizable to many in the magazine’s target market, and in as much as it was recognized, would have brought status to the recognizer, while adding authority to the image, and pleasure to its viewing.
Five and a half years later, the ILN published a two-page picture, ‘The Last Survivors’, with a closely similar subject and scenography (Fig. 16). This centrefold does not illustrate any specific last-gasp rescue after maritime disaster; the wood-engraving is offered to us not as a news report, but as a piece of original art on the theme of danger, suffering, and rescue at sea. One supposes that Evelyn Morant Cox would have taken a preliminary sketch to the editors, received a commission for a centrefold on the basis of the sketch, and then produced a worked-up wash drawing.24 That ‘art-work’ would have been photographed to make a negative to be printed onto the photosensitive surface of a woodblock, before Palmer, the named wood-engraver, cut through the photographic image on the surface of the block to make a black-and-white linear analogue of its wash tones.
Given its status as a work of art, the references in ‘The Last Survivors’ to Géricault’s painting are clearly of the same order as those made by Turner or by Wappers; viewers who recognized the intertextuality would most certainly both have given the work and the magazine greater authority, and taken more pleasure in their viewing. This intertextuality reminds us that the metropolitan visual-culture world of 1888 did not operate with categorical distinctions between the world of art and the world of journalistic illustration. Vanguard artists may indeed have been working to open such distinctions, but journalist-illustrators, and the editors who employed them, were working to suture them, and to keep magazines of the ILN genre firmly inside the world of ‘high’ image-culture, using its resources to produce not only dramatic and seductive images, but also both reality effects and claims to be ‘truth resembling’ in images with plausible claims to be art. The reality effects, and the truthlikeness effects, that they developed did not in principle differ from those achieved in ‘realist’ painting. Indeed, that each individual picture in a magazine was in a glance-supporting matrix with other similar pictures which contributed referents that were in Barthes’s terms excessive in relation to the message of the particular image under scrutiny, suggests that the illustrated magazine may have been even more of a locus classicus of the modern real than was salon painting.25
As I have already suggested, the citation of Géricault’s work in magazine pictures is both easy to see if you think that journalist-painters work with the same handed-down repertoire as salon painters, and hard to accept if you think that journalistic illustrators, like Leopold von Ranke, simply show things the way they actually were. The mobilization of Géricault could indeed be part of the process of bathetic and run-of-the-mill reconstructive reporting, in the production of pictures that make ‘the way things actually were’ sorts of truth claims. Take the wreck of the Stella on a Channel Island coast in March 1899. The sensational story made the front cover of the Pictorial World and was given a highly dramatic ‘last plunge’ centrefold in the ILN (Fig. 9). The Graphic instead gave a visually informative truth-claim-laden two-page spread to the incident (Fig. 17). This spread displays a photograph of the Stella’s captain, two coastline sketches, a chart giving the intended and the actual track of the vessel, a wash drawing of a dramatic incident when passengers recycled a wagon washed from the deck as a life raft, and a calm and lucid reconstructive sketch of two lifeboats with their disciplined and single-minded occupants sighting their rescuers the next morning (Fig. 18). I do not think the reader-viewer is enticed or expected to think about Géricault here; what is being aimed at is the ‘truth resembling’ effect that the recourse to Géricault’s schema induces. The arrangement of the actors in the composition, the construction of the picture space, and even anecdotal details such as the wind blowing right to left while the gazes and the action flow left to right are surely recycled from his work, or from works that in their turn have recycled the Raft, building on the consensus that lies at the heart of ‘truth likeness’ (Barthes, p. 86).
