- The Mass Image: A Social History of Photomechanical Reproduction in Victorian London, and: The Haunted Gallery: Painting, Photography, Film c. 1900
Neither Gerry Beegan's Mass Image nor Lynda Nead's Haunted Gallery puts Ally Sloper under the microscope, but their latest scholarship has convinced me that he is the quintessential embodiment of Victorian society's developments in visual technology, media, and culture. As many Victorianists know, Ally became the first popular hero of the comic strip, the star of the first British cartoon, Ally Sloper's Half Holiday, and possibly the first cartoon character in film, with record of him appearing in an 1898 production. His image was found not only in periodicals but also in street and stage performances and on a range of objects, including tie pins, door stops, and relish bottles. The "incorrigible, drunken cockney antihero" (Beegan 44) was even more invested in visual culture than this, for without the developments Beegan and Nead explore, he would probably not have been created, let alone become such a prominent figure of the era. As it is, thanks to new visual technologies and media projecting his presence into the mainstream, some Victorians even assumed Ally was an actual person. This perceptual slippage regarding the real, the simulated, and the represented proves central not only to Ally as an embodiment of late-Victorian visuality but also to Beegan's and Nead's most innovative claims regarding visual technology and urban society's changing self-perceptions.
Beegan's The Mass Image builds on the scholarship of Jennifer Green-Lewis and Benedict Anderson to argue that a new Victorian public arose from the mass consumption and comprehension of information made possible by the industrialization and mechanization of visual reproduction. Considering the photomechanically illustrated magazine (as opposed to the book or newspaper), Beegan asks himself: "What does it mean ... when tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of people could see the same image at the same time, particularly when this image was combined with text? What modes of reading and what types of public were made possible by the new illustrated periodicals?" (2). What was distinctly modern about this community, Beegan argues, is precisely the fact that it formed through the collective consumption of mass-published visual and verbal materials, and The Mass Image explores the role of photomechanical reproduction in fostering this sense of cohesion among individuals spread out across a vast, national space. Beegan's highly knowledgeable discussion of nineteenth-century graphic arts, design, and reproduction technology frequently proves crucial to the insights arising from this informative study. [End Page 253]
The study's first and second chapters establish a theoretical framework for Beegan's notion of late-Victorian society as distinctly modern, with particular consideration of the diverse periodicals that helped members of the middle class imagine and fashion themselves as part of a "fluid, exciting, and unsettling visual environment" (26). With the third chapter, the book shifts to the subject of photomechanically illustrated magazines—an area of knowledge in which Beegan excels. The chapter focuses specifically on wood engraving, a fundamental form of visual illustration in the periodical industry during the mid-Victorian period. In this chapter and the next, Beegan narrates the industry's transition of the practice from what was a notably creative process to what was far more an assembly-line endeavour that took into account the capabilities of photographic technology. John Ruskin, of course, challenged these developments, but, as Beegan notes, with artists such as John Everett Millais and Frederick Sandys producing images for magazines, others recognized this period as a golden age for illustration. Especially enlightening in chapters 3 and 4 are Beegan's explanations of technical innovations that saw past processes broken up, while photomechanical innovations allowed other tasks to be fused together. Beegan also explores readers' growing desires for engraved reproductions to echo photographs, leading to the fusion of "the apparent actuality...