What made them special?

The skill of the reporter

Musing on the typically Bohemian character of the Special Correspondents – with William Howard Russell being a noted exception to the rule – the caricaturist Harry Furniss pointed out that to be a ‘descriptive writer of the type of George Augustus Sala … requires a special talent’ (My Bohemian Days, 1919, p. 135). In a more expansive article on the qualities that distinguished a good Special Artist for the Magazine of Art in 1883, Harry V Barnett, noted that:

He must be gifted in some measure with that rare quality, imagination – by which I do not mean the power of picturing the impossible, but the power of investing bare facts with charm and vivifying them with spirit.

(p. 164)

In Barnett’s view, the particular quality that set the talented graphic journalist apart was his ability to discern and reproduce the ‘germ’ of the ‘idea’ that lay at the heart of ‘every incident, in every pageant, in everything worth pictorial record’ with an element of flair. While still offering an exact, accurate representation, the final image needed to be ‘more than a dry record of incident. If mere facts were all that were required, the Special might throw away his pencil and take to instantaneous photography’. Identifying a shared set of character traits evident amongst the best exponents of the profession, Barnett declared:

All this implies the possession of a rare combination of faculties: swift and accurate observation, great coolness and self-command, a tenacious recollection, and above all a complete and ready knowledge of pictorial necessities – composition, light and shade, and balance both of line and of effect.


The essential characteristic, common to both Special Correspondent and Artist, was the ability to function creatively under extreme pressure and to deliver at speed. Archibald Forbes recalled how Frederic Villiers became ‘a master of the art of rapid sketching in the actual field’ when they worked together during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877 ‘by dint of the urgency of the circumstances’. Describing how it had become his ‘habit … to carry the news rapidly to the distant telegraph by relays of horses, taking Villiers’s work to the post-office with me’, Forbes detailed the way in which on one occasion, after observing the Russian crossing of the Danube, he indicated his intention to set off ‘the moment that the success of the enterprise was sure’. He reported the following exchange with the artist who had been sat sketching ‘in the shell-fire’ on the river bank:

‘How long can you give me?’ was Villiers’ question, with his eyes on his block. ‘Twenty minutes, while I snatch a morsel and saddle my horse,’ was the answer, and the finished sketch, which is certainly very smart, was handed me as I put foot in stirrup.

(Forbes, The Sketch, 1893, p.774)

On viewing William Simpson’s sketches of the grand set-piece ceremonials during the Prince of Wales’s Royal Tour of India in 1875-6, the Special Correspondent for the Daily News (probably Forbes), who had witnessed the same occasions, similarly marveled at the artistic effects the artist had managed given the time constraints under which the images were produced:

The critic will please remember that the post for England left Delhi on the night of the day on which the Review occurred; and that by that post the sketch thereof, were the same crude and indefinite, or sharp, well defined, and accurate to a button, had perforce to be forwarded. Over and over again among these sketches there comes to one the same surprise of conjoined swiftness of execution, spiritedness of effect, and exact accuracy of detail.

(‘Mr. W. Simpson’s Indian Sketches’, Daily News, 29 May 1876, p. 3)