What, then, of the Titanic? By 1912 the half-tone screen had been domesticated for two decades, but the truth claims of photography, and the reality effects that could be achieved using half-tone accounts of photographs, had not driven Géricault out of the repertoire of magazine realization. I will look in some detail at pictures in the 4 May edition of the ILN. In London, magazines of the ILN genre had published their first pictures about the disaster, which happened during the night of 14 to 15 April, and whose scale was clear in the headlines of the London morning papers on 16 April, in their 20 April editions. At that stage both the ILN and the Graphic relied for illustrations on library photographs of the ship and her passengers, and on cutaway diagrams of the great liner. The ILN montaged its versions of the ship and her accommodations into a double-page spread, tying ten number-keyed photographs and two text boxes together with drawn ropes and anchors framing. It also gave a page of portraits of notable passengers, from pictures supplied by photo agencies (Fig. 19). As the magazine went to press that week there was still confusion about who was alive and who was dead, so the framing given to these portraits, taking its logic from the frames often drawn round carte de visite photographs assembled on the pages of photo albums, was given in mid-grey rather than in the black of mourning.26
Participants’ accounts had begun to arrive in London, either by telegram or in the New York papers, in good time for the 27 April editions. However, neither photographs of the encounter between the lifeboats and the Carpathia, which had already been published in daily newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic, nor artists’ renderings of the scenes recounted by the eyewitnesses, were published until 4 May in either the ILN or the Graphic. The delay in publishing photographs from the Carpathia was perhaps due to them not being available in London by the deadline for 27 April. The delay in publishing artists’ impressions is harder to explain. The Sphere (founded 1900), the newcomer among the London magazines of the ILN genre, had indeed published a centrefold of the Titanic’s final plunge in a special twelve-page supplement to its 27 April edition. Perhaps the older magazines were working within a convention about eyewitness authenticity that has now vanished. Under such a convention, for a wash-drawn illustration to have a sustainable truth claim, it had to be based on a sketch sent back from the scene; or at least to respect the rhythms of the relation between (verbal) reporting and (visual) memorialization that the difference in speed between the telegraph and the transmission of real pieces of paper imposed on magazines of the ILN genre and on the participation skills of their reader-viewers. That, at any rate, is how both the ILN and the Graphic seem to have acted in terms of the cadence in which they published their reconstitutive dramas of chaos, stoicism, and rescue.
The photographs of the Titanic’s lifeboats, taken by someone looking down from the Carpathia, show little boats on a big sea, with indistinguishable figures aboard them. They were widely published, and do indeed have an ‘eyewitness’ truth effect. They do not however contribute to or intensify the emerging core narrative, which by the beginning of May was no longer about the survivors, but about the collision, the sinking, and the loss of life. The ILN editorial team may have doubted the continued power of this often-seen set of photographs, given the amount of reward-intensifying work it did on them (Fig. 20). It turned three of the pictures into a montage, with small snaps inserted in circles at the level of the high horizon of a larger view: perhaps we are to imagine the view through a telescope. It combined five photographs in all into a two-page spread, giving each page the same nautically themed frame to bolster the status of the ensemble, thus insisting on their status and adding to their value, and to the value delivered to reader-viewers by the behind-the-times return to the story.
By 1912 many magazines of the ILN genre were using framing devices to add authority to the half-tone images they published: heavy single lines, triple lines, thin lines bordering a white margin around the photograph, combinations of collaging and framing; all were deployed.27 The ILN used allegorical and emblematic framing devices more insistently and with the expenditure of greater effort than most magazines in the genre. It did so for a range of purposes: sometimes to give a programmatic unity to a set of snapshots; sometimes to unite thematically linked images in a page-size installation; sometimes to add a commentary that exceeds or ironizes what could be made manifest in an image or specified in a caption; sometimes, simply by framing an illustration as if a painting, to remind us of its status as art. Its presentation both of photographs and of wash drawings relating to the Titanic shows this editorial culture in practice. The frame around these lifeboat scenes provokes the reader-viewer to consider the relationship between the surface and the depths of the ocean; while the scene of the meeting on the pier in New York has a frame whose visual commentary may perhaps be ironic, since its anchors frame a story of departures uncontrolled and lives unmoored, and its British lions, at least to my eyes, look decidedly down in the mouth. Other photographs printed in this issue include these snaps of touching-if-you-read-the-captions scenes on the Carpathia’s deck, images that had already been published in Harper’s Weekly without the telling ‘only surviving honeymooning man’ detail in its caption (Fig. 21). But both these magazines wanted to do more than reframe and recontextualize by now familiar photographs. To command their market they needed to use pictures in order to give a real presence to key narratives. To do this they were both compelled and still able to turn to the work of artist-illustrators. The captions beneath such pictures (‘from material supplied by Mr H. Senior, one of the surviving crew’) remind us that the magazines project their work as no more than the realization of eyewitness statements, to make images the reader-viewer can see for themselves. There are in the 4 May issues of the Graphic and the ILN a lot of such scenes, of boats adrift, of the liner rearing and plunging, of dignity, pathos, and panic on board. I sense Géricault’s image as a resource for several of them; and there is no doubt that the scenography of his image was fully available to art editors and illustrators in April 1912.
When the set designers and the director of the revival of Ben Hur at Drury Lane that Spring wanted to produce a ‘tableau’, as our hero and the Roman patrician Arrius wait to be rescued after the sea battle, they reached for Géricault’s picture; or at any rate, the Graphic’s theatre reporter Steven Spurrier slanted the tableau in such a way as to make its reflection of Medusa visible (Fig. 22). The moment when Captain Smith went to his death was so important in the emergent mythopoesis of the end of the great liner that the Graphic put it on their 4 May front page, without necessarily inciting us to make any connection to Géricault’s picture. But surely the ILN does so nudge us, in its full-page picture of the same date (Fig. 23). There are of course significant differences. We are shown a night scene, rather than a sunset; there is no wind, no surging seas, and the dead are not insistently present in the ILN’s narrative moment. But, even though there is more use of the middle ground here, the scene plays out within Géricault’s pictorial structure. It is composed using twin pyramids, the left-hand one higher than the right-hand one, with a tiny focus of attention in the flashlight in the second lifeboat just where the rescuing ship in Géricault’s painting had been. The caption tells us that we watch as Captain Smith takes off his lifebelt, saves a baby, and consigns his own soul to the deep. Thus the image offers a sacramental, rather than Géricault’s mobilizing, epiphany. The differences in structure, setting, and emphasis notwithstanding, the invocation of the Raft was surely deliberate. The printed page shows that Henry Reuterdahl, the artist, added a horizontal strip of paper to the composition (running through the lifebelt of the man with raised arms, above the converging heads of the two men in the upper centre of the image) precisely so that there would be vertical space for that second pyramid, making the image’s Géricault-ness more readily available to reader-viewers. Once complete, Reuterdahl would have sent the wash drawing on a mail steamer from New York to London. Editorial input came first in the decision to give the image a full page, rather than a centrefold or half a page, and second, in the decision to give it a frame. Here, it seems to me, the foaming-breakers frame is rather an accolade to Reuterdahl’s work, than an evidence of anxiety about its status or significance.
It is impossible for us to see this picture as the ILN’s public would have seen it. We see in its relation to Géricault’s Raft a manipulative hijack, without any of that postmodern irony that makes postmodern indebtedness OK. Also, we view the picture from a culture in which ‘like the truth’ has been conquered by photography, so that we see the picture’s likeness to art only as mimicry, and not at all as collaboration. The 1912 public was differently equipped. They would have recognized the scene as truthlike, because since 1819 so much of the consensus that shipwrecked voyagers look like this had flowed through realizations that deployed Géricault’s scenography. They would at the same time have taken the reference as homage, and would have understood its effect as both heightening and deepening the mythic significance of the moment they witness through this visual fiction.
Fig. 1 ‘Eastern Telegraph Company’s System and its General Connections’, A.B.C. Telegraphic Code (London: Eden Fisher, 1901). Wikimedia Commons.
Fig. 2 ‘The World: Principal Steamship Lines and Isochronic Chart’, The Peoples’ Atlas (London: George Philip for the London Geographical Institute, 1920). Adapted by Tom Gretton.
Fig. 3 ‘A Conclusive Experiment: There and Back over 640 Miles’, Illustrated London News, 9 February 1907, p. 215. Wash drawing by Joyet. Photomechanical half-tone relief block (republished from L’Illustration). Kensington and Chelsea Public Libraries.
Fig. 4 ‘Photography by Wireless’, The Pageant of the Century (London: Odhams Press, ), p. 544. Photogravure. © AlphaPress, private collection.
Fig. 5 ‘La guerre au Transvaal — Champ de bataille de Spionkop. — Une tranchée de cadavres anglais. — (Photographie Van Houpen)’, Le Monde Illustré, 31 March 1900. Wood-engraving by H. Dochy. British Library F23 NPL.
Fig. 6 J. Egan, The Wreck, 1832 (this state published by S. Hollyer, London, 1837), after Théodore Géricault, Raft of the Medusa (1819). Mezzotint. © Trustees of the British Museum.
Fig. 7 ‘Out of death into life. Voyagers from the verge of the valley of the shadow. Drawn by Ernest Fuhr’ (with enlarged detail of scratchboard frame design), Illustrated London News, 4 May 1912, pp. 668–69. Photomechanical half-tone screened relief block. Kensington and Chelsea Public Libraries.
Fig. 8 ‘Sauvetage des Passagers: La Perte du Paquebot Transatlantique “L'Orégon”’; and ‘Le Navire Sombrant’, L’Illustration, 10 April 1886, p. 233. Anonymous artists, wood-engravings by Tilly. Kensington and Chelsea Public Libraries.
Fig. 9 ‘The Wreck of the “Stella” on the Casquet Rocks on March 20: The Last Moment. Drawn by H. C. Seppings Wright, from Information Supplied by a Survivor’, Illustrated London News, 8 April 1899, pp. 500–01. Photomechanical half-tone relief block. Kensington and Chelsea Public Libraries.
Fig. 10 W. Sharp after J. S. Copley, The Siege and Relief of Gibraltar (1791), 1810. Engraving. Private collection.
Fig. 11 J. Cousen after J. M. W. Turner, A Fire at Sea (1835), 1859. Engraving. Private Collection.
Fig. 12 The Wreck of the Cybelle. Broadsheet with anonymous wood-engraved copy of Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa (London: Catnach, 1834). Courtesy of St Bride Library and Archives.
Fig. 13 John Leech, ‘The Shipwrecked Ministers Saved by the Great Exhibition Steamer’, Punch, 20 (January–June 1851), p. 237. Anonymous wood-engraving. University College London Library.
Fig. 14 Masthead of O Povo (Recife), 31 May 1857. Anonymous wood-engraving. Arquivo Público Estadual Jordão Emerenciano, Recife, Pernambuco, Brazil. Photographed by E. Ramos.
Fig. 15 J. Nash, ‘The Loss of the SS “Kenmure Castle”’, Graphic, 24 February 1883, pp. 196–97. Anonymous wood-engraving. Kensington and Chelsea Public Libraries.
Fig. 16 E. Morant Cox, ‘The Last Survivors’, Illustrated London News, 3 March 1888, pp. 230–31. Anonymous wood-engraving. Kensington and Chelsea Public Libraries.
Fig. 17 ‘The Disaster in the Channel: The Wreck of the “Stella”’, Graphic, 8 April 1899, pp. 426–27. Various photomechanical media. Two artists, one sketch-provider and one photo-agency acknowledged. Kensington and Chelsea Public Libraries.
Fig. 18 Detail of Fig. 17, ‘Survivors Sighting the “Vera” the Morning after the Disaster, Drawn by T. S. C. Crowther from Materials Supplied by a Survivor’. Line-block. Kensington and Chelsea Public Libraries.
Fig. 19 ‘On Board the “Titanic” in the Great Disaster: Notable Passengers’, Illustrated London News, 20 April 1912, p. 594. Photomechanical half-tone relief block from photographs and from hand-drawn framing. Kensington and Chelsea Public Libraries.
Fig. 20 ‘The Saving of the 705: Uncrowded Life-Boats of the “Titanic”’; and, ‘Saved by S.O.S.: “Titanic” Survivors in the Life-Boats’, Illustrated London News, 4 May 1912, pp. 670–71. Photomechanical half-tone relief block from photographs and from hand-drawn framing. Kensington and Chelsea Public Libraries.
Fig. 21 ‘Aboard the Rescue-Ship: “Titanic” Survivors on the “Carpathia” […] Sewing for the “Titanic” Survivors’; and ‘Mr George A. Harder, who was the only man saved of eleven honeymoon couples, Mrs Harder’, Illustrated London News, 4 May 1912, p. 667. Photomechanical half-tone relief blocks. Kensington and Chelsea Public Libraries.
Fig. 22 Steven Spurrier, ‘The Thrilling Shipwreck at Drury Lane: The Escape of Ben Hur on the Raft’, Graphic, 27 April 1912, p. 595. Photomechanical half-tone relief block from wash drawing. Private collection.
Fig. 23 Henry Reuterdahl, ‘Drawn from Material Supplied by Mr. H. Senior, a Survivor: The End of the “Titanic’s” Captain’, Illustrated London News, 4 May 1912, p. 687. Photomechanical half-tone relief block from wash drawing. Kensington and Chelsea Public Libraries.