- Picturing the News by Catherine Waters and Ruth Brimacombe
Picturing the News is an exhibition about the rise of the "Special Correspondent" and "Special Artist" and the emergence in the later nineteenth century of a new kind of journalism aimed at providing the reader with vivid firsthand accounts and images of major historical events. It is divided into nine sections, the first of which introduces a thoroughly manageable number of "specials" of both kinds: three correspondents (William Howard Russell, George Augustus Sala and Archibald Forbes), and three artists (William Simpson, Sidney Prior Hall and Melton Prior). The success of the exhibition is in large measure to this concentration: concentration on a few individuals whom one gets to know in reasonable detail, and concentration on a single example of each of the themes it explores.
The first two special correspondents belong to the circle of Dickens's friends and associates. Sala was one of the "young men" who worked for Household Words, modelling his style of "dwelling on the romantic side of familiar things" in close imitation of the master–too close, according to some of his critics. And although the exhibition does not make this explicit, it is clear that the vivid immediacy of "special correspondent" writing owes a great deal to the manner of Dickens's journals, especially via Sala. As far as Russell is concerned, the closeness of his friendship with Dickens can be shown not only in the enthusiasm Dickens repeatedly expressed for Russell's role in Crimea but in such trivia as the amusing anecdote Russell relates of a joint engagement with Thackeray at a shooting party in Watford in 1852 from which at the last moment Dickens had to cry off, whereupon the hostess cried out to her cook, "Martin, don't roast the ortolans; Mr. Dickens isn't coming!"
Section Two, "What Made Them Special?" explores not only the quality [End Page 274] of the writing but the characters of the individuals involved and the difficulties with which they had to contend. With the exception of Russell, both correspondents and artists tend to be of Bohemian disposition, "low maintenance" people able and willing to put up with hardship and bodily discomfort, and brave to the point of foolhardiness–essential qualities when so many of their duties involved war reporting. They also had to have the strength of character to deal with spies and censorship–then as now. In this connection I remember once meeting John Simpson of the BBC (a latter day descendent of the tribe of Russell and Sala, whom Brimacombe and Waters quote) and hearing a story of how his hotel room in Baghdad was equipped at the outset of the Iraq war with obtrusive microphones spying on him. Whereupon he read aloud a particularly cryptic poem by his teacher and mentor (and mine) at Magdalene College, Cambridge, as Arthur Sale stood in front of one of them and told them they could learn more about the Allied Plans if they bought a copy.
Section 3, "War Correspondence," focuses on three wars covered by these men–the Crimean War of 1854–56, the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71, and the Turkish-Serbian War of 1876 and highlights the powerful impact at home of their willingness to go in where it hurt and reveal the appalling sufferings of soldiers and civilians alike. Thinking of Walt Whitman in this respect as a kind of equivalent special correspondent of the American Civil War, I wondered how writing about that major historical event might compare, and for a moment wanted an extra panel of the exhibition.
But of course periods of war alternated with long stretches of peace in Victorian England, and "specials" were more frequently employed to vivify more familiar things. The Oxford/Cambridge boat race for instance, where the reporter often took up the perspective of the man in the crowd to provide a flavor of the excitement of the occasion. Section 4, entitled "Home News," is concerned with such events, and Section 5, "Technology and Innovation," proceeds to specific instances involving...