Black and White and Dominant

black and white


At the end of the third issue of Black and White, beneath a half-page ad for the rheumatism-curing Electropathic Belt, the newborn British weekly presents a dozen quotes from well-established peers about its debut. “Distinctly high level,” the Standard pronounces; “Highly attractive, readable, and artistic” gushes the Star; “High class,” agree heavyweights Pall Mall Gazette and the Daily Chronicle (21 Feb 1891). As these gracious blurbs forecast, Black and White would become an essential illustrated journal in late-Victorian England, nearly surviving until the First World War. Not merely enduring through an era in which periodicals came and went by the thousand, Black and White even came to rival Graphic (1869-1932) and the colossal Illustrated London News (1842-present) (Tye 19). Within one year, stories by the likes of Robert Louis Stevenson and Henry James appeared regularly; half a decade later, the weekly journal was selling in the hundreds of thousands (Tiffin 232).

But how did this upstart grab and maintain the attention of the British masses, and how does that success reflect on the nation at the fin de siècle? Little has been written about Black and White (only two entries in the MLA Bibliographical database focus on it) so we must start with a fresh analysis of its very first pages: from haughty editorializing to advertisements that pose as editorials; from hilariously politicized cartoons to “royal” illustrations; from Walter Crane’s heated allegory of the Paris Commune to pseudo-scholarly studies of Jews, Africans and North-Indians. These examples are tied together by the journal’s booming voice of mainstream Englishness, which I will argue was an essential cause of Black and White’s success. That voice is a proud one (as evidenced by the earlier blurbs) and perpetually nationalistic (as I will show in my close readings of these images.) The journal works to rouse readers’ anxiety about the end of the Victorian century, then conveniently and convincingly presents itself as an alleviating force of conventional Englishness.

My examination will pay close attention to Black and White’s self-presentation. According to the journal’s twentieth anniversary retrospective, C.M Williamson, now a forgotten novelist, founded Black and White in 1890 (Tiffin 224). The first issue presents a “Note About Ourselves,” in which the weekly is marketed as satisfying a national need “for an illustrated paper combining the best art with the best literature, and printed with a perfection hitherto, unfortunately, attained only abroad” (6 February; italics mine). One can only wonder which foreign rivals the editors had in mind, and this ambiguity serves to rouse readers’ uncertainty about the strength of late-Victorian Britain’s global reach. Black and White imagines not only that it is excellent, but that its excellence would serve the empire. Indeed, a global pricing chart is listed above the “Note,” stating the journal’s cost in Egypt, South Africa, the West Indies, Ceylon, Japan and beyond. Reveling in its potentially widespread reach, the journal has already begun to adopt the traditional voice of the British Empire. - more