Incidents of breaking domestic news, such as the death in Britain of the exiled Emperor Napoleon III, also called the home-based Specials into action. In an unexpected sequel to his work covering the Franco-Prussian War, Sydney Prior Hall was summoned to the Chapelle Ardente at Chislehurst on 14 January 1873 to witness the lying in state of the deposed French leader ‘clothed in the uniform last worn at Sedan’ on behalf of the Graphic’s readers (‘The Late Emperor Napoleon III’, Graphic, 25 January 1873, p.71).
In this passage of text, seeking to recreate the experience of being present in the mind of the reader, Hall, as if himself fascinated by the significance of his role, provided a very personal account of the emotions, physical sensations and thought processes he went through while engaged on his documentary task. Demonstrating his parallel abilities as a writer, Hall created a virtual sense of immediacy with what in today’s parlance would be described as a ‘real-time’ presentation of the events of that day. Setting the scene, he described how, on 14 January 1873, after fortifying himself with a good breakfast for ‘my interview with the dead’, he ‘stood again before the black curtain’ and then waited in ‘a small room filled with French gentlemen’ all clearly highly decorated, celebrated figures, puzzling to guess their identities, before being led in to ‘The Last Levee of Napoleon III’:
I was beckoned away; so taking book and pencil, and following my guide down the black-draped passage, sombre as the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I was ushered in to the Chapelle Ardente. There was the coffin and the dead Emperor! I listened but abstractedly to whispered instructions. I was told to be quick, then left alone.
Revealing the workings behind the making of the final sketch, the artist gives the reader access to his perceptions as he records the essential features of the scene before him:
Powerfully focused on the form of the dead Emperor, the final composition of the intense, candlelit scene, which was published in the Graphic on 25 January, faithfully includes all the details Hall observed such as the priest sprinkling holy water and the nun laying fresh roses at the foot of the coffin. Eerie in effect, and operating outside the bounds of artistic convention, he ultimately created an exact but strange representation that worked more successfully in journalistic terms than as a work of art – the inherent paradox that lay at the heart of the profession with which all the artist-reporters struggled.
That right hand folded over the left, and clasping white gloves – there are no traces of death there: the single rings on the third and last finger: a crucifix and withered flower within reach of the hand, could it but move. Dare I stoop over the coffin to see what expression lingers in that thin, waxen face? The atmosphere seems faint and hot. Even those huge wreaths of violets cannot perfume it. That ‘N’ written in immortelles – mark that. …The curtain moves again. A fold of amber satin is out of place; he goes forward to arrange it. Thus I make my rapid sketches. One last look and I sign that I have done. I join again that company of French celebrities.