Friday, June 6, 2008

Covering the Coronation

When King George V was crowned on June 22, 1911, newspapers from around the world sent their best artist-correspondents to cover the event.

Joseph Pennell was one of them. He recalled the scene in the artist’s gallery: “In the midst, behind a six-foot canvas, was Tuxen, the Danish Court Painter; at his side the English Academic Bacon in black skullcap, making a six-inch sketch for the official British picture, and Gillot, the official French Painter…Every paper in the world with a London correspondent was represented.”

There were a couple of photographers and a film cameraman there as well, but they were hardly a footnote.

The artists had to work fast to complete their drawings for the next day’s paper. “Every artist had a little notebook which he took out of the pocket of his frock coat and made dots in, putting down his top hat to do so.”

Pennell suspected his contemporaries of cribbing likenesses from pre-existing photos, or from starting their drawings ahead of time. The top artists had been to the rehearsals and told where the dignitaries would stand. But the actual event varied from the plan: “Few of the people stood where they should, fewer wore the robes they ought, and no one did as they were told.”

Pennell himself brought four large sheets of lithographic paper, chalks, and a drawing board. He also brought his lunch, knowing the ceremony would last many hours. He insisted on a position in the organ loft, giving him a sweeping view of the scene, including the peers, peeresses, ambassadors, envoys, dukes, princes, major generals, and admirals (detail, below).

It took him about three hours to establish the perspective of the interior of Westiminster Hall, two or three more hours more to draw the figures on the location, (though they were constantly changing positions), and another hour or two back at the studio to finish it up. His drawing was reproduced in the London Daily Chronicle on June 23, 1911.

“Today,” said Pennell in 1925, “There is no one capable of doing drawings like them save us. Illustration has gone to the dogs—or photography.”
Quotes are from: Adventures of an Illustrator, by Joseph Pennell, 1925


Michael Damboldt said...

Unfortunately many believe that. However, this might be an interesting observation:

When I was listening to a fairly famous photography professor in a special lecture, he was asking us where photography was going. We weren't sure, and he said that there are two schools of thought: The first is that photography was going to go the way of the dinosaurs as a profession and art because of the plethora of clip art CD's available. This school proclaims doom to the profession and art and it's 'inevitable' shelf-life along side the horse and buggy.

However, the second school of thought simply saw a paradigm shift in the way photography was handled. They did not see it's death but rather evolution into totally new forms of expression using both digital and hard copy forms of the art.

I think the same applies for Illustration. In fact, I think the current evolution of Illustration may free Illustrators even more to explore worlds and new ideas in ways never before conceived.

As with photography, I think we may be in a paradigm shift at the moment, and something glorious is going to come of it.

Sorry if this was a little long. Ha.

James Gurney said...


I think you're right about how new technologies create a paradigm shift, and obviously illustration went on strong after 1911. But the profession of the artist-reporter for newspapers (also Gruger and Matania) really was a dying breed by the time Pennell was writing this.

Don Cox said...

There have never been more than a handful of people who could draw buildings as well as Pennell. One such was Sydney R. Jones, who describes his work drawing the preparations for the 1937 coronation, in his book "London Triumphant". He seems to have also done a drawing of the ceremony itself, but that is not reproduced in the book. He mentions Pennell as "both a rare companion and a rare artist".

Anonymous said...

WOW, this so interesting to read about. Thank you!

THOMAS NACKID art + design said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
THOMAS NACKID art + design said...

Michael, as a professional graphic artist I can tell you (and those doom and gloom profs!) that the vast, vast, vast majority of stock and royalty free photography sold is sold to publications and organizations that never would have commissioned a photographer in the first place. If anything the hunger for new photographs is growing daily (Those stock photo collections from the late 80s with their brick-sized cell phones and razor-cut hair styles are getting a bit stale). Unfortunately the top end of the market isn't growing as fast as the bottom--but it is still growing.

I think photography eliminated the NEED for realism in illustration but didn't put and end to it as a viable style--just look at the success of our host here! In fact I think there are probably more illustrators working in traditional media in more or less realistic styles now than in the so called "golden age". I can think of at least half a dozen off the top of my head and those are just ones I've met at East Coast SF cons.

Michael Damboldt said...

Hi James,

I definitely agree.

Tom said...

Another nice post James. I always like the way you tell us how long it took to produce the given work under discussion. It gives one a sense of what can be done in a limited or large amount of time and how knowledge can speed up the process or even make the process possible.


Tristan Elwell said...

Jim, did you happen to get your copy of the Pennel book a few years ago at Antipodean Books in Garrison? If so, curse you! I had my eyes on it!

James Gurney said...


I found the book in Massachusetts. I think they turn up pretty often in different places.

Megan said...

I just came back from Paris and the d'Orsay museum had an exhibit of Pennell's work. Absolutely amazing! I had to check and see if you had done an article on him. At first I thought they were photographs